I’m new to the world of home ownership, but I’ve already learned a lot. I’m big on doing things myself. It’s incredibly satisfying, and I like the idea of saving money.
Here are some of the projects I’ve worked on so far: built a 200 foot retaining wall (with french drain), installed a screen door, installed a storm door, installed two ceiling fans, dug a garden, grown grass from seed, built a 400 foot fence, and wired my living room walls for surround sound.
It’s been a lot of work, but it’s also been fun, and I’ve learned a lot too. Here are 14 home improvement lessons I’ve learned.
1. Make a plan
Before you so much as pick up a hammer, you need to have a plan – and not just for the current project. It should include at least the next few years of projects. There are a few reasons why.
First, if you don’t have an over-arching vision, you’ll end up with a bunch of projects that look good individually, but don’t tie together at all.
And second, if you don’t do your projects in the right order, you may end up having to redo previous ones.
As an example, I built a retaining wall beside my driveway. Then I had the driveway paved a few months later. The company that did it ended up hitting the wall, so now I’m stuck with a crooked wall in a few places.
I should have paved the driveway first, then built the wall.
2. Add one-third onto your material estimates, one-half onto time estimates
As obsessive as I am with planning and numbers, none of my initial estimates are ever accurate.
I’ve found that if I add one-third onto all of my material estimates, it gives me enough to finish most projects. I’d rather have too much than not enough.
You can always take extras back to the store later. Plus running to the store in the middle of a project is frustrating, and a waste of time.
On the time side, I’ve found that everything always takes longer than you think. Nothing ever goes according to plan.
If I add one-half to all of my time estimates, it makes things more reasonable, and prevents me from taking on too much at a time.
3. Make sure you get irrigation right
Irrigation is by far one of the most destructive problems you can have with your property. If you don’t get it right, water will run towards your house. This can be disastrous, as it can lead to foundation problems, which are among the most expensive and difficult to fix.
Do yourself a favor, and fix the irrigation on your property first and foremost. Water should be channeled away from the house, and the ground should slope upward anywhere it touches your home.
4. Recognize your limits
As much as I like to pretend I’m superman, there are some things I just can’t do. Take irrigation for example.
I managed to successfully direct water away from my driveway, but now it just goes straight into my backyard. I’ve tried two or three times to correct it, but it’s just not working.
At this point, I’m ready to pay someone to do it for me. It’s getting so bad that water is running towards my house (and basement walls), and I’m not going to put my foundation at risk.
For me, it’s worth it to hire someone to do it. After the irrigation is taken care of, I can the rest of the landscaping myself. But until then, it doesn’t make sense to do anything because the water is so destructive.
5. Buy supplies from local, independent companies when possible
I found a great landscape supply company just a mile or two from my house. I can buy dirt, gravel, etc… by the ton for much cheaper than I could get at the big chain stores.
As an example, dirt normally runs $2-$5 for 40 pounds at Home Depot. I can buy a ton of the same quality dirt for $30 from the local store. That’s a savings of at least 70%.
You’ll need to have a truck to really take advantage of it, but the prices are so good that it would be worth it to rent a truck from Home Depot for an hour.
6. Consider renting tools you’ll use infrequently
As fun as it is to have a big tool collection, sometimes it’s a waste of money. If you’re only going to need tools once or twice a year, it may make more sense to rent them from hardware stores. You can rent tools for between $40-$100, depending on the tool and how long you need it.
If you’re going to use a tool infrequently, it doesn’t make sense to buy it. You’ve got to store it, maintain it, and pay to fix it if something goes wrong.
A good example – I needed an auger to dig holes for fence posts. Instead of buying one for at least $300-$400, I just rented one for the day for $60.
7. Don’t forget regular maintenance
Make sure you take the time to do regular maintenance after you finish big projects.
I spent a lot of time last spring working on growing grass from seeds. It took about 4 or 5 months, but I finally had a healthy looking yard.
Then I let the grass grow too long. When I finally cut it, the yard was shocked.
Then a drought hit, and most of the grass completely died.
I lost six months worth of progress because I didn’t spend two hours mowing the yard. It’s an awful feeling.
8. Do it right the first time
With most things in life, it doesn’t matter if you get it exactly right. I’ve heard some people say that you really only need to do something 85% of the way to get the benefits of it.
Home improvement isn’t one of those things.
You have to live with your work for years. Take the time and effort to do things right the first time.
You don’t want to have to redo it later (wasting your time), and it could bug you for years if something isn’t quite right. Parts of my retaining wall aren’t straight, and it absolutely drives me crazy.
9. Don’t put off projects until you’re getting ready to sell
I’ve seen people that put off home improvement projects
until they’re getting ready to sell their house. As a result, they never get to enjoy it.
Their house is actually at its best right before they move out. It just doesn’t make sense.
Make sure you get to enjoy your improvements… do them for yourself, not the next owner.
10. Make improvements because they’re important to you. Not because of what it will do for the value of your home
If the recent housing bubble has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t count on your house always increasing in value.
When you make improvements to your house, you should do it because it’s something that’s important to you and will make your life more enjoyable. You shouldn’t do something just because you think it will increase the value of your house.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be aware of how projects could affect your property value… just that it shouldn’t be the deciding factor. If you choose projects that are important to you, you won’t regret them later.
11. Choose plants that makes sense for your climate
When you landscape, choose plants that make sense for your situation. Don’t just choose something that looks pretty. Your first criteria should be what makes sense for your:
>> average rainfall
>> directness of sunlight
Too many people choose plants by their looks, and try to force it to work in their climate. It ends up wasting time, energy, and water.
You’ll be much better off choosing plants that naturally thrive in your situation.
12. Most of the real yard work is done in the fall and winter
The most important yard maintenance is done in the fall and winter. This includes things like aerating, fertilizing, repair, and reseeding. By the time you get to the full heat and sun of the summer, it’s too late to grow anything from scratch.
13. When you hire contractors, get estimates and references. Also, pay them in cash for a discount.
There are times when you have to hire outside help, but that doesn’t mean you have to pay an arm and a leg for it.
When you hire contractors, get estimates from at least 3-5 people. Also, ask for references! You want to make sure that they actually see jobs through to completion, and take care of any customer concerns.
Don’t forget to ask if contractors offer a discount for paying by cash (or check) instead of credit card. In my experience, many offer a 2-3% discount. This is especially true if you work with independently owned businesses.
14. Have fun, and take pride in your work
Home improvement is hard work. It’s time consuming, and it can be expensive.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. Try to enjoy the work you do. Take pride in it, and try to think about how your home will be more enjoyable after you’re finished with the project.
You’ll enjoy yourself more, and the quality of work will improve if you keep a good attitude.
Even though I’m busy every weekend with one project or another (and a to-do list in case I finish early), I still love working around my house.
I love knowing that I’m making my home more enjoyable (and hopefully more valuable). I also love that I’m saving money – and maybe doing a better job – by doing it myself.
About the author: David writes at Pimp Your Finances, a personal finance site aimed at young adults, but full of information that everyone can use. He tries to keep things fun and informative. If you like this post, subscribe to his blog to read more