Thursday, January 12, 2012
One of the most frequently asked questions we receive from friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers about our nearly decade long renovation and restoration of our home is really a rather simple question: "Why do you do it yourself?"
This is obviously a very generalized version of the question, since most people asking usually have their own assumptions as to why one would undertake the challenge of completing almost all major and minor tasks associated with home renovation, maintenance, and decoration themselves. And we suppose it's a more polite way of asking "why don't you just hire someone?"
Though the question may be simple, the answer falls into a far more difficult realm. And in reality, our answer has gradually changed over the years. Call it maturity, call it what you will, but we see it as an evolution of an answer.
I'd say the most common assumption as to "why" we DIY because it is less expensive. Some friends or family have even delicately suggested that we do it because we are cheap, miserly, frugal, or any other polite or inventive way to say we're tight asses with our money. Most also assume that if we had more money, we'd do less ourselves.
True story. Over the years we've actually had conversations with people that involved sentences such as, "Why would I do it myself when I have the money to hire someone?" as well as "I remember the days when I had more time than money and used to do projects too." But the reality of our situation is far more convoluted than a simple explanation like that, and it goes all the way back to when we bought our home.
Even before we started actively looking for a home, and well before we were married, we fell in love with Old Town Alexandria. I know we've said this before, but we just couldn't get over the historic district and its feel. It was so different from where we grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, and even though it's "city living," Old Town doesn't feel it cold and hard like a major city. We knew we wanted to live here, but the prices in the area were going up like crazy, we were young and just out of school and we had no way to afford the type of house we wanted.
We made a decision when we started house hunting that the location was the most important aspect of our home. The second most important factor of the house was age (it had to be old, and the older the better). After that, it was up to the house gods.
Given our desire for location and (ancient) age of our house, we stretched ourselves to the very edge of our budget. Now, when I say edge, I mean something more like the edge of a cliff, and very close to the edge, as if you're looking way down the side of the cliff and just hoping you don't fall.
The selection process and constraints we placed on our search (location, age, and budget) meant we had to compromise on the size of the house and the shape the house was in. Basically, there was no way we could afford a three bedroom 100+ year old home in the location we wanted that was in any way "done." This was our reality af the time we were looking for a home, so we had to make the best of our situation. And what we ultimately ended up purchasing was, as Wendy puts it, a grotesque bachelor pad. If you think we're exaggerating, just take a look at a few photos snapped during our home inspection.
When we bought our home we were stretched to the max. Add to it that our home was not in great shape and that we had grand plans, so we felt the work needed to start straight away. The only problem with our plan was that we didn't have much money to spend, so we had to make the money we had count.
So I'd say that it is a fair assessment, especially early on in our project, that the reason for choosing DIY wast simply based on affordability. While this may have been the case easily in our adventure, it slowly began to change.
The longer we were in our house, the more we found ourselves really and truly caring about the house. I knew we would care, I just didn't know how much. To us, our home is a piece of the fabric of our nation's history and we are stewards with the responsibility to care for the house. Our home had been long neglected, needed some TLC, and was just waiting for the right people to pour their hearts and souls into breathing life back into the place.
After a few months and years into our project and we started to gain confidence. Our DIY skills were beginning to be honed, and we were starting to feel more confident in our ability to really know how to work on the house. We were also starting to feel like the job we were doing looked as good as most professional jobs on friends' houses, so we figured we'd stick with it. Our results, enjoyment of the work, and the fact we were able to actually save money doing it ourselves helped us to transition our mindset from DIY because we must, to DIY because we want to.
The desire to DIY is one of those things that you either get it or you don't. There's no middle ground. I know plenty of people who thought they wanted to do this, only to buy a fixer upper and realize it wasn't for them. We were lucky in the sense that we find DIY projects satisfying and inspiring, and we both enjoy the end result as well as the process. Seriously, look how happy Wendy was when we finally got to the tiling stage of our guest bathroom reno!
As the years in our home have ticked by and our DIY adventure on our home has continued, our feelings about our projects have continue to evolve. No longer do we even look at this as "DIY to save money," we now see it as our responsibility to the house we call home. Between increased demands and hours required at our "day jobs," this blog, our lives, etc, we have less time now than ever, but we still feel this ultimate responsibility to continue the work we're doing because we feel we can do a better job than pretty much anyone out there because we care about our home more than anyone else will. We take our time, we do our research, we persevere until the job is done right, and we try to make smart decisions about how and where we spend our money.
As you can see, our actual reasons for doing work on the house ourself has evolved over the years. What started as DIY out of necessity to save as much money as possible, has turned into DIY out of appreciation, while still with a lean towards frugality. Our new perspective allows us to still maintain a high level of craftsmanship and respect for the home while keeping the price low, but now we have a little more money in our pockets to choose some of the nicer materials, technology, and finishes in the house. Basically, we don't need to choose between buying paint and getting a hair cut like we did in the old days. (The paint would usually win out, and Wendy is still cutting my hair if you're wondering. I guess old habits die hard.)
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying it's been easy and there haven't been times that we've questioned our decision to make this our lifestyle. There are days when the criticism from friends and family has eaten away at our motivation and confidence in our decision. There are times when we've wanted to throw in the towel, or in Wendy's case, throw me down the rickety basement stairs. (Like when I made a big hole in the wall and broke one of our original baseboards, just days after taking ownership of our house. This photo was snapped moments after the incident.)
Throughout the process our relationship has been tested, but we've been forced to communicate, problem solve, and work together as a team to accomplish our mutual goal. There are times when one or both of us isn't completely happy with a project, project's pace, budget, or anything else related to what we do, but those times are not constant. Most importantly, when all is said and done, we're actually closer to each other and also feel rewarded that we're preserving a small piece of history, and will leave our humble abode in a better state than when we first entered into it.
Do you DIY? What are some of your reasons for wanting to take on minor or major projects without the help of the professionals? Have your reasons for doing work on your house changed over the years? How have your skills grown and evolved over time? We'd love for you to share your story.