Most people shouldn't buy a fixer upper or attempt their own home improvement. In this episode of Bad Idea Theater, we explore why.
Remember how all those TV shows in the 80s and 90s had to preface some really intricate or dangerous stunt with “Don’t try this at home, kids!” so our malleable minds and idle hands wouldn’t set the house on fire? It turns out there was a whole host of media aimed at adults that should’ve carried that disclaimer as well.
First it was Bob Vila, Home Improvement, and those Harbor Freight catalogs. Then the peer pressure every Boomer dad had in the 90s to spend all his weekends at Home Depot in order to build a bigger and nicer deck than his co-worker, which resulted in numerous summers spent trying to avoid stepping on loose nails. Today, it’s the numerous house flipping reality shows where everyday people think they might have a chance at beating a hostile housing market by buying a complete wreck. The icing on this burnt-yet-uncooked cake is the numerous Instructables fails that later enriched plumbers and carpenters across America.
All us older Millennials were told at D.A.R.E. assemblies that we were going to be proffered drugs and alcohol almost every second of the day because of peer pressure, but that peer pressure was actually taking place in our parents’ offices while we were busy trading Magic: The Gathering cards. But now we have YouTube and Wikihow to blame for this next generation of home remodeling hubris. Whether it’s botched DIY jobs or houses that are total dumps, people still haven’t gotten the memo that some things are just best left to professionals.
The DIY Ethos and Flying Too Close to the Sun
It’s estimated that about 113 million home improvement projects have commenced in recent years, of which 38% were DIY jobs. Of that 38%? Most of them were done by younger homeowners who likely couldn’t afford professional jobs and/or bought a home in worse shape than they would’ve liked also due to lack of funds. Regardless of age, income, and other attributes, 43% of homeowners fessed up to botching a DIY job.
It’s like that “guy staring at another woman on the street” meme just aged a few decades as dude knows he’s about to be in a for Saw remake involving drills and sanders.
There’s an awful lot to unpack in those statistics. Of course, I can tell you as a former tax professional that there is virtually always a story behind numbers and statistics. With only 43% saying that they botched DIY jobs, are they only considering large jobs like remodeling an entire bathroom or building a deck, or smaller tasks like fixing a toilet or painting a room? Those stats aren’t always a verbatim depiction of what’s happening.
With only 38% of the respondents opting for the DIY route regardless of job type, they might have grown up in the same circumstances I did. Thanks to a mix of poor planning and the Bob Vila craze, my house didn’t have an oven come the middle of eighth grade and it didn’t get one again until it was sold as-is almost 15 years later. Ever tried to bake a cake in a lasagne pan inside the toaster oven, where you have to periodically scrape off layers the totally burnt top just to find that it’s still completely gooey underneath? Good times!
At least she had an actual oven so it burned evenly throughout! We yanked the top off ours and it was like pudding inside.
Listening to numerous horror stories from my younger peers about how many of their parents thought they could have fun like the people on Fixer Upper and Flip This House, I know I’m not alone.
But there’s something uniquely American about wanting to tackle these huge home improvement projects on your own instead of getting a professional over. Homeowner culture here can get intense. DIY ethos has been part of the culture pretty much forever, but when it comes to Millennials, it’s manifested in the forms of woodworking and crafting Instagrams and Meetup groups, YouTube shows like ThreadBanger, and so forth despite the fairly low rate of homeownership among my generation. (After all, you can craft your own wall hangings and woodwork art whether you pay a lease or mortgage.)
Simply due to financial reality, any of us are simultaneously stuck with the DIY route, while remembering those botched DIY jobs with much trepidation. Of the scant amount of my generation that owns our homes, we’ve had prolonged exposure to landlords who don’t fix busted things in our dwellings. The landlord may have financial responsibility to upgrade water heaters, replace broken refrigerators, and plug leaks but it can be moot if they take weeks or even months to send someone.
But there’s also the pride that one gets in building something with their own hands, and being able to flip a double-eagle to the rentier class at the same time. It’s my place, I can do what I want with it! Ergo, the DIY ethos flourishes whether it’s out of desire, necessity, or both.
Still, one DIY job gone wrong, and your property value is about to fall down that leaky toilet you tried to fix yourself.
The Fixer Upper: Bargain or Economic Terror?
In recent years, 80% of homeowners did a major renovation within a year of purchasing their new home, with a median price of $4,000. While this is common to take care of immediate major repairs or making little tweaks just to your liking, this is definitely not in the same category as buying a fixer upper. Read: a home that’s got a less stable foundation than dollar store makeup.
Fixer uppers can result from purposeful neglect of a home, the purchase of abandoned property, or homes that fell into disrepair due to the owner’s death, disability, or inability to afford major repairs. Foreclosed properties are likely to be fixer uppers for this reason.
If you’re handy, a fixer upper can be a dream come true. You get all the materials and equipment needed to do a gut renovation, and get going knowing that Rome wasn’t built in a day. But if you just want to move into a new place and not do much more than painting the walls before moving in? A fixer upper really isn’t going to be the financial boon it’s presented as.
Not everyone is able-bodied or skilled enough to buy a complete dung heap of a house and renovate it from the ground up. If you don’t have any friends or family nearby who are willing and able to make these DIY jobs go faster, chances are you’ll pay close to what a comparable property in move-in condition goes for in the end to get the right contractors. All while you’ll still have to live somewhere for an unknown timeframe if the property’s still not safe to live in. While there’s a really cool process in this in that you’ll get to pick everything from the flooring to fixtures, totally straying from the original design if you please, there’s a reason fixer uppers tend to be sold to professional house flippers and real estate investors for relative pennies on the dollar. Most people can’t afford to maintain two residences while one of them is still a total dump, and can’t just stop working in order to do renovations all day.
But if you do too many DIY jobs that go totally wrong, that’s who you could wind up having to sell your property to if you want to sell one day.
The True Cost of DIY Jobs
DIY jobs aren’t just a question of saving money by buying your own supplies instead of calling the pros. What about the value of your TIME? Even if you enjoy doing home improvement work, do you really want to sacrifice your weekends or vacation time on laying tile?
Painting the walls can be a good workout but if you don’t feel like getting on your hands and knees with a can of Comet and a scraper later because you’re the world’s most splattery painter, it might be worth it to outsource this task. I say this looking at my walls where my color came out even until I got close to the ceiling and splotches of the kitchen walls that got hit with the roller more zealously than other areas. I love working with paint, but if I ever want to sell or rent my condo out, I’m calling my handyman to head over with some basic white paint stat.
For relatively small jobs like this, it comes down to a question of skill and if you have the physical ability and time to do it. Painting and basic handy work can be hell on your back and knees. If you’re also lawn gnome height like I am, you’re definitely calling a handyman for anything involving ladders. It’s not worth risking a trip to the emergency room.
Which that’s actually the question you should ask: what is the worst-case scenario here?
A hilariously badly-painted wall poses less of a risk than electrocuting yourself trying to do your own dishwasher hook-ups. Or getting mold and mildew growing because water can be as deadly as it is life-giving, and you really thought you could take matters into your own hands instead of calling a plumber. Mold abatement is no joke, it can cost in the upwards of $10-25 per square foot or higher. If those leaky pipes and improperly functioning water lines really do their thing you can have more mold than a forgotten cup of yogurt that rolls under the radiator in the middle of the winter, and kiss your vacation and kids’ college funds good-bye with nary a warning.
So, anything structural or involving plumbing or electrical work if you are not a plumber or electrician should totally be left to the pros. Not just for their skills, but for the insurance they also carry. If you completely fry your fusebox because you tried to rewire the dryer, that’s now an expensive and inconvenient problem you have to fix. A bonded electrician is not only far less likely to screw up a job like that, but in the rare event they do, their insurance is supposed to cover you for property damage and anything else that happens on their watch. That insurance alone is worth bringing in the pros for the big jobs: homeowner’s insurance probably wouldn’t exist anymore if coverage was extended to every single botched DIY job.
Yeah, you should only be breaking out the floats when you’re lounging in Turks and Caicos. Not literally your own house.
Naturally, anything that increases your risk of injury is an immediate no-go. A cheap DIY job can quickly get expensive in time off from work alone, not even factoring in medical bills. Pros got the right skills, tools, and people to do that for you. They have a higher price tag than what you’d pay for your own supplies, but you’ll be more likely to get quality you can trust.
There’s still drawbacks to hiring professionals, such as risking that they won’t do the job right or to your liking or even leave it incomplete. Internet reviews only tell you so much, so you should start with your neighbors, friends, broker, or anyone else in the community to find out who they trust. That’s how I got my handyman on speed dial to do the stuff my condo’s maintenance department can’t do! If you’re lucky to still have a mom-and-pop hardware store nearby, that’s an excellent resource.
If you’re the type who also procrastinates or deliberates a lot, getting a pro can also prevent any executive dysfunction from getting the better of you. Once you’re committed to someone else’s time and/or put down your deposit, it’ll keep you committed to getting the job done too. I say this as someone who cleared out hundreds of bucks worth of unused DIY stuff from my dad’s moldy basement!
Rachel Presser is a crazy toad lady from the Bronx who was exiled to New Jersey, spending a significant chunk of her youth where all the hideous 1970s couch covers and avocado shag carpeting went to die. Upon escaping the sea of brown and founding Sonic Toad Media, she decided to devote her time to writing from the fantastically-preserved Googie artifacts in LA and former speakeasies in Chicago, to forging new game worlds in the tea lounges of Taipei and Tokyo. She can be found at game jams, hardcore shows, vaporwave dance parties, and petting amphibians on a sensible corner loveseat.