How I Went From Zero to DIY Hero (& How You Can, Too!)

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About 15 or so years ago, I had zero do-it-yourself (DIY) skills. I was just a white collar guy working as a computer programmer at the headquarters of a major retailer. My hands were soft and callous-free. This all changed shortly after I purchased my first home.

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The No-Show Plumber

Right after I moved into that first house, I noticed that the water in one of the showers dripped. No matter how hard I cranked on the handle, it wouldn’t stop. I had no idea what to do, so I called some plumbers from the phone book (remember phone books?). The few plumbers who returned my call never bothered to show up. I consulted a friend who recommended someone who actually did show up. After looking at the issue, the plumber said he’d be back the next day to fix it. Great!

Except it wasn’t so great, as the guy never showed up.

Frustrated, I decided to tackle the issue myself. I knew how to turn the water off, so did that first. I gathered some random tools from the garage and started taking the fixture apart. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it came apart easily and that there was no rocket science involved; it only needed a new cartridge. I bought one from a plumbing supply store and put the fixture back together. To my amazement, it worked perfectly.

The plumber called a week later, telling me he got “backed up and could be over tomorrow.” I told him that I no longer required his services and relished the $100+ I saved doing it myself.

Related: 5 DIY Investment Property Maintenance Tasks Every Investor Should Know

Tile and Cabinets and Electricity, Oh My!

This same bathroom had a floor that was so ugly, it scared small children and household pets. After the success I had with plumbing, I decided to give tile setting a try. I checked out books from the library and carefully read the instructions on the bags of thinset (tile adhesive) and mortar. Again, the job turned out really great. I was on my way.

Bathroom

It was at this time that I started to try all sorts of other projects. In a home we were flipping, we completely gutted the kitchen down to the studs. I learned how to hang/finish drywall and install cabinetry. The home had issues with electricity, so I fixed much of that. I hung five ceiling fans and replaced lots of other outdated lighting.

Kitchen

I’m in the middle of a project right now. I plumbed the entire addition (two bathrooms, both supply and waste lines). I also built a shower, including a custom pan. Both of these tasks were new to me, but the projects turned out great and I passed inspection the first time with praise from the inspector.

Things don’t always go perfectly. I’ve lost a couple fingernails (ouch!) and am all too familiar with puncture wounds (shout out to the tetanus shot!). However, the money and aggravation I save from doing the work myself makes it well worth it. I’ve saved well over $100,000 with my DIY skills over the several house flips. I’m also a popular guy with the neighbors!

Railing

Your Turn

I encourage folks to attempt projects almost every day. They usually respond with something along the lines of, “I could never do that” or “I just don’t have any skill with my hands.”

Fifteen years ago, I didn’t have any skills either. The only difference between them and me is a desire to try. Take your time, check out books from your local library and scour the internet. YouTube videos are especially helpful. When the time comes to attempt your first project, read the instructions, take a deep breath and take your time. It’s OK to be nervous. I was too when I set that first tile. However, I have all the confidence in the world that you can do it!

Related: The Real ‘How To’ For Real Estate Investing — The DIY Retirement

Thank You, Mr. No-Show Plumber

I admit that I was really angry when that first plumber was a no-show. I’m sure that half of the reason (OK, probably more than half) I attempted that first fix myself was just to spite him. I have no idea where that plumber is today, but if I ran into him, I’d thank him. He set me on a path to become the DIY hero I am today.

We’ve since flipped many homes, netting hundreds of thousands of dollars of profit in the process. It’s been hard work, but we’re on course to retire in our 40s because of it. And it all started with one leaky faucet and an unreliable plumber 15 years ago.

What projects have you learned to DIY? What would you like to learn?

Let us know all about your DIY success (and fails!) in the comments section below.

About Author

Carl Jensen

Carl Jensen loves DIY flips. Over the past 15 years, he and his wife have flipped multiple houses, picking up a valuable skill-set along the way. When not swinging a hammer or writing code (his full-time job), you can find him enjoying the mountains in beautiful northern Colorado.

20 Comments

  1. Bolawa Fadoju

    Carl,

    Interesting read. My only question is how did you get around permitting for all the awesome work you did, as in most areas you require a licensed professional (plumber, electrician) to do the work you described in the article.

    Thanks.

      • Carl Jensen

        I’ve never lived in a place that doesn’t allow the homeowner to perform work on his or her own home. We’ve always pulled permits and gone through the proper channels. I know that you can’t do commercial work or work on someone else’s house though. Perhaps it was different because it was our primary residence and we were living in the home full time?

        The inspectors that I’ve worked with have all been pretty great too. Just follow the codes and do things right and everyone will be happy.

        • Carl Jensen

          UPDATE: I did some research (called the inspector) and learned that in Wisconsin where we flipped houses, there was a requirement that you had to live in the home 1 year after you were done with the work. Since ours were live and flips and we wanted to own them for 2 years to save on capital gains, we always met this requirement.

  2. Jerry Kisasonak

    I used to do a lot of the work myself too. Once we started hiring very skilled craftsman I quickly realized that my work wasn’t as good as I thought and it wasn’t getting done nearly as fast as others could do it.
    Also, most people don’t get into real estate because they want a second job or to swing a hammer full-time. Best to work construction costs into the deal upfront and then run the business.
    You can save some sizable money doing things yourself, but over time the investor who is systemized will leverage him/herself to levels much higher than the DYI guy and will work much less for those better result.

    • Carl Jensen

      Good point Jerry-

      For me, it depends on the job and the availability of people. For example, I don’t do roofing or large scale drywall jobs. The labor is just too cheap and it isn’t worth my time. However, I’d probably always do plumbing, electricity and tile work myself.

      Another issue for me is finding qualified people. Here in Colorado, it seems exceptionally difficult. It took me 6 months to find a decent carpenter. Most people you leave a message for won’t even return your call. I have a feeling that this is due to a strong economy and scarcity of labor.

  3. Terrence Arth

    Carl, great article and it is great encouragement for those just needing a push to get dirty. I however, absolutely, totally agree with Jerry K. I would not want to HAVE to do things to make a deal work and we all know and have said, “I can just fix that…” which ends up a bigger job, needs special tools, bigger truck, another load to the dump etc. If I can’t pencil the deal through, its above my head.

  4. Pyrrha Rivers

    I hear both sides of the commentary. I agree with the work on your business not in your business camp. However, I believe that learning how to do things yourself enhances not only your ability to get the jobs done, but knowledge that is very helpful when hiring and managing contractors. Just recognizing quality contractors can be a challenge, especially if you don’t know how things should be done.
    What I love most about your post is the “Get started” attitude. Yes, you’ll be scared and unskilled, but as you do small things you learn from your mistakes and successes.
    this can be applied to any new endeavor. Be willing to try!
    Look at you now 15 years later. Looks pretty good to me!
    Congratulations and thank you for the encouragement.

    • Carl Jensen

      “…but knowledge that is very helpful when hiring and managing contractors.”

      Wow, this is a really great thought and I should have included it in the post! Maybe I’ll hire you to help write? 🙂

      Thanks for the kind words on my first post!

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