Why Do It Yourself? Digging into the Value of DIY

A few days ago, I spent more than two hours dismantling and reassembling the guts of a toilet tank. There were some issues with flushing, and I wanted to see if I could diagnose it myself (I did, actually; there was a small broken part that was simple to replace). A plumber could have done it in ten minutes and probably would have charged me $25 or $50 for the service (in our area, anyway; it would likely be more in other areas).

On another recent day, I spent about four hours building a small electronic spider that could walk under its own power. I was doing this mostly so I could learn how to use Arduino (an open source electronics platform) because I intend to use it to build some animated Christmas light displays for our family and perhaps some day sell them. I earned nothing from this except my own knowledge.

A few months ago, I disassembled part of our hot water heater to figure out why the pilot light wasn’t lighting. I was able to figure out which part needed replacing on my own, ordered the replacement, and installed it. It took about four hours, all told. I saved some small amount of money doing it myself, but I really doubt it was a very good hourly rate.

Whenever I describe activities like this to friends and family, many of them simply shake their head and ask why I would bother. Why dump so much time into things like this when I could just go to the store and buy a similar item or just call a repairperson and not “waste” a bunch of time doing it myself?

The reasons are many. Suffice it to say, I believe doing many of these things myself will end up saving a tremendous amount of money, time, and stress in the long run. There are some other reasons, too.

First, whenever I do a repair job myself, I know that if I’m ever called on to do it again it will be much easier the second time around. If our toilet ever stops flushing for a reason even remotely similar to the reason it stopped flushing the other day, I can fix it in fifteen or twenty minutes, not two hours. The time investment in calling a repairman, making sure the repairman has access to the bathroom, and interacting with that repairman will be about as much as simply doing it myself – and a lot cheaper.

Second, I learn other things in the process of taking on any task like this. I didn’t just learn about the specific pilot light problem or the specific washer issue when I did these things. I learned things about how our hot water heater works as a whole and what specific parts actually do, and I learned similar things about our toilet. I now know a lot about Arduino prototyping. These pieces of knowledge will be useful in future projects. I now feel more confident with any project related to the hot water heater, the toilet, or Arduino controllers.

Third, I learn some transferable skills as well. The more you use a wrench, the more adept you get at using it. The more you trace a water pipe or a gas line, the easier it becomes for you. The more you practice soldering, the easier it becomes. These aren’t just skills you can apply to one specific project. They apply to lots of different projects, making all of them easier. My adeptness with a wrench was really clear when I had to repair my son’s bike a few days ago; that adeptness came from other projects.

Fourth, I’m showing my children (and my friends and family) that they can do it themselves. If “Mister Five Thumbs on Each Hand” can do these things, surely they can, too. When my son walks into the bathroom and sees parts strewn all over the place, then comes back an hour later to see a functional toilet, he knows that such things can easily be done by anyone. These people are more likely to try it themselves.

At the same time, these skills are barter-able. I’ve started to have friends and family contact me about certain types of little repair tasks. In just the last month, I’ve been involved in replacing an electrical outlet for a friend and I’ve helped another friend fix some dire computer issues. Not only do these actions cement friendships, they also open the door to help I might need in the future.

Perhaps the biggest reason, though, is that when things go seriously wrong, I’m less prone to panic. If water starts flooding everywhere in a bathroom, I know immediately how to turn off the water, the electricity, and other things. I also know a large number of things to look for to quickly narrow down the problem, and there’s some likelihood I can fix it. There’s no panic. There’s little stress. There’s no emergency call to a repairman who’s happy to write a big “emergency” bill that I’d have to pay.

The big question people always ask me is, “What if I mess up?” There’s this impression that if you attempt a repair yourself and do it wrong, you’re going to make things worse than before.

The truth is that even if you do fail, it’s extremely rare that you’re going to make things worse. I’ve failed at sink repair before and discovered it the hard way when I turned the water back on. I just sighed, turned the water off quickly, and got a towel – no big deal. Most of the worst mistakes you can make can be alleviated by just watching videos and reading how-to’s describing the task you’re attempting before you start.

If you really feel like you’re in way over your head, call a repairman and watch what they do. Ask questions as they’re doing it. The vast majority of them are happy to talk about it because they get to play the role of “expert,” something everyone likes to do sometimes.

The end result of all of this? You save money. You save precious time in a real emergency and probably alleviate more significant damage. You help friends that need your help. You’re more confident and more skilled when it comes to tackling other tasks. These are all big wins.

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28 thoughts on “Why Do It Yourself? Digging into the Value of DIY

  1. David says:

    Love this piece, so many of the people my age seem to think that this stuff is all magical and undecipherable. I’ve been tearing apart a duplex and putting it back together and it’s amazing how much I’ve learned by not just hiring a contractor for every little thing.

    Tweeted and Facebooked

  2. Jonathan says:

    I love trying to do DIY myself, mainly because I don’t like spending money on jobs that I think I can work out myself. Youtube is a great source of instructional videos to make life a little easier. I agree that once you’ce done something once, it’s usually easier next time. The only thing I don’t mess around with, are electrical issues!

  3. Robert says:

    In the UK there are laws preventing casual users from dealing with any gas supply water heater (boilers). Gas Safe engineers are required to carry out any tasks, both in commercial and domestic premises.
    The reasoning behind the laws is purely for safety. I for one wouldn’t want to jeopardize either mine, my wifes or my kids safety by playing around with a boiler myself.
    Money saved on DIY boiler repairs,yes. Money saved wisely, not a hope I’m afraid. Sounds a little irresponsible to me.

  4. Johanna says:

    I like the gist of this article a lot. It’s a good thing to have the confidence to take something apart, and know that you’ll (probably) be able to get it back together again.

    That said, I could have done without the “I’m so awesome and my family and friends just don’t understand” angle. You are not the only person in the world who’s had a go at fixing his own toilet.

  5. Steven says:

    Some people just don’t have the time, patience or desire to deal with home repair. It’s easier, less stressful, and less time consuming to call a professional and have them deal with it. More expensive? Yes, probably. But for some people, it’s worth the cost.

  6. David says:

    Lord Finchley tried to mend the electric light
    Himself. It struck him dead. And serve him right.
    It is the business of the wealthy man
    To give employment to the artisan.

    Hilaire Belloc

  7. Riki says:

    I’m a big fan of DIY.

    Youtube is a fantastic resource, as are my father’s tools. Having the right tools is really important so I’m slowly but surely collecting things as I need them.

    The real trick, in my experience, is not to mention anything to my father until after it’s done . . . so he doesn’t take over the job.

  8. Poor Student says:

    I plan on not being as helpless as I am now forever. Right now I do not have the time to look under the hood of my car or at the brakes if I have a problem with them. Luckily I have never had a really large problem. I have benefited a lot though from looking up how to do some small things on Youtube.

    I am slowly adding things to the arsenal of what I can do myself, and hope to one day actually be referred to as handy.

  9. Angie says:

    I thought that this was a great post and an excellent reminder that once upon a time, most of us had no other choice than to fix things around the house that needed to be fixing ourselves. I have always said that I won’t marry a man who can’t maintain repairs or assist me with them around the house! LOL

  10. kc says:

    “Whenever I describe activities like this to friends and family, many of them simply shake their head and ask why I would bother.”

    Given how Trent has described his family and friends, I don’t find this credible.

  11. Matthew says:

    Not just home repair. Car repair skills come in handy as well. When you are broke down on the side of the road, well, it’s on you to get going again.

    Things I wish they would cover in driver’s ed should be: changing a flat, jumping one’s car off, checking and replacing burnt lights, checking the oil, how to maintain the battery and changing wipers.

    Riki’s right on about tools. For example, 12 point wrenches are cheap. However, they’re more likely to strip a rusty nut. Six point wrenches will grip the corners and are more likely to turn it.

    For me, expanding the skill set makes sense. In addition, bringing a formerly dead car back to life gives a sense of satisfaction.

  12. Jacq says:

    Depends on what it is and what your hourly rate is.
    Charles Givens had a good analysis of this in one of his books – if I’m pulling in $100/hour and loathe housecleaning and only have to pay out $20/hour, it’s a no-brainer to hire someone to clean my house.
    But it might be worthwhile to learn how to install a toilet if I’m remotely interested in that kind of thing. But if I keep procrastinating on it, it’s less stress to just pay someone else to do it.

  13. marta says:

    @kc

    What, you mean they can’t be simultaneously high-giving each other over some coupon deal during a potluck dinner and shaking their heads over the notion that Trent does some DIY repairs?

    We already know Trent takes some liberties with his anedoctes…

  14. Kai says:

    I think it makes sense to do something yourself:
    1. If you have more time available than money. This is a quickie.
    2. If it’s something that you may have to do repeatedly. A one-time repair might make a lot more sense to hire someone. Something that is likely to happen again might make more sense to learn so you can continue to do it in the future.
    3. If you don’t find it to aggravating.

    It makes more sense not to do it yourself:
    1. if you have plenty of money but not much time. This is exactly the concept for which we have commerce.
    2. If it’s a complicated one-off where even if you do learn how to do it, it will take a lot of work, and the chances of ever doing it again (let alone remembering how then) are very low.
    3. If it’s just something that you really don’t like. Whether you just hate the task, or it’s something that reallyl doesn’t play to your strengths, or whatever, if you’re going to save money but go crazy, it makes sense to pay if you have the money.

  15. Sandy says:

    I think it’s great to do as much as you can yourself…having said that, it’s actually illegal here to do some things yourself, such as electrical work….not that it stops us! Tradesmen often charge like wounded bulls here, and I simply resent paying their inflated prices, especially when they do a shoddy job.

  16. jim says:

    I think Trent makes a good point about the learning curve with some DIY work. THe first time fixing a toilet may take 2-3 hours but the 2nd, 3rd, etc times will be a lot quicker.

    I also agree with Kai’s comments.

    I also think you need to pick your battles. If you’re fairly knowledgeable about cars but know little about plumbing then it makes more sense to change your own oil and hire a plumber to fix your sink.

    Safety is also important. Don’t underestimate the potential danger of dealing with electricity, or the possibility of burning down your house with a torch or falling off a ladder.

  17. Alice says:

    While I agree with the general idea that learning to do repairs oneself is an excellent idea, the DIY’er should consider the potential consequences of “messing up” before starting. I personally know of several DIY projects gone bad that ended up costing hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars to deal with the aftermath where a trained professional would fixed the original problem for less than $100.

    “Messing up” DIY electricity and plumbing are especially likely to create costly new problems; the problems seem to come in where specialized tools are needed to do the work correctly, and the DIY’er tries to “make do” with something that’s not quite right for the task.

  18. Gretchen says:

    Generically, I totally agree with DIY.

    But I can think of many scenerios in which a broken toilet can be made worse by the home plumber, the least of which is not only because we only have one toilet.

  19. Drew says:

    It’s good to know your limits when it comes to DIY, but it’s also good to keep stretching your skills and ability. In the long run it has the potential to save you a lot of money, especially where the task needs repeating and/or you move home more frequently and keep facing the same tasks in your new home. But for some jobs there’s no shame in letting the pros take over!

  20. Marty says:

    Fourth, I’m showing my children it can be done.

    I am a DIY’er for just that reason. My father was a computer programmer but he tackled everything from Autos to Wiring. I was too young to notice it but now I just assume I should be able to fix it because, hell, I’m at least as smart as they guy I would have to pay.

  21. Kevin says:

    I’m with you on trying to fix things yourself, but when it comes to flammable gas and electric sparks, I think I’ll leave it to the experts.

    There’s a big differenece between messing up fixing a leaky toilet valve, and messing up a seal on a natural gas pipe.

  22. barb says:

    hahaha
    couldn t stop laughing at some of the comments!
    DIY is about learning to teach yourself.
    When you learn to teach yourself , you can do anything. So what if you make a few mistakes, you will learn.
    Just remember to put the beer down first!

  23. Tom says:

    Plumbers are extremely undervalued in Iowa (or overvalued in the philly metro area!) I’m pretty sure I can’t get a contractor/repair service for under $100 where I am.

  24. Andrew says:

    When I moved into my 108-year-old house I had to have the kitchen wiring and plumbing completely redone because some well-meaning previous owner had performed some horrendously bad DIY work on both systems.

    I prefer to follow the excellent Mike Holmes’ advice and leave such stuff to the professionals who know what they’re doing.

  25. Izabelle says:

    Andrew, I had the same problem with my house!

    The issue with home repairs, as with everything else, is that the competent know that they have blind spots and things to learn, while the ignorant think they’re excellent – precisely because they lack the competence or insight necessary to evaluate their own performance.

    That being said, being almost pathologically curious, I still have a strong preference for DYI if only for the sheer learning of it. The trick is to always question advice received and to cross-refence credible)sources before starting up something that could have serious consequences on your home’s safety or integrity.

  26. Viv says:

    I third Andrew #23′s comment.

    Know your limits and be careful. Fixing broken front steps — ok. Fixing the chopper assembly in a dishwasher — ok. Flat tires . . . ok. Messing with electric, gas, supporting walls, car brakes, roofing tiles from a height of 3 stories . . . not so much. I have a great handywoman who teaches as she works and who has shown me how to repair a light switch, put in a ceiling fan, and fix a leaky pipe, but I know my limits and how far I can push beyond them without serious consequences.

  27. chaitanya k says:

    good read!
    DIYers unite! :)

  28. J.D. says:

    This is EXACTLY my feeling on doing things yourself. Over time, you build up a lot of skills that you wouldn’t otherwise have, and you can save money by fixing things yourself. Most of my hobbies are just doing work myself instead of paying someone to come do them. It gives me a sense of satisfaction knowing that I can do it.

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