When DIY has No ROI: Diary of a DIYaholic

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in Frugal Fix,Frugality

I’ll be honest this is going to be a semi-painful tell-all of DIY projects gone awry of yours truly.  When presented with the option to pay a professional $100 to complete something for me when I could only spend $20 if I did it myself, I’ll pick the latter option most every time.  Well that’s not entirely true, over the past few years I’m backing off that trend and moving to a strategy where I look at the true Return of Investment of doing it DIY balanced with risk. Hopefully my folly can cause some poor unsuspecting soul to search deep within themselves and ask, “Do I really think I can repair our oven, and is it worth it?”

A Recent Example: Digital Camera Repair

Okay you’re saying to yourself, digital camera repair are you serious?  Do you repair electronic devices for a living.  Umm”¦.No.  Alright in my head it seemed easy enough, I’m handy.  We had purchased last year a Nikon Coolpix pocket size camera with a gorgeous 2.5″ screen.  It took fantastic pictures, and still does.  The problem is that you don’t have the slightest clue of what you’re taking a picture of or what settings the camera may be using because the screen was destroyed.  I mean who would have thought the “Grizzly River Run” at Disney’s California Adventure would end up cracking the screen even in the camera bag.  Yes that was terribly frustrating especially since we’d only had the camera about 4 months.  So the camera has essentially been sitting idle except for a few Dirt Bike trips where I thought I would take it because I had nothing to lose. As summer was beginning I had visions of using our pocket camera again so I started looking into some options.

The Justification

Cost to have the screen replaced by an authorized service center:  $125  (Note we paid $159 for the camera originally)

Cost for a replacement screen from Ebay: $35 + My Labor:  Free (okay not really see the Simple Dollar for a look at the Cost of Your Time) = $35

Cost for a new camera: $140 (they’ve come down a bit)

You can see how this was a no-brainer for me, especially if you know me.  I love to fiddle with things and this was just another excuse for taking something apart.  Even better I thought this could be a great entry in my Frugal Fix series and I’d document the whole process.  So I went ahead and ordered the replacement screen from eBay.  It arrived a few days later and I began the repair.

The Repair: What does this Wire do?

I first deftly disassembled the microscopic camera.  Okay not so deftly I have giant meat hooks for hands and this was no easy process, those screws couldn’t be any smaller and be visible by the naked eye.  I was then left with the white screen enigma box.  There were lots of tiny pieces that looked fragile so I gently pried the housing apart to reveal that there were two parts to the screen the screen itself and a backlight.  Hmm my replacement screen didn’t come with a backlight so I needed to reuse the existing one.  This is where things started going south.  I saw that the backlight was soldered to the screen with two tiny traces on a flexible strip so I got out my soldering iron and promptly melted right through the flexible strip.  The beads of cold sweat formed on my brow.  I vainly attempted to solder the connections to the new screen with what I though moderate success.  I spent a harrowing 30 minutes getting the little connectors back together and fired it up.  Nothing, not even a flicker.  Some rejiggering, a little more solder”¦nothing.  So I’ve now invested about 4 hours plus my $35 and I’m back to where I started and I’m nearly a human anger ball.

I’ll still try and sell this camera on ebay as I’m sure there’s plenty of people out there with the actual skills to repair this camera so it might not be a complete loss but it sure feels that way.  The moral?  Consider your time, money, risk and also relational impact.  The relational impact is something I’ve surely felt with some of my larger projects like the bathroom and kitchen remodels.  I follow the mantra: happy wife, happy life. If your significant other can put up with a kitchen or bathroom being out of commission for nearly a year, you’ve got a keeper.  Now I’ll provide my completely biased list of projects worth doing and those that your money is better spent paying somebody who may actually know what they are doing.

Kick the Tires and Light the Fires: DIY that makes Sense

  1. Give your own vehicle a lube oil and filter.  If you buy your oil on sale or in bulk you can probably save anywhere from $10 to $30 doing this yourself in about the same time as it would take to drive somewhere and have it done.  It’s really a simple process once you’ve done it and can give some good satisfaction.
  2. Rotate your own tires.  If you don’t know how to change a tire, this is one skill worth learning.  This is something you can easily do and it’s just a valuable skill to have in an emergency situation.  Your vehicles manual should have detailed instructions as a starting point.
  3. Mow your Lawn.  Better yet, have your kids do it.  If you’re really watching the pennies it doesn’t make sense to have someone else do it or maybe you should let some of your landscaping go native. Potential savings $20 to $100′s depending on your yard.
  4. Painting.  You can save a lot of money by doing this yourself with near professional results.  For me honestly I hate painting so would probably put it in my other category but you can’t argue the savings here. Potential savings $100′s.
  5. Window and Door screen repair.  Huh?  Keep an eye out for a new installment of the Frugal Fix where we’ll cover this in detail this is really quite simple.  $10 to $50 saved depending on door or window and size.
  6. Tile Work.  This may seem daunting but there is ton of help out there, head in to a dedicated tile store and they’ll give you all sorts of help.  I recently did my first tile project in our bathroom remodel and it went pretty well.  Just make sure your walls are square and when they tell you that the epoxy grout sets up quickly believe them.
  7. Drywall repair.  Do an internet search you can get all sorts of tutorials and walk throughs, you can do this one.  If it’s a highly visible area and you are a perfectionist though you may want to pay a professional because the texturing portion is really an art.
  8. Landscaping.  A paver patio, a new tree, a water feature.  Sure you can do these.

Pull Up Cougar you are Too Low!: DIY You might want to Avoid

  1. Plumbing.  This has burned me more than twice thinking I knew what I was doing just to have sealed up the walls and realize there was some form of leak.  I just can’t seem to crack the code on this one and I’ve sworn it off completely.
  2. Electrical work.  This can be dangerous as well as costly if done incorrectly.  I personally have a fair amount of experience here so I usually will take it on, but can’t in good faith recommend this for the average diy’er.
  3. Septic Tank or Sewer Repairs.  If you’ve got issues here, get a professional and get them fast.  Trust me on this one.
  4. Tiny electronic device repair.  Maybe you didn’t read my example above, leave this for some tiny handed professionals.
  5. Natural Gas or Propane device repair.  Again you and your families safety is too important here.  There’s a lot that can go wrong for the inexperienced.
  6. Automobile repair.  Today’s modern cars and trucks are terribly sophisticated, even if you have the ability to replace something that’s broken you may still need to have the computer reset. That’s assuming that you can accurately diagnose the problem once again if you can’t interface to the computer isolating the problem could be very difficult.  I’ll probably get some flack for this one, but I’ve many times tried to repair things myself only to have to pay a professional to actually fix the problem.
  7. Cabinetmaking.  I am an avid wood worker and I’ve gone this route myself.  Unless you have some highend equipment it’s going to take you a lot longer with minimal money saved to make your own cabinets.  I did for our bathroom remodel but due to the time required they still don’t have doors yet.  See “relational impact” above.

While not an exhaustive lists by any means for me the risk of a repair not going right and then essentially paying twice to have something done right is something you may want to consider.  I’ve also decided that I have enough hobbies and we’ll remove small electronics repair from that list.  Good luck and let us know if you have some horror stories of your own.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt Jabs 2009/06/29 at 9:43 am

I wholeheartedly back the concept of this post. You MUST calculate the opportunity cost of any DIY project in order to decipher your ROI.

Here is a nifty little calculator I made that I run all my DIY projects through:

DIY Calculator: x=difficulty | y=my time | z=cost for pro to do job — If x+y>z I pay the pro | If x+y<z I do it myself.

The only times I deviate from this calculator is when I am doing a project that I am blogging about. Then I give the project considerably more time because it is being written as an experiment to help other people. I these "blogging DIY projects" I work through all the problems of the project & post the best solution for the benefit of readers.
.-= Matt Jabs´s last blog ..Follow Through on Financial Goals =-.

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B Simple 2009/06/29 at 9:53 am

I agree with your thoughts. I usually look at the cost and time it would take me to do it. I am pretty handy but if I know it can be done quicker than I can complete the project. I will usually pay someone to do it. It goes back to what is your time worth and if you have the skill to do the task.

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The Casual Observer 2009/06/29 at 10:00 am

Better yet, barter skills that you DO have for skills that you don’t. I’m lousy at the handyman stuff, but good with computers (software problems, as well as minor hardware stuff).

Also there’s a guy I work with who does handyman stuff and takes his payment in lunches. A recent problem on the roof resulted in a 3 lunch bill :)

Human anger ball is a good description. Been there …
.-= The Casual Observer´s last blog ..Open and shut =-.

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Justin Mckeown 2009/06/29 at 1:18 pm

You STILL don’t have doors? Don’t make me come over there…

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The Casual Observer 2009/06/29 at 6:25 pm

and besides, the doors really don’t serve a function. Heck, the capacity is more with no doors than with doors. Take your time, Paul.
.-= The Casual Observer´s last blog ..Interview with Lazy Man =-.

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MLR 2009/06/29 at 8:45 pm

Good topic, it was actually the topic of personal finance hour with JD and Jim.

I couldn’t agree more with painting. Just make sure you do prep work. If you screw up, you will eventually need a professional and it will cost A LOT more.
.-= MLR´s last blog ..Carnival of Top PF Posts #9 =-.

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MoneyEnergy 2009/06/29 at 11:15 pm

Good for you for trying to DIY and save the money. I’m a big fan of DIY, I do my own investments. I can because I do enough research for myself and my own needs. I probably wouldn’t hand anything over to any broker unless I really had a million or more to protect, and then I’d probably be wanting to talk to lawyers, not brokers…

Looks like you’ve got lots of skills though, you could barter with if need be and you’ll never be out of work!
.-= MoneyEnergy´s last blog ..Are You Doing Your Life’s Work, or Are You An Employee of The Market? =-.

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Philip Brewer 2009/06/30 at 8:52 am

I think the whole calculation based on treating your time as if you could be earning your salary while working on a DIY project is misleading–and not just because it’s not always so easy to get somebody to pay you for any random hours that you might otherwise spend on a project of your own.

The root problem has to do with treating life entirely in economic terms–as if your only options were to either work for pay or else pay someone to do something for you (and when you do find an alternative, feeling obliged to simulate one of those options).

I’ve written about the topic here: The many reasons–besides frugality–to do for yourself.
.-= Philip Brewer´s last blog ..
The new normal economy =-.

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Alison 2009/06/30 at 12:43 pm

Hilarious! I am a DIY addict, too. We sodded our own yard this spring. We saved about $2,000 but it was BACK BREAKING WORK! I’m not sure I would advise that to any sane person!
.-= Alison´s last blog ..Print a lot of Coupons? Get Paper for $1 =-.

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paul's wife 2009/07/01 at 8:03 am

doors/drawer fronts someday… still, they hold our towels and the rest of the bathroom looks great. I think DIY made a little more sense when the kids were younger and we didn’t have as many fun recreational pursuits. A little hard to get our projects done when it’s right in the middle of ski, motorbiking, camping, canoeing, geo-cacheing, softball “season” around here.

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Paul Van Lierop 2009/06/29 at 9:57 am

Thanks for the calculator Matt, I frequently used to select DIY projects based on what tools I wanted for my arsenal, I have since reined in my spending ways to be more realistic. Plus I’m out of room for new tools :-).

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Paul Van Lierop 2009/06/29 at 1:57 pm

Too funny my little Australian friend. No the doors aren’t on there yet. I’ve been…busy and it’s nice outside.

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Paul Van Lierop 2009/06/30 at 8:59 am

I agree with you Philip and more often than not the projects I have done are usually those that I look forward to trying, there is definitely a point of diminishing returns though and since I have repeatedly hit that it’s often more of a strain on the family life than the pocket book :-). When my own wife has hired a contractor to take care of something I know I’ve hit that point.

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Paul Van Lierop 2009/06/30 at 1:51 pm

I too put in my own yard, my cousin happens to own a sod farm that supplied the grass for Safeco Field here in Seattle where the Mariner’s play so I saved a ton of money but yeah that was a fair amount of work. I called in a lot of favors and paid some High School Kids for their slave labor. Doesn’t exactly look like Safeco Field today. Thanks for stopping by Alison.

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