Sunday, April 29, 2012

The DIY question, part 2

The ecofrugal lifestyle has a few basic rules, one of which is, "Don't pay someone else to do what you can do yourself." This rule has a wide range of applications, from cleaning your own bathroom to avoiding convenience foods (since buying pre-washed salad greens is basically paying someone else to do the washing). It's a useful rule, but it does have its exceptions—as I noted back in September when discussing a Tip Hero article on "the DIY question." This article discussed which jobs around the house are reasonable for a homeowner to take on, and which ones should be definitely be left to the pros. In general, the editors concluded, it's wise to hire a professional if doing the job yourself (1) is too dangerous, (2) would take more time than you're willing to spend, or (3) would require tools that you don't have (and that wouldn't be cost-effective to buy). I amended this list to add (4) could potentially cause costly damage.

I was reminded of this question last week when Brian decided that we needed some storage shelves in the workshop/laundry room. We went to Home Depot to check on the price of shelving units and found that the best ones for our space would cost about $150. He thought he could probably build his own for a lot less than that, so he went and checked on the price of lumber as well. Then he went home and started making some sketches and doing some calculations, and in the end he reached the following conclusions:

1) To build a similarly-sized set of shelves, he'd have to spend about $100 on materials.
2) They would take several hours to build.
3) The homemade shelves, which would be constructed of plywood, wouldn't be as strong as the premade ones, which are made of metal.
4) Making adjustments to the heights of the homemade shelves would require removing the screws, drilling new holes, and reinstalling the shelf. The premade ones, by contrast, could be adjusted just by moving a set of mounts.

Taking all these points into consideration, it became clear that buying the premade shelves was actually the more practical, and in fact, the more ecofrugal choice. So he simply stopped by the Home Depot one day after work, manhandled the two cases into the car, and spent the evening putting them together. It still took several hours, but most of that time was for hauling all the stuff out of the room first and then putting it back afterwards. The actual assembly took maybe an hour or two. If he'd had to build the shelves himself, we'd probably have spent one whole evening just schlepping all the stuff out of the workshop and into the big downstairs room—and then spent most of the next week, if not two weeks, having to look at it while the new shelves were under construction.

In this case, buying rather than building was definitely the way to go. Our decision to buy was covered by rule (2) above, since building new shelves would have taken a lot longer; however, the extra time wasn't the only consideration. We might still have chosen to take the time if the potential savings had been greater, and/or if the finished product would have been as good as the store-bought one.

So I now think that the list of rules needs some further amendment. Rather than "Hire a professional when doing the job yourself would take way more time than you're prepared to invest," I think the rule should be, "Hire a professional when your hourly wage for doing it yourself—factoring in the cost of materials and the number of hours the job will take you—is less than your time is worth." And the corollary to this should be, "Hire a professional when the job you could do yourself is not, in your opinion, worth the cost of the materials." If Brian had simply had to choose, right there in the store, between a set of non-adjustable wooden shelves that cost $100 and a set of adjustable metal shelves that cost $150, he would probably have found the decision a lot easier.
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