I recently perused an article on “The 25 things you should learn to DIY this year,” and it struck me that many of the ideas were not all that practical. For most homeowners—especially those of us with stereotypically large Catholic families—practicality and savings should be a big consideration when deciding what to do by yourself. If a job is neither practical nor money-saving, then no one can blame you either skipping on it or hiring a professional to do it in your stead.
I do just about any home projects by myself if I can for two reasons: (A) to keep my wife impressed and (B) to save money. But not every project is worthwhile to do yourself, and not everything will actually save you money. For example, years ago I custom-made a stool for my youngest daughter to reach the toilet. She inherited her vertical limitations from Danielle and I, so it was the least I could do. From a sentimental perspective it was well worth it so that Danielle could paint it with owls that match our bathroom décor, but it cost far more time and money than buying a $5 stool from the store.
So which DIY jobs are really worth it for those who are just starting out, have limited time, or just want to save a little money? Here’s my top 5.
1. Insect repellent
It’s no secret that buying in bulk typically results in huge savings. You might be surprised, however, to find out that some chemicals that can be bought in bulk and then diluted. Saint Louis in the summer is a haven for mosquitoes and other biting insects, so I learned quickly that insect repellent can set you back significantly if you don’t pay attention to the price.
In my experience, the chemical picaridin is much more effective than the cheaper and more common DEET. I also don’t mind the smell as much. While straight picaridin is not marketed for us consumers, you can buy a highly-concentrated spray from Sawyer Products and dilute it. This spray contains 20% picaridin—which is a lot. Picaridin is harder to find among the name brands and far less concentrated: Off! has 5% and Cutter Advanced 7%.
Thus, to roughly match this 7%, you can dilute one part Sawyer Spray to two parts water and pour it into an empty spray bottle. I myself aim for 5% and dilute it with one part Sawyer and three parts water so it will be a little more watery and allow me to spread the spray around better on my skin. Total savings: about $23.68 on 32 fl. oz at 1:3 dilution.
2. Home security
This DIY project deserves a larger post, but for now I’ll just say that paying for a company like ADT to set up a security system is a huge rip-off. They actually only install components made by other companies and then charge you huge additional fees while also limiting your ability to service the system yourself. For example, they will literally sell you a $10 window sensor for $150. I am neither kidding nor exaggerating. In fact, ADT has recently partnered with Samsung SmartThings to sell their home automation hubs, set them up as security systems, and drain the homeowner of money.
Some time ago I was trying not to take on new projects so I let ADT come into my home, but it was a huge mistake. They refused to honor their promotion or to reuse old (but perfectly functional) sensors already in the house. They did a sloppy job and left us with a system that only caused problems. Grace is very sensitive to loud noises, and the propensity for false alarms thus caused her extreme anxiety and made the system very impractical.
The solution? I saved about $500 the first year and thousands of dollars over subsequent years by simply installing a SmartThings security system myself. Now the catch is that I also programmed it myself, which not everyone can do. But SmartThings can make it so that the system automatically arms and disarms when you leave and arrive home so there’s little chance of a false alarm. It alerts me when windows or the garage door are left open, it monitors battery levels, and it even automates the thermostat and other aspects of the home.
So if you need a security system, try picking up a starter kit. You can start small by setting it up to use the default security monitoring and to monitor only the most important exits. Then, over time, you can build the system up yourself and add extra features such as automatic arming and disarming. You can also choose from a wide variety of Zigbee, Z-wave, or Wifi devices so you can save money by waiting to buy whatever goes on sale. It’s well worth the effort. (Note: SmartThings requires an Android or iOS phone or tablet.) Total savings: variable, but in the hundreds of dollars.
3. Installing appliances
Moving heavy appliances is hard for a small person like myself. Installing them is not. In many cases you can pay $100 or more for someone to install a refrigerator, dishwasher, clothes washer, or dryer, or you can spend a little bit of time doing it yourself. Chances are, if you do it yourself, you will put more care into it and end up doing a better job.
Once you realize how easy it is to do such jobs, it’s really just a matter or doing a search and finding an appropriate YouTube video to help you out. Some jobs may seem daunting, but don’t be afraid. Dishwashers, for example, are easy to install as long as there is already a hook-up under the sink. If your house never had a dishwasher, it will be more of a challenge and may require a plumber for the pipe connection and an electrician for the power source (depending on local laws and complications). If you are merely replacing a dishwasher, however, it’s really very easy.
I usually treat such jobs as fun learning opportunities. Even my two-year-old loves picking up a wrench and at least pretending to help. Total savings: $100–$200 depending on the job and the contractor.
4. Toilet repair
Now I admit that I truly despise working on toilets. Nevertheless, it’s usually very easy to do, but if you don’t do it yourself, you could waste quite a bit of money paying a handyman or plumber.
Most toilet problems—including clogs and leaks—can be fixed by yourself. Just turn off the water and look up a solution on the web. You may feel like the toilet tank is dirty, but honestly it’s probably much cleaner than your kitchen sink. After all, your waste never actually goes into the tank, and it is frequently refilled with clean water. With no source of food, it’s not a great place for bacteria to congregate. So don’t be afraid to pull up your sleeves and stick them right in!
In my experience, one of the most common problems is a toilet that is “running” or periodically filling the tank when it’s already full. This is caused by some problem with the equipment within the tank. In most cases you will need to replace a part, because they wear out and are not simply repairable. Using chemicals in the tank such as chlorine tablets can significantly decrease the life of tank parts and leave other kinds of unwanted residue.
So how do you fix a running toilet? (Resist the urge to say, “Take away its shoes.”) Start by checking for leaks outside the tank; is it wet on the bottom or near where the bolts go in? If so, replace the rubber washers and tighten the bolts. If not, it’s probably slowly leaking into the bowl itself. Replace the big flap at the bottom of the tank, which holds the water in until you flush. That typically fixes the problem, but if it doesn’t, then replace the float—the plastic, air-filled bladder that rises up when the tank is full and falls down when it is empty. This is typically replaced not individually but as part of the larger assembly that includes the part that fills the tank with water. Total savings: $100–$200, depending on the problem and the contractor.
5. Cloth diapers
Using cloth diapers is not only worthwhile in terms of money, but also for saving the planet. Disposable diapers produce a huge amount of waste and take an estimated 500 years to decompose in a landfill. Thus the very first disposable diaper ever made is probably still lying around in a landfill somewhere. ABC news reports:
The Union of Concerned Scientists has estimated about 18 billion diapers are thrown into landfills every year. And a 1998 study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that diapers made up 3.4 million tons of waste, or 2.1 percent of U.S. garbage in landfills that year.https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=789465
Now don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Sometimes cloth diaper advocates go a little overboard and make amazing claims that simply are not true. Cloth diapers are not magic. They do not eliminate all diaper rashes, they aren’t always 100% leak-proof, and they don’t work perfectly for every child and every family situation. Their environmental impact is also complicated by extra water use, but still I don’t buy the claim that they have no environmental benefit over disposables. Still, cloth do require an initial investment of money, and an ongoing investment of time, and it will take a least a year before you see substantial savings.
Nevertheless, after using cloth diapers for over 7 years, we can say that they are definitely worthwhile if you are able to put forth the time and effort to wash them. Danielle is a cloth diaper expert, and hopefully soon we will post her current recommendations for the best cloth diapers to buy. Total savings: An economist estimates $1,000–$1,200 over several years, but not in the first year.