Saturday, May 8, 2010

Should You Do-It-Yourself?

The Do-It-Yourself Movement has taken off over the years . Is this really cost-effective? Should you really Do-It-Yourself?

I just completed two plumbing projects at our lake house. I installed a hot water heater to bypass our failing hydronic heating system. Lowes asks $200 to replace a hot water heater in an existing installation. For a new installation like this, they (or a licensed plumber) might want $500 or more, plus require an electrician to run the new service line.

I also fixed a shower valve, which had corroded. It was tedious work, and a plumber would probably recommended replacing the whole valve. Most plumbers charge an hour's labor for a house call, sometimes more for travel time. So the total cost again could have been $500 or more.

So I saved a lot of money doing it myself, right? Maybe. You have to do the math.

When I was a young lawyer, many of my compatriots would say, "Well, I'm billing out at $200 an hour, so it makes more sense to hire people to do these types of things, and just work a few more hours to pay for it!" And they would hire people to mow their lawns, fix their pipes, repair their cars and walk their dogs (I kid you not) as I noted in a previous post.

But their logic is somewhat flawed. Even if you are billing at $200 an hour, chances are, you are taking home $70 an hour, if that. So hiring a plumber at $70 an hour is a break-even deal, at best - if you can do the repair yourself in your free time.

Plus, the idea you can "work more hours" is flawed, particularly if you are on salary. The partnership will appreciate your extra efforts, but rarely is their a quid-pro-quo for extra work. In addition, most people are already working at their capacity. The human mind can do only so much of one kind of work. The idea that you can "just work more" is somewhat flawed.   However, a D-I-Y repair you make at home on the weekend does actually represent additional work you are doing, for which you are getting 'paid' in a real sense.

Another thing to consider is taxes.   Yes, taxes.   Even if you are making $70 an hour (which makes you one of the lucky few) you have to pay taxes on that income, which brings the actual cash take-home amount down to $50 an hour or less.   A $500 plumbing bill now represents ten hours of work, not merely two or three.   Moreover, your labor in doing the repair yourself is not taxed at all.

So which is the right answer? Like anything else, you have to do the math and see whether doing things yourself really makes sense, or whether you are paying more to have half-assed projects completed around your house.

Over the years, I have done a number of D-I-Y projects, with mixed results. The following is what I have learned from these tasks:

1. Is it a Necessary Task? Replacing a broken hot water heater is necessary, if you want to bathe regularly. But installing a fountain in your backyard, while nice, is not necessary to your existence. Taking on unnecessary tasks on the basis that you can afford them if you D-I-Y is somewhat flawed logic. Save your D-I-Y skills for necessary repairs, not upgrades. The same is true for cars. If you can fix something and save money, great. But if you use your skills to add unnecessary modifications to your car (loud stereo, ground effects, other junk) you are not "saving" anything, merely creating expenses for yourself. Do NECESSARY tasks yourself, and save.

And in this vein, before you buy a five-bedroom, five-bath house, ask yourself if you are ready to maintain and overhaul five toilets, because eventually you will have to, or pay someone to do it. OWNING LESS THINGS is one way to cut your repair bills. Yes, it is nice to have fancy toys, but fancy toys wear out, break, and need to be overhauled and fixed over time. If you don't have the money to pay someone to fix them, or the skills to fix them yourself, you will end up owning a mountain of broken shit after a while. Own less, live more!

2. Do You Have the Skills? I worked as a Lab tech at Carrier and learned to solder, weld, do basic wiring, sheet metal work, etc. I can do a pretty good job at most repairs, but like most "weekend warriors" my skill levels are not as good as the journeyman in such fields. If you do something EVERY DAY you get good at it. If you do it only occasionally, you might get by with some repairs. In evaluating your skill set, you have to be brutally honest. If you have NO experience in a particular installation, I would suggest avoiding a D-I-Y project there. You can't pick up skills like masonry from a book or video tape.

If you are handy with tools - and many people aren't, so don't be ashamed if fixing things is just not your forte - there are classes and courses offered at local community colleges and adult learning centers. If you are not handy with tools, then D-I-Y projects can be a nightmare of half-finished and poorly build projects. You might be better off just walking away from such things.

3. Are You Really Saving Money? While it may seem at first that a "DIY" project is always cheaper than having someone else do it, you have to do the math to make sure. A local unfinished furniture store, for example, used to sell unfinished furniture for not too much less than what a finished piece cost. I "did the math" on one of their office desks and realized that I could buy the same piece, finished, for not a lot more. The cost of me buying stain and varnish would have made the cost the same. And then there was my labor. It was cheaper to just buy finished! Not surprisingly, that unfinished furniture store is out of business.

Similarly, I used to do my own muffler work on cars. It is messy, dirty work that breaks fingernails and cuts your hands. You'll get rust flakes in your eyes and get dirty as all get out. Then one day, I went to a muffler shop. For about what I was paying for parts alone at the parts store, the muffler guy could sell me the same parts - installed.

Many professionals get better pricing on parts - wholesale, not retail - and thus can offer you better deals. And since they have the shop space, proper tools, and skills, they can turn out the work quickly and efficiently. Not every professional is cost-competitive, but many are. And if you are saving only a few dollars, chances are it isn't worth it.

Now, on the other hand, my neighbor went to the car dealer the other day and they told him it would cost $3000 to get his car to pass inspection. We did the same work together for about $300 in parts. That's a big enough savings, particularly on a $6000 car, to make "D-I-Y" worthwhile.

4. Do You Have the Tools? Having the right tools makes getting the job done easier. And oftentimes, the difference between and amateur and a professional is only a matter of having the right tools - including work space. You can't do carpentry trim work with just a circular saw. And you can't do complex car repairs with only a couple of wrenches. If you have to buy hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of tools to do a job, it adds to the overall cost and your cost analysis. In some instances, it is cheaper to just hire someone than it is to buy a tool you will use only once.

Tools can be rented, of course, and you can buy them secondhand and then re-sell them also - perhaps on eBay. That is an option.

5. Do You Have the Time? Many folks work 40-60 hours a week at high pressure jobs. Extensive projects are just not in the cards. For such folks, I would advise that they not take on any project that they cannot realistically complete in a weekend or less. And to get such jobs done, you should buy all your parts and materials on Thursday night, not Saturday morning. If you go to Lowes at 10:00 AM Saturday, the place is mobbed with all the other "weekend warriors."  By the time you get what you need (and forget getting help from the staff) and fight to the checkout, chances are, you are exhausted. You get home, unload all the stuff, and then watch the big game. Sunday comes around and the spouse wants to go out for Brunch.   Before you know it, the pile of lumber and materials has been sitting in your garage for three months, and the project never gets done.

Compounding this are unnecessary projects that pop up when you go to Lowes and Home Depot. People "shop" at such stores and buy things (start new projects) without finishing old ones. It is tempting, as the store is set up to encourage impulse purchase of mostly junk. If you have unfinished projects around the house, don't start any new ones!
One way to avoid the unfinished project is to break down a project into a series of smaller sub-projects, each of which can be finished within a predetermined time period. For example, I recently finished a basement room over as a bar and media room.   It was a lot of work, and it involved installing a sliding door, a split-system air conditioner, sheet-rocking the space, installing wiring and lighting, plumbing, carpeting, trim, texture paint, and then furnishing.

If I had purchased a mound of sheet rock and other materials all at once, chances are, I never would have finished the project, as the materials would have cluttered the room and made it impossible to work. I realized that there were several steps in the project and completed them over a period of years, not days.

Installing the split-system A/C was the first hurdle, as it required a lot of electrical work. I also wanted to install wiring for our hot tub and move outlets. And before we could start sheet rocking, we had to empty the room. Oddly enough, this took well over a month to move out boxes of "stuff" which we had to find places for (real places, not just stacking it up somewhere else). So that ended up being a major project of selling off things on eBay, garage sales, and also just throwing things away or re-using them.

But once the project got going, it gained momentum. We purchased our materials as we needed them, and by attacking each item one at a time, didn't get overwhelmed by the process.

Many folks would go out and buy the finishing parts first, much as a fat girl dieting buys a smaller dress as an "incentive to lose weight". But just as the dress languishes in the closet mocking its owner's failure, buying things before you need them can make the project seem overwhelming and thus cause you to not finish.

And of course, most D-I-Y projects do not end up looking as good as professionally done projects. Some home handymen are true craftsmen and can do amazing things with their hands. Most of the rest of us, on the other hand, just get by.

I try to limit my D-I-Y projects to basic repairs and the like. And as I get older, I plan on doing less and less. For example, the media room and bar was probably the last time I will remodel a room in my lifetime.

Why is this? Well, as we get older, our strength and skills fail us. And technology advances and we fall behind, sometimes. You have to know when it is time to call it quits and let someone else do the work. And that is a good reason why, when you hit 60 or 70 that you should "downsize" to a smaller house and a simpler car and simplify your life. You don't want to spend your "golden years" chasing a bunch of technology.

And I have seen what happens to old men, as they try to "fix things" around the house and it all goes horribly wrong. Either they try to patch things together badly, or they take something apart and then leave it that way. Pretty soon, the entire house is a mish-mash of broken things and half-finished projects.

I for one, really don't want to live that way. Hopefully, by age 70, I'll be living in a park model trailer on a golf course. If the kitchen faucet leaks, I'll just call the trailer dealer and have them deliver a new trailer while I'm out playing golf.

Yes, D-I-Y projects can be fun. But there reaches a point in your life when you've had enough of that kind of fun!