How to Save on Home Maintenance with Simple Do-It-Yourself

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A stunning and almost unnoticed development has come about in the past few years: middle class homeowners are paying other people to cut their lawns, maintain their properties and clean their homes.

Not a whole bunch of years ago, only rich people hired outside services to maintain their homes. I’m not certain how or why the transition came about; perhaps it has something to do with the “time is money” mantra that many people are willing to pay someone else to do jobs that will free up their time.

I live in a truly middle class subdivision, and I’m regularly surprised by the number of service vehicles coming into the neighborhood cutting lawns, spraying for pests, chemically treating lawns, cleaning houses, providing at-home dog grooming—you name it. All activities typical middle class people once did for themselves.

Now, I don’t know what your situation is specifically, but I have a feeling that the plethora of home maintenance service expenses many people use might have something to do with the much bemoaned “high cost of living these days”. Or even with America’s dismally low savings rate. After all, every routine job we pay someone else to do is that much money that ain’t finding it’s way to our bank accounts.

Services the Middle Class apparently can no longer do without

If you have the type of occupation that has you working 70 or 80 hours per week, or you’re elderly or disabled, or you earn enough that you can pay others for these services and still bank at least 10% of your income each year, then stop reading. None of this applies to you.

But if you don’t fit into any of those categories, then there’s a great likelihood that substantial money can be saved. I have a feeling that part of the reason anyone is willing to pay for home maintenance services might be because they’re viewed as mostly as monthly expenses. But annualizing those outlays reveals that some serious money is being spent on jobs we could do ourselves—to the tune of several thousand dollars per year.

Lawn cutting. How long would it take to cut your lawn, an hour? Do it yourself and you’ll save $100-$150 per month you’re paying a service. And its great exercise to boot. If you have no lawn mower, you can buy a decent one brand new for under $150, which will pay for itself in about one month. A decent weed trimmer might add anther $60-$70. If you have a teenage son or daughter, you can pay them to cut the lawn as part of household chores. Annual savings: $800 to $1200 if you live in an area where the lawn needs to be cut eight months out of the year.

Pest control. Keep your contract only to the extent that it covers termites, if you live in a termite ridden area and, if you have one, be sure NEVER to allow your termite bond to lapse (major cost to reinstate!). However, you’re probably paying several hundred dollars per year over and above your termite service for the elimination of insects that are true pests, rather than destructive swarms. You can buy a gallon bottle of highly effective pesticide at any hardware store or home center, with a spray attachment, for around $12, and it will cover two treatments for an average size house. (Ortho Home Defense Max works superbly in bug-infested North Georgia, so it will probably work well anywhere.)

Spray four times per year, and you spend no more than $24 and about four hours of your time (at one hour per treatment). Some of the newer pesticide versions are claiming to be effective for up to a full year, but I wouldn’t bet on it. No experience? Just read and carefully follow the instructions on the bottle, being extra careful if you have young children or pets. Annual savings: $300 to $600 per year.

Chemical lawn treatments. If you’re paying a service to do this, take a look at the treatment regiment being provided by the company—both the content and frequency of application–and size up what you would need to buy, and at what cost, to do it yourself. Another option would be to work with a neighbor or two or three, sharing the cost of chemicals. If you’re unsure as to how exactly to apply the treatments, it’s best to seek the advice of someone more knowledgeable. Improper or excessive treatment can destroy your lawn.

Still another option and one recommended if you’re financial situation is very tight, is to forego treatment entirely—you’re mostly paying to keep up with the neighbors on this one anyway. Annual savings: several hundred dollars, but costs can vary depending on the level of service purchased so it could be a good bit higher.

Cleaning your house. While it may be of some real time value to pay a service to clean your home, unless both you and your spouse are working full time and have dependents to care for, it’s most likely that the main reason you farm this work out is because you don’t like doing it. I know I don’t! As an alternative, develop strategies to clean up behind yourselves and then establish schedules to tackle chores such as cleaning the kitchen, vacuuming the floors, changing the beds, cleaning the bathrooms, etc.

Involve the whole family for a couple of hours one afternoon or evening every couple of weeks—many hands make light work. If need be, increase the kids’ allowances consistent with the work they take on. Or set up a mix and match where you reduce the frequency of using the cleaning service from say every two weeks to every two months. Cleaning services do a better job, and it would be nice to have them come in every now and then to do a deep cleaning. Annual savings from doing it yourself: $1200 to $2400 per year if you paying for two cleanings per month.

Maintenance and repairs. The routine in many quarters today is that you call a professional as soon as something breaks. While none of us are experts at fixing everything, we’ve gotten very comfortable paying others for what people used to do for themselves as part of the requirements of home ownership. You can do more than you think and while you might not be able to repair a leaky roof or a spastic washing machine, you probably can change the air filter in your air conditioner or replace a jammed door knob or repaint a room or two! Take on as many repair and maintenance jobs as you’re able, short of diverting too much time from income producing activities.

At least make an attempt at fixing something when it breaks, and you’ll find that both your skill and confidence levels will grow. Try this: next time a door knob jams, go to the hardware store and buy a replacement (at $15-$20). Try replacing it yourself! Worst case is that you can’t, then you call someone you know who you think can. Someone with knowledge can often fix something in mere minutes. (Be intentional about repaying that persons kindness by providing a service to him or her when the moment comes that you can help!) Only if you can’t figure it out yourself, and can’t find someone else who can, do you call in the professional. Annual savings: at least a few hundred dollars per year, and maybe thousands!

If there’s a job that needs to be done that includes an element of danger, such as cleaning the gutters on your roof, it’s best to pay a professional, AFTER making him present evidence of his insurance coverage. You don’t want to go to the opposite extreme here where you’re spending inordinate amounts of time on home repair, and risking injury to yourself, both of which have the real potential to interfere with your ability to make a living in your primary occupation.

You want to be the keeper of your happy home, not merely the occupant/check writer dispensing funds to one contractor after another. The payoff can be a few thousand dollars more in your bank account each year!

Kevin At Out of Your RutThis post is from FiscalGeek staff writer: Kevin Mercadante. I’m very excited to have him contributing to the site. You can find out more about him at his own blog OutOfYourRut.com.

( Photo courtesy of superhua )

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Panda Mike 2010/05/19 at 6:51 am

I do pay to keep a nice and green lawn but I do everything else myself. I really wonder why people pay to start their pool in spring or cut their lawn. A little bit of exercise is not bad for the belly too ;-)

2 years ago, we did some landscaping in front of our house. Instead of paying to have it done, we ordered a truck of earth and we ask our friends and family for extra plants they had on their land.

Total cost was $200 and we had a $3,000 job done!… and my back hurt for a week ;-)

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Kevin 2010/05/20 at 11:12 am

We recently had a similar situation in our home, but on a smaller scale.

Our property has a tremendous amount of foliage around it, and earlier this spring, it was time to do the dreaded spring clean up. Because of the foliage, the initial clean and cut of the property is extensive, and I was on the verge of paying someone to do it. It probably would have cost $200 to $300 (we have trees that drop their leaves in April!).

Instead, we opted to make it a family affair–my wife, my kids and me spent part of a Saturday and most of a Sunday, and we got the job done (quite well if I do say so myself!). We paid the kids, so it was a chance for them to do some honest work and make some money.

Though I wasn’t thinking that way before we did the job, after it was over I had that deep sense of peace that we did the right thing. The kids weren’t complaining either…at least not after the job when they collected their money.

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Jenna 2010/05/19 at 9:30 am

Another thing to consider when looking at middle class homes is single parent families. I live in suburbia with my mom and it’s just the two of us. Not that we aren’t DIY-ers, we sometimes need a bit of help with bigger home improvement projects. Luckily for us, we have a great community of friends to lend us a hand. But the single mother with three young children next door has a lawn guy and a cleaning crew. Sometimes people need an extra hand, when their hands are a little too full.

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Kevin 2010/05/20 at 10:47 am

Jenna – I think you’re right about that. There’s been an explosion in singles, and single parent households in the past 20-30 years, and that’s probably caused much of the increase in services at middle class homes. When I was a kid, you rarely saw single women living in a home by herself, unless she was widowed. Now it isn’t at all uncommon. Add a high powered career and there just isn’t time.

It must stretch the budgets of the single parent households though. If it were me, I think I’d opt for a condo! ;-)

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Jenna 2010/05/20 at 10:49 am

True. But condos aren’t very kid friendly…

Budgeting in the Fun Stuff 2010/05/19 at 11:11 am

This post wasn’t meant for me (I fell into the “make enough to pay for this and save 10%” category), but I just wanted to make the point that you don’t have to be rich to afford these things and save at the same time. My husband and I make about $80k a year jointly before taxes and our take home pay after the 401k, pension, taxes, and insurance is around $60k. We live on about $38k a year and that includes biweekly housekeeping ($1170 a year), lawn service ($400 a year), and 3 month pest control ($320 a year). If we ever needed extra cash, these things would be first to go, but as of right now, I do not mind paying $1900 a year to not clean or mow the lawn on my weekends. :-)

I think it’s good to know that these things can be afforded only if you stay on a careful budget and cut back elsewhere. It’s all about priorities.

BTW, I didn’t know that Ortho Home Defense Max actually works as well as the Terminix stuff…I’ll definitely look into it, thanks!

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Kevin 2010/05/20 at 10:51 am

That’s why I specifically excluded people in your category. But if someone is looking to cut expenses and start paying down debt or saving money, this is a good place to look.

It may be that’s it’s gotten so common that there are people who don’t attach yard work and house cleaning to home ownership. Kind of like power windows in cars–now that we have them we can’t imagine jumping into a car and having to roll up our windows with a door crank.

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RDT2 2010/05/19 at 2:00 pm

My dad stopped having lawn care around 15 years ago when I was old enough to cut the grass. Now that my brother and I no longer live at home he has decided that the deals the lawn care folks are giving right now are too good to pass up. He said that he is paying less now per month then he paid 15 years ago as they are desperate for work right now.

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Kevin 2010/05/20 at 10:55 am

I live in a truly middle class neighborhood with more than a few teenaged kids in it, and I don’t see any of them out cutting the lawns of their own homes. It’s either a parent or a lawn service.

The kids themselves may grow into a generation who see yard maintenance as something to be farmed out to someone else.

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Spedie 2010/05/20 at 8:43 am

When something needs fixing at my house, the very first thing I do is walk over to my computer and Google the problem. I have saved tons of money that way.

Despite being female, I am quite handy around the house. I paint, hang sheetrock, tape, float, fix dryers, hang doors, replace doorknobs, mow my own lawy, and I just recently bought a power washer off eBay and have powerwashed my whole house, even the second story. Yeah, it was a big scarey with that pressure washer hose near the top of a 20 foot ladder, but I did it without getting blown off the ladder.

I make just over $100K per year and can’t seem to part with my hard earned money to have stuff done by other people that I can do myself.

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Kevin 2010/05/20 at 10:58 am

You do things a lot of men wouldn’t do! You probably have a generous bank account to show for your efforts.

If you ever lost your $100k job, you’d be well prepared–at least as far as the house is concerned.

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Torrey 2010/05/20 at 9:40 am

For some people it’s just easier and more cost-effective to service out various maintenance projects. 5 years ago, i’d probably do the same. But since I recently moved into an older home, I’ve found it fun and challenging to take care of a lot of projects myself. There’s a certain satisfaction for me seeing the finished results of my labor.

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Kevin 2010/05/20 at 11:05 am

Torrey, your experience has me thinking in a different direction…for the most part, paying others to do our domestic work is a play on our careers. That is, we put our efforts into our careers and let others handle as much as we can afford to pay them for.

But in what you’re doing, you’re broadening your skills beyond your job. Being able to make repairs and improvements to a house is an art, and at some point you may want (or need) to convert those skills into a way to make a living, at least as a side business.

It’s an art, but it’s one others are often willing to pay for. I know people doing that as a business who started just the way you have.

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Money Smarts 2010/05/20 at 9:59 am

We live in a neighborhood with an association, which means a lot of the stuff outside including the landscaping/etc are taken care of via our monthly dues we are required to pay. That means we don’t have to mow our lawn or take care of the bushes/etc because it’s all take care of. On the other hand,everything inside the house – cleaning/cooking/maintenance – we take care of by ourselves. I just hate paying someone else to do things I can do myself.

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Kevin 2010/05/20 at 11:00 am

Money Smarts – I’m with you. There’s something basic and very necessary about at least being able to clean up after ourselves! “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”

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