April 16, 2024

So You Think You’re Handy . . . by Brendon Marks


Sooner or later every homeowner is faced with the choice of attempting their own repairs, hiring a professional, replacing whatever is broken, or moving. Let me help you decide.

A large part of the decision has to do with money. It is usually based on how willing the homeowner is to part with it, not so much on whether it is available.

The next most important factor is tools. Skill level increases dramatically when you use the correct tool and success rate drops rapidly when you improvise (not everyone can solder a copper pipe using a Bic lighter and a can of aerosol hair spray), but good tools are not cheap, so we’re back to money again.

The last major factor is skill, or at least a general aptitude for this sort of thing. This is the most difficult factor to measure. Just having good tools is not enough; you have to be competent in their use. Other factors to consider are:

1. Is it important that you have a large supply of various sized band aids on hand before starting a project?

2. When using a power saw are projectiles often launched with force enough to become imbedded in the wall of your shop?

3. Do wire colors other than black, white, or green confuse you, and sometimes you’re not sure about those?

If you’re still not sure, a practical application may help you decide. Suppose you have an electric water heater, and no hot water. The circuit breaker is working and you have power to the unit; ultimately, the diagnosis is a faulty bottom heating element. How do you handle it? If you don’t know what a bottom heating element is, you’re already in over your head.

To over-simplify, a professional will turn off the power and water, open a faucet to relieve the pressure, and then close the faucet to create a vacuum. Next remove the bottom element with one hand, while covering the opening with the other, and quickly insert the new element in place. (These people have hands so quick that they can tie a bow ribbon on a bolt of lightning.) All spilled water will be mopped up with a paper towel. The bill is: twenty-six dollars for parts, fifty-one dollars for labor, total time twenty minutes.

By comparison, a handy-person will also turn off the power and water, open a faucet, and drain the tank…almost. Then remove the old element and attempt to insert the new one before the remaining water drains on the floor. All spilled water will be mopped up by the handy-person’s pants’ legs, a wet-dry vacuum, and the family dog. The bottom line is: ten dollars for parts, nothing for labor, three hours elapsed time.

Finally, a handy-person wannabe turns off the power and water and buys a new water heater; ruins both flexible connections while disconnecting from the tank, and starts a small fire while unsoldering the pressure relief valve. Then discovers that the tank is impossible to move and drains it…almost.

Ruptures a disc horsing the old tank out of the way and putting the new one in place. Realizes the pressure valve is in a different place, which requires a creative piping solution. When the job is done, thirty-four dollars for parts, nothing for labor, $228 for a new water heater, $385 for medical expenses, and seven hours without hot water. There is no water on the floor, but plenty in the back of the mini-van where the tank had to be laid down to be hauled to the dump. Shouldn’t a handy-person have a truck?

My personal experience in home repairs has taught me the following points are common to all projects:

1.  Any job will be harder than it looks.

2.  Any job will take twice as long as estimated.

3.  Any job will require at least three more trips to the hardware store beyond the original shopping trip.

4.  You will always break something else unrelated to the original repair.

5.  Your spouse will have plenty of advice, e.g., “Shouldn’t you call someone to do this?”

6.  Your spouse will be right.

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