90: Do It Yourself, or Do Without

90: Do It Yourself, or Do Without

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Do It Yourself, or Do Without

Yea, let there be daily renovation.


Do it yourself, or do without. Ever since my husband and I bought our first home, eight years ago, that’s been one of our favorite mottos.

The summer we entered the housing market, times were good for sellers, realtors, and builders, but bad for young families of new university graduates trying to finance home purchases for the first time. Instead of dangerously over-extending ourselves to buy the perfect house, we bought a small home with very modest finishes and an undeveloped concrete basement. Our plan was to gradually make our house into the perfect home by hiring contractors to carry out renovations as we saved enough money to afford them.

Unfortunately, the construction boom meant that home renovation services were in stratospherically high demand, and hiring a contractor was outlandishly expensive—if there were any available to hire at all. But as our family continued to grow, the possibility of my returning to paid work shrank and so did the budget we had available for developing enough bedrooms, bathrooms, and living space to keep us comfortable. There had to be some way to make our home suit our needs on a single, modest income.

While admiring the new improvements made to a friend’s house, I offered a compliment on her and her husband’s prowess as do-it-yourself renovators. Surely her husband must have worked his way through his engineering degree as a construction worker of some kind. “You’re lucky you guys know how to do all this,” I said. My friend waved the praise away. “We just bought some books from the hardware store and figured it out ourselves,” she explained.

I was amazed—and inspired.

Even though my husband and I had three university degrees between us, we had almost no knowledge or experience in construction. What we did have, however, were excellent reading comprehension skills. Armed with those, some building manuals, the Internet, and tips from the few, rare handymen in our family trees, we became our own contractors.

To start my amateur construction career I took on the scary and esoteric task of wiring our unfinished basement. Like any sensible person, I began the work completely terrified. A lifelong pattern of vigilantly keeping my fingers—and anything else I don’t want burned black—away from electrical fixtures wasn’t easy to overcome. A month after I began, I finally stood in my basement trying to act casually as a building inspector tested the circuits and questioned me about my methods. Somehow, I kept from squealing and dancing when he signed and certified the inspection.

Since that beginning, we’ve kept researching, kept saving, and kept expanding our repertoire of construction skills. We’ve learned everything from basic plumbing to delicate finishing carpentry. We learned little by little, season by season, spending money without going into debt. I do as much as I can during the day with my entourage of pre-school children. When my husband comes home from work, he slips out of his white collar and gets some real work done.

Some projects, like installing vinyl siding, are quick, easy, and gratifying. Others, like our never-to-be-repeated foray into the mucky, choking world of fireplace masonry, come with a more ambivalent sense of accomplishment. At the end of each project I raise my dirty, callused hand, slap my husband on the back, and say, “How do you like that, buddy? We just saved a fortune!”

Financial savings aren’t the only benefits we find in building and caring for our own home. In an emergency, my husband and I now have the tools, background knowledge, and practical sense to take care of small problems without delay before they become disasters. We’ve been able to help friends and family with their own attempts to do for themselves. And I still relish the feeling I had the day I threw the switch on my family’s household power supply and saw the whole basement light up. My sense of self-worth was boosted forever.

The recent cataclysms in the housing market mean contractors are far more abundant and affordable than they were eight years ago. But the uncertainty of today’s economy means we’re still just as reluctant to spend a lot of money on our home as we were during boom times.

No matter how the economy’s performing, our family of five boys continues to grow. As our skinny little boys careen through the process of becoming 200-pound, six-foot-tall young men, our house endures hard wear. We are continually maintaining, re-finishing, and re-working our space. Thankfully, the solution to our household renovation crisis of eight years ago also happens to be the solution for our current renovation needs. The lessons of one hard time transfer easily to the circumstances of a different sort of hard time. As ever, we’re pleased to do it ourselves... or do without.

~Jennifer Quist

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