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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.


Boy, I've lost weight since these early days. Yes, that's the same basement as this one...

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.


Wendy walking into our house on day #1, 15 minutes after closing.

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.

Comments 13

Comments

1/12/2012 at 10:00 AM
I think you guys know this already, but we're DIYing our house, too.

Mostly for money issues right now, because we've only been here a year and a bit and we're young, but like you guys, it's morphing into a need to respect the house and it's character and making it exactly the way we want it to be - not what a contractor thinks is best.

I get incredibly frustrated with the pace - Mike doesn't seem to notice the poverty-esque look of the house. But despite all my complaining, we have done quite a bit since we've bought...new oil tank (that one wasn't a DIY), new electrical panel (Mike helped our friend to do it) and some wiring (all Mike), jacked up the sagging portions of the house (Mike and his Dad), built a shed (Mike), one window restore (me), and demo'd a collapsed "addition" (me, Mike, and Mike's parents). I feel like we sit around a lot more than we work, but I think we probably have a pretty good balance. I do want to make sure we're enjoying our lives with family and friends, not just reno'ing a house. :)

Anyway, great post. It's nice to know we're not the only "crazy" people out there!
Wendy
1/12/2012
Wow! I'm super impressed with everything you guys have accomplished. Congrats, and hang in there! It's worth it.
I think this is great. We are actually building right now, and this is the first time we've not done something ourselves. From re-tiling floors, painting, installing tubs, sinks and showers, to updating backsplashes... It's not always fun, but I think you gain such a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of this is MINE. And that's a big deal. Bigger than hiring it out. :)
Wendy
1/12/2012
Thanks Amy! Good luck with your new home. How exciting!
Laurie
1/12/2012 at 12:04 PM
You guys are really lucky to have this project to share together.

We're down the road from you guys (just outside Old Town) - DIYing is my love, but my husband does not share the love. It's a really tough thing we deal with between us as to "how" projects get done. I almost need my own house to fix up just to make myself happier :)
Wendy
1/12/2012
Hey Neighbor! :-) I'm sorry your husband doesn't share your love for DIYing Laurie. I can't imagine not having my partner in crime on this project, although life would be less stressful and I'd be better rested if we weren't renovating!
threadbndr
1/12/2012 at 1:48 PM
You know I have an older house, too. Though mine is just a 'baby' - coming up on 80 years. If it's about paint, plants or wood, I'm good to go. For simple electric and plumbing, I get help from my son and his friends, for the HVAC there will be professionals. I am NOT messing with the 'basement monster'.
Wendy
1/12/2012
Always nice to have reinforcements to call in when necessary! I wouldn't want to mess with the basement monster either. :-)
Whitney
1/12/2012 at 5:22 PM
This is a great post. Just had to be said :)
Wendy
1/12/2012
Thanks Whitney! We appreciate the feedback.
JC
1/12/2012 at 7:56 PM
My reasons are pretty similar. There are still times where I would prefer to hire someone, but for the most part it comes down to price (saving a ton of money), and quality.

I see a LOT of renovation jobs in my line of work. Many are nice, many aren't. I can't tell you the amount of "horrible botch jobs" (as I like to call them) we've had to work around.

On the other hand, I also can't tell you the amount of "horrible botch jobs" that were DONE BY PROFESSIONALS! The most specific one I can recall at this very moment was a tiling job.

This client had built a new house, and most of the flooring inside was natural slate over a solid (I think it was concrete) floor (and I believe they did have a basement, too, so they paid extra to have a super solid floor, etc). The tiling job was ATROCIOUS! I did the slate in my bathroom, and it's a challenge to work with, but these were being put in by pros. The problems were obvious, too. Several tile joints were out of square (as much as 1/4" off in places - where the joints didn't meet up anymore), and the second biggest problem was how the tiles were being laid. They slapped down the thin set mortar, but in MANY places, they didn't add enough, so many of the tiles had hollow spots under them. For slate, it's crucial that you have enough mortar to fill all the gaps/spots under each tile. Because they did such a crappy job, several tiles had broken corners, and had to be chipped-out and replaced, but MANY were missed or ignored. There were also some spots were the difference in tile thickness made it a huge tripping hazard (like one tile being 1/4" higher than another). Just awful.

But I've seen it all. Horrible ("professional") plumbing jobs, HVAC jobs, lots of bad (or lazily installed) electrical, etc.

So yeah, I have very high standards, and I'd be afraid to hire a lot of people.

The only job I hired-out so far was to my Mom's ex b/f to do the aluminum capping around the windows (exterior). The metal work was fine, but he did a pretty awful caulking job. It was fairly cheap, and at least it's outside, otherwise I'd be redoing it.
1/12/2012 at 8:12 PM
That last photo of you guys is SO CUTE! My DIYing also started from a need to save money. . . and quickly turned into the best hobby I've ever had. No matter how much money I have, I can't imagine changing that. Now maybe for wiring or roofing some day, yes - but not the littler things!
bfish
1/16/2012 at 3:53 PM
I agree with you; people are generally either all in or all out when it comes to DIY. Although I'm much less enamored with some projects (painting w/ all its associated prep) than I was years ago, the hard-won knowledge that the paid "professional" will not do as good a job as you can do yourself still motivates us to take on most projects after 25 years in our 85 year old house.

As I commented on one of your older posts in a similar vein, don't let the doubters and naysayers get you down! We don't, and you shouldn't, feel bad about having very high standards about the quality, appearance, and functionality of improvements to our/your home. (I say as I look in pain across the street at the offensive bright white gutters a neighbor installed on a 1930s Tudor w/ brown roof and trim . . . .)
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