Ms. Fix It

How To Be Handy — Or Pay For It

Sorting the DIY skills you should acquire from the ones best left to the professionals.

by Ayana Lage
Once you buy a home, here's how to be handy and fix things around the house — or pay for repairs.
blackCAT/Getty Images
How To Move To The Suburbs

A few days after we bought our first house, my husband and I started to notice little things that hadn’t been clear during the walkthrough. The primary bathroom door wouldn’t close all the way, one of the faucets leaked, and a window screen in the kitchen was broken. Given that we’d nearly emptied our savings account for a down payment, hiring someone to fix up our home wasn’t the most appealing prospect. On the other hand, our toolbox consisted of one screwdriver and a hammer, so we weren’t exactly equipped. Before, I’d call my apartment complex’s maintenance team to repair something. Once we were on our own, I didn’t know where to start.

According to financial services company CoreLogic, millennials were the fastest-growing group of homebuyers last year. The pandemic has increased remote work opportunities, giving us a chance to move outside of expensive cities because we don’t have to worry about commute time. More of my friends are starting to buy homes themselves, and I’ve learned that I’m not the only one who felt woefully unprepared. I was excited on closing day when the real estate agent handed over the house keys, mainly because I thought the stressful part was over. No one prepared me for how much work it is to take care of a home by yourself.

How To Work Out A Budget

I’ve had to hire plumbers, an air conditioning repairman, pest exterminators, and multiple appliance repair companies in the years since we moved in. We spend at least $1,000 annually on home maintenance and repairs, sometimes more. Real estate website Rocket Homes says you should set aside 1 to 4% of your home’s value for annual maintenance costs. For a house worth $300,000, that’s $3,000 to $12,000 a year. It’s a hefty sum, especially given all the other expenses you have as a homeowner.

Tip: Home Repair Insurance can help provide some reassurance. Experts say you can expect to pay $300 per year for a basic policy, with many policies covering plumbing, appliances, heating and AC units, as well as electrical wiring. But beware: In order to claim on the policy, there may be an excess fee of around $100.

How To Decide If You Can DIY

These days, I use Reddit forums like r/DIY and YouTube videos when I notice things like a running toilet or clogged drain to see whether it’s possible to fix without a professional. It’s more time-intensive and often frustrating, but the do-it-yourself approach has saved me a lot of money. Home improvement pros say you shouldn’t attempt every project yourself, though.

“Anything involving electricity, plumbing, or structural work is best left to the experts,” says Sarah Listi, the owner of power tools publication Tool Girl’s Garage. “As well, I find large jobs like roofing and siding are all best left to those that have the skills and experience to get them done quickly.”

I’ve personally had times I had to call someone last-minute, like when my husband tried to fix our bathroom sink on his own and we were left without hot water. Since then, I always find myself asking whether it’s feasible to do a project without help. Research is vital, Angi home care expert Bailey Carson tells Bustle. “Make sure you know what all is involved in the project, including what tools you need, how much time it is likely to take, what it may cost, and what skills are required to get it done,” she says.

Tip: The U.S. government offers insurance against loans for those in need under the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Title 1 Property Improvement Loan. Eligibility depends on income, location, age, and type of property. There is also a 203(k) program which can help you secure a loan for repairs on a fixer upper, even if your credit score is on the softer side.

How To Fill Up Your Toolbox

Carson just bought her first home in the suburbs, and she recommends that homeowners have a toolbox filled with a few basics. You should have a drill, hammer, utility knife, stud finder, screwdrivers, safety goggles, measuring tape, and locking pliers, to name a few. “It’s also a good idea to have some extra paint in the colors used on your walls, cabinets, and ceilings in case of scratches, holes, or normal wear and tear,” she says.

Tip: Not all tools are built equal. Try starting with a small kit that has one of everything you need — some of the best are under $20 — but look out for quality materials. For example, a tape measure will need to be 25 feet long for a larger home, and you should ensure it’s thick enough that it doesn’t collapse when you extend it. A 16-ounce hammer should be good enough for easy tasks, but for more substantial work, you might want to head into the 19- to 22-ounce range.

How To Find Good Tradespeople

Even if you become a do-it-yourself master, you’ll still have projects that you can’t complete alone. A survey from Angi found that 93% of homeowners who attempt DIY projects end up hiring a pro for at least some of it. Once you do realize that you’ll need a tradesperson, where should you start? Listi says to trust your instincts and ask people for referrals. “Like any business, word of mouth is a powerful tool, so if you have had a friend or family member who had a good experience, that is a good place to start,” she says.

I usually post in local Facebook groups when I need to find a handy person on a tight deadline. Unfortunately, people don’t always come through with leads, leaving me to read online reviews and hope for the best. Carson advises homeowners who use Angi’s platform to ask for references, get pictures of a tradesperson’s previous work, and ask questions. “Get your estimate in writing and ask for a written contract to ensure you don’t face any surprises down the road,” she says.

Tip: The National LGBT Chamber of Commerce offers certification for LGBTQ+ owned businesses, with many individual District Offices having their own regional network like these in Houston, Nashville, and Seattle.

Home improvement can be challenging regardless of how you approach it, but it’s also rewarding to check off a task and get one step closer to your dream home. If you feel overwhelmed while tackling home repair projects, Listi says to remember that it’s normal to have hurdles and even need to step away if you feel frustrated. “Most importantly, enjoy it,” she says.