When I was a kid and something needed to be repaired or built, my father did it. He plumbed things, ran new lights and wires, built new walls, and even built new additions to our houses. Because everything you see as a child seems normal, this all seemed normal to me. It was just one of the jobs that dads had, along with teaching you to ride a bike and driving you to the museum every weekend.
It didn’t occur to me that everyone didn’t do things like this until one of my roommates hired a handyman to hang a single picture frame. My father was a carpenter and handyman, so like when you copy a copy in a xerox machine, I was a worse handyman. Now that we have a new old house and there are almost unlimited projects ahead of me, I think a lot about how lucky I am to have a father who taught me this stuff.
As I see others approach similar projects, I realize that although there is a skill gap, there are also some gaps in perception. Understanding a few things about construction and doing projects can make you feel much more comfortable and willing to try by yourself.
1. Almost anything can be fixed easily and cheaply, so you don’t have to worry too much about messing things up. I recently wanted to see what was in the crawl space above the ceiling and there were no hatches, so I just cut a hole in the wall of a closet and peeked through. Once I saw that there was enough room for me to crawl around up there I expanded the hole to be just barely big enough for me to squeeze through. I don’t mind doing this because I know that the small hole would be trivially easy to repair, and even a big one isn’t all that hard.
2. Most mass-market construction jobs (i.e. not detailed finishwork) are intended to be as easy and standardized as humanly possible. Construction is so ubiquitous that everything has been made ultra-efficient. I learned this mostly when we built a loft in the yurt on the island. Building such a large structured seemed complicated, but it turned out to be very fast, easy, and cheap, because that’s what the market demands. We didn’t do it perfectly, but we weren’t that far off either. So when you’re thinking about tackling a job remember that there’s a huge industry that has tried to make it so that any unskilled laborer could do the job. A friend and I recently resurfaced a bath tub, something neither of us had done, but he has a similar upbringing and attitude, so we just followed the steps and knocked it out in a few hours.
3. Only the outer layer has to really be good. If you go to Home Depot or Lowes and buy 2x4s (a standard size width and height of wood), you’ll notice that none of them are straight. They’re all warped, cupped, and twisted to various degrees. But once they’re put together and finishing layers are put on top, they make pretty straight walls. The point is that you can mess up a lot of stuff and be inaccurate and stuff will still come out pretty well. When I redid my old bathroom I tore out all the old stuff, framed in the new tub, but then hired someone to do the finish work because I didn’t think I’d be able to do a great job.
4. Materials are usually cheap. An 8 foot long 2×4 might only be about $6-7. So generally you can just try to build something and if it comes out terribly you haven’t wasted a lot of money. Some materials like granite or nice tiles can be expensive, but most of the cost of construction is usually the labor. That means that you can save yourself serious money by doing things yourself, and that if you try and fail you probably haven’t lost much money.
5. Youtube knows everything. There are so many good videos of carpenters and other tradesman doing things that you can figure just about anything out. Very often the task is much easier than it seems like it would be, and seeing someone explain it and go through the steps gives you the confidence you need to tackle the project.
6. Electricity is the easiest. Most basic plumbing is super easy. Electricity and plumbing seem scary, but in my experience they’re actually some of the easiest projects. If you turn off the breakers and use a non-contact electricity sensor, you can be very confident you’re not going to be electrocuted. Replacing lights, fans, outlets, or anything like that is simple. Once my 16 year old cousin visited and I taught her how to replace light fixtures so that she could help me. Plumbing is a little bit more complicated, but only because there are a few different standards for fittings. If you bring the old pieces into Home Depot and tell them what you’re trying to do, they’ll give you the correct ones. Connecting them is easy, but just make sure to check for leaks and check again after some more time.
Generally speaking, you can probably do most household handyman tasks by yourself. They may not come out as well as a professional could do them (and, honestly, it’s amazing to see how good pros are), but sometimes it doesn’t matter. We wouldn’t have paid the $1000-2000 it would have cost to repair our shower, but the $150 + our labor was a no brainer. Other times, like in replacing fixtures, you’ll do it just as well as a pro. Don’t be afraid to try, even if you have no experience, as you probably can’t mess it up beyond repair. Besides saving money, and often time, it’s very rewarding to be competent enough to fix your own home and to make improvements to it as you wish.
Photo is me pushing through into the attic in my pajamas.