Peeling Back the Clock: Adventures in DIY-land

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, I share this update on life in our home.

Few experiences can shake your faith in life’s “settledness” than repair work. Tinkering with everyday items taken for granted is a trip down a rabbit-hole of complexity, confusion, and the shoddy work of handymen past.

It’s always this way. When have you ever started fixing something on your car and finished without at least two trips back to AutoZone? When have you attempted a plumbing tweak that resulted in something other than a flood or a week of “doing without” that faucet? I rest my case.

I’ve heard it said that homeownership is the best teacher of basic craftsmanship. This is incomplete, on two levels. First, only homeownership in the absence of disposable income accomplishes this. If I could easily afford to pay someone to waste their time battling corroded pipes and shoring up the remains of last month’s termite buffet, you think I’d do this myself? Second, owning and desiring to repair something are not the complete set needed to learn new skills; making your own mistakes is a must. I can watch YouTube videos all day long, but until I break it myself, I don’t really understand how far in over my head I am.

I am not Mr. Fix-it...well maybe this one.

I am not Mr. Fix-it…well maybe this one.

The car is somewhat a different matter, if for no other reason than that tomorrow morning’s commute to work always imposes a strict deadline to put it all back together. Even then, I’m embarrassed to tell how long it’s taken me to break down and buy the basic tools needed to make simple repairs as simple as they should be. The same two principles apply to learning in this realm: Lack of funds and lack of expertise must converge before you can reach a sufficient level of despair to actually internalize the lesson.

All this is floating to the surface because my wife and I recently looked around our house (ca. 1960) to realize how little we’ve done to keep the place up since moving in in 2007. Sure, we had the windows replaced, but that was when we had the spendthrift ways of a young couple with two decent jobs. We did the roof too, but that was a DIY debacle in its own way (racing to dry in before the rain, spending all Thanksgiving picking nails out of the driveway, and still dealing with one persistent drip years later). The inside is unchanged since our flurry of painting just before we occupied.

We started with what we knew. Drawing on my past life as a landscaper, we took out an ugly shrub (read: rangy 15′ tree) and put in a small retaining wall to liven up the front entrance. So far so good.

Then, we got the bright idea to take out all the clunky light switches and put in the flat-panel “decorator” models. Halfway through that project, the garbage disposal is no longer connected to a live circuit, we broke some tiles in the bathroom, disabled the dual switching to the hall light, and uncovered enough bad wiring to (hopefully not literally) make one’s hair stand on end. So that’s going well.

Next on the list, touching up the bathrooms, examining the plumbing, redoing some insulation and sheetrock in the garage, and more. At least the planned yard sale should go off without a hitch (“He said, black clouds filling the sky behind him”).

As an exercise in irony, a look back makes it clear to Rachel & me that we overpaid for this house–precisely because we did not want a “fixer-upper” to deal with. Of course all houses eventually become fixer-uppers. Time and nature play no favorites, and it positively astonishes to see how small children and entropy work together so well on so many things. To an outsider, it probably seems like cheap farce (Oh, who are we kidding? No one ever notices), but I doubt this is a very different tune from whatever most of you are playing.

There is wisdom to be had in knowing your limits. Nobody is good at everything. I’d spend more money eating out if I didn’t enjoy the savings and control of cooking at home. Someday, perhaps, I’ll figure out that I should stop whipping up burned biscuits in the home repair department and pay someone who enjoys doing it right. In all, value is what you make of it. There are some things I’d shell out for if we lived in a different part of town, but for our neighborhood, clean and functional is luxury in itself. Life goes on, and we’ll certainly be much the wiser next time we buy a place to live, but what the heck, it’s home.

To paraphrase a rather “earthy” quip from a friend, there’s not a thing wrong with us that a good night’s sleep, a hot shower, and a half-million dollars won’t fix.

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One thought on “Peeling Back the Clock: Adventures in DIY-land

  1. I enjoyed reading your adventures but wish you didn’t have to experience them. I sound like a mother, don’t I? As you will find out, we learned a different lesson from each house we bought over the years. My advice for your next home will be to buy a newer one without very old plumbing and electrical. Those are very expensive to replace. After all, you will be much the wiser for going through these hardships. You and Rachel are doing an amazing job in raising 3 adorable girls and learning along the way. We are so proud of you!

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