(First published in the April 16, 2020 issue of City Pages)
I have mixed feelings about my on-going bathroom project. But I’ve learned a lot over these past four months.
After a few cups of coffee, I put my work jeans on—the pair with inconveniently placed rips that prevent me from wearing them in public. Every DIYer needs a pair of pants like this. Not fit for public display but perfect for home projects.
The day’s job would be appropriate for such jeans. A friend of mine was about to come by around 9 am to start work on installing a new toilet. So this technically was DIY-with-a-friend.
Many things in my house are what one might call “outdated.” Functional, sure, but not optimal. My toilet on the first floor, however, was beyond that. It was a monstrosity that wasted water, took forever to fill up, and leaked. The hardware wasn’t easily replaceable. Unlike most modern toilets, this one had a proprietary system that appears to date back to the Civil War.
So time to replace it. I bought a dual-flush, ultra-water efficient type. It cost a little more than $100 and other than a couple of hoses, the only additional “cost” would be my labor.
Ryan came over on his cargo bike loaded with tools. He was the foreman of this project, since he owns a few rentals and does this sort of thing. I was the marginally skilled laborer, since I know next to nothing about toilets — or home improvement projects in general, if we’re being honest.
It took us about two messy hours, filled with the kinds of conundrums that come up on any DIY project: The flange wasn’t installed correctly and pulling it out wasn’t within either of our expertise. We found a work around. Of course through the process we discovered the old valve leaked too, and on a future Friday off I bought a new one and installed it.
I was very sore, but quite satisfied after Ryan left and I had a new toilet that functioned properly. It got me thinking, what else could I do myself?
The psych(ology) of DIY
The answer to that question is that today I still have a tub surrounded by half-demolished walls.
See, around Christmas I noticed some tiles in the shower were coming loose. The ambitious part of my brain immediately thought, “Great, let’s retile the shower! How hard can it be?”
Pulling the first tiles off, of course, revealed the rotted cement board behind it. I pulled off the tile around the affected area, and it started to look like only a small portion of the board was rotted.
Perhaps this could be a simple patch job? I started with that in mind, buying a new piece of cement board to patch that area.
But as more tiles came off, and I realized the better part of two walls were rotted. The job had transitioned from a retiling, to a short patch job, to completely rebuilding two walls. So I’ve been taking mini-baths pretty much since Christmas. Which was nearly four months ago, if we’re counting.
Each transition has required a psychological shift. As Robert Persig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, sometimes it’s not the problem that needs to change, it’s your mindset.
And it’s true that a couple of things need to happen mentally in order to make DIY home repairs that push the boundaries of your know-how:
Living with chaos: Something Ryan taught me. He and his wife Allie have had a kitchen under build for about nine months, before completing it this spring. Some jobs are short, or you might get some stay-cation time, but for longer jobs learning to live with chaos or imperfection is a good key to home improvement.
You’ll probably make mistakes: As City Pages graphic designer and fellow home owner Alex told me, the first time through almost always leads to a mistake. Some of her projects included a wall removal, and a fire pit creation. It might take you a few tries, but even so it’s still often cheaper than hiring someone.
Knowing what’s in your wheelhouse: One way to determine if a project is a good candidate for DIY is evaluating the consequences. Though my shower rehab might take time and a couple of tries to get right, the consequences are small. Worst case scenario is I need to bring in a professional to finish it. Since the tiles were falling off and the walls boards rotting, even a pro would have to remove the tiling and walls and rebuild, so I’m not doing anything they wouldn’t have to.
Mistakes involving something like electrical work might have worse consequences, like getting zapped or causing a fire.
YouTube is your friend (but it doesn’t make you an expert)
For any job you’re doing, there are probably a million videos on it. One of my favorites related to this bathroom tile problem was made by a first-timer too. He highlighted not only everything he did, but everything he did wrong that he went back and fixed.
Those “amateur” videos tend to be more helpful to me as a beginner, because the expert ones tend to assume a lot and skip over something a beginner really needs to see. YouTube videos by amateurs tend to include every single detail because it was new to them as well.
There are some handy tips for using YouTube. I reached out to Dan Paul, Wausau area founder of DANDLINC, a YouTube channel with 25,000 subscribers. Paul creates videos of home repair projects, including how to quiet a noisy garage door. Most of his are less home improvement projects and more household repairs but they generally fall into similar categories.
What to look for? Look for videos with positive reviews. While Paul says there are trolls on YouTube who hate everything, it’s a good sign if a video has far more likes than dislikes, and has a large number of views.
Some of it is personal preference. Just as some people gravitate toward a teacher they like, some will gravitate toward a YouTube personality they like, and that might vary depending on someone’s personality.
But the most important questions is: When should you do a project and when shouldn’t you?
There are five projects that even a handyman like Dan Paul leaves to the professionals: Electrical, plumbing, tiling (oops!), roofing, and structural changes.
Of course some easy projects are probably doable but generally the complexity or potential danger — Paul warns that falls from a roofing project is one of the biggest dangers of DIY home improvement — make some projects better to hand to the professionals.
Also consider the return on investment factor. If something is going to take four weekends where it would take a pro a couple of hours, is it worth it?
To get another perspective, I turned to professional contractor Bruce Westberg, owner of Weston Building and Renovation, who took some time from a job he’s currently working on in Arkansas to speak with me for this story. Westberg says jobs like backsplashes and simple tiling projects can be done by homeowners themselves, but more complicated remodels should be saved for the professionals.
But a lot depends on the individual. Some people are more skilled than others. But even for the novice, some simple jobs like installing new trim or door casings can be done with limited tools. Painting a room is a good first project too.
Like the others, he says YouTube is a great source and he even turns to videos himself sometimes, either if he’s facing a new situation or wants to double check something.
If it takes all this time, effort and uncertainty, why do it? I think Carl over at 1500days.com put it best: “Saving loads of money!”
It also saves the hassle of dealing with busy contractors, or contractors who do less than satisfactory work, Carl writes. Besides writing about personal finances, Carl runs a YouTube channel detailing his home improvement efforts.
But perhaps the best part of all is the sense of achievement. I’ve always liked to do things myself, from mowing the lawn and shoveling the driveway to rebuilding my bikes. I completely built one of my old beat up mountain bikes into a smooth-running single-speed and I smile with pride every time I ride it.
I assume I’ll wear a similar smile when I shower in my new bathroom. When it’s finished. Some day.
Some basics on handling DIY, from Ryan Lichtenwald, who runs the site ebikeescape.com:
It doesn’t have to be perfect: It’s the old Ikea adage: Those who do projects themselves are generally happier with the results even if it has its flaws. DIY home projects have a learning curve and you will always improve from project to project.
Take your time: My last kitchen renovation took around nine months to complete from start to finish. The most important thing is to get started. The project started with painting the cabinets. Eventually I wanted to get started on the backsplash since it would complete the look. One weekend I made a trip to the hardware store to buy an air hammer and took care of the demo. Every next step including new drywall, counters, sink and backsplash wasn’t fully fleshed out until the previous step was actually complete. Actually seeing the next step makes the future steps much more obvious and easier to tackle. This has other benefits such as spreading the cost out and getting the best deal on supplies throughout the project.
You can always hire a professional: Even if you’re in over your head, you always have the fallback plan of calling a true professional. In most cases it won’t come to this but there is comfort in knowing you can pay someone else. Even if you get halfway through a project when you turn it over you likely saved some labor costs.