DIY home improvement

It’s Monday and many of you are probably at work wishing you were out surfing.  If you’re stuck in a quiet air-conditioned office, then let me put up an eye-candy post that’ll make you glad to be sitting there.  Sorry, no surfing scenes– this will be noisy & sweaty demolition and construction.

This post started out as “frugal budget home improvement” but with the changes (and surprises) it’s rapidly becoming “What do you DO all day?!?

Familyroom bay windows and low roof.

When we bought this “dream home” in 2000, it had issues. We got a great price because of its badly built familyroom extension on the back lanai, including an occasional roof leak where it tied into the kitchen. We started saving the money to fix it while we kept up with the do-it-yourself repairs.

We gained most of our home-improvement skills in the military. You learn electrical safety very early in a Navy career. Sea duty usually teaches you a lot about painting, plumbing, and tools. Add in a subscription to Family Handyman along with spouse’s thousands of hours watching HGTV, and we have no fear of DIY.

The old familyroom flat roof and back of the master bedroom.

However, we know when we’re outside our “circle of competence”, and rebuilding a room is a full-time job. We knew we’d need electrical permits, which means licensed contractors. When we were finally ready to spend the money, we sought professional help.

Our goals were pretty simple:

  • fix the familyroom roof,
  • upgrade its windows,
  • add insulation to keep the room cooler, and
  • upgrade its floor to match the rest of the house.

However, the most expensive words in home improvement are “Might as well…“, and our list grew steadily longer. “Fix the roof” has grown to “replace the familyroom and lanai roofs and insulate the roof over the rest of the house”. (Here in Hawaii we insulate to keep the heat out, and even halfway through the project we can already feel the improvement.) Working on the rest of the roof meant removing our photovoltaic array for a few weeks, so we’re putting it back up on new mounts & racks. Inevitably the new roofs interfered with the old wall behind our master bedroom, so we decided to upgrade its 22-year-old windows as well. The electrician is completely re-wiring the familyroom, so we’re going to include EnergyStar DC-motor ceiling fans and new light fixtures. The new floor plan leaves a small void behind one wall, so we’re trying to decide how to convert that to a storage space. The only tiles in the world that match our existing floors were in a Dallas warehouse, and you wouldn’t believe what it costs to ship 450 square feet of rocks porcelain tile to Hawaii. Oh, and the new lanai ceiling is going to include longboard storage too.

Demolition in progress.

Here’s the frugal part: we’re doing part of the demolition, all of the daily cleanup, and all of the painting. That frees the highly trained (expensive) contractors to concentrate on their highly skilled work. Our Jedi drywall skills are weak, but we sure can party destroy a room.

Here’s the surprising part:  We’ve been doing home improvement for over three decades but I just turned 51 years old. I’m in the best physical condition of my life but I’m losing the raw endurance and rapid recovery of my youth. Much to my disgust, I’m tired & sore after just a few hours of furniture-hauling or drywall removal. It’s so bad that I can barely go surfing, and I can’t even think about training taekwondo. This home-improvement budget includes record quantities of ibuprofen.

So we’ve learned to leverage our labor and to pace ourselves. While the draftsman was working on the plans, we were moving a few pieces of furniture every day. (I highly recommend the ezMoves “As Seen On TV!” furniture-moving lever & glides.) As we cleared the floor, we started taking up the old carpet and padding– just enough to fill the weekly trash can. We spent most of an afternoon draining our 55-gallon aquarium, moving it (and the fish) 10 feet to another wall, and refilling it. (The aquarium, not the wall.) We pulled the baseboard moldings off the walls. By the time we’d selected a contractor, the familyroom was empty.

Much to our relief we hit it off with the contractor right away. He’s been in business for 25 years, comes highly recommended, and he’s easy to work with. He was happy to swap our labor for some contract modifications. His crew has shown up every weekday and they do great work. Best of all, the foreman is a submariner! The rest of the crew is thoroughly tired of our sea stories.

While the draftsman and the contractor worked on the plans and the permits, we removed the familyroom’s drywall. Every day we pulled off a couple hundred square feet, and by the end of the week we were taking down the ceiling. A thousand square feet of drywall fills most of a five-ton stakebed truck. When the drywall came down we realized the job was just getting started.

Termite damage, but no live termites.

We had termites in 2003, and the exterminator killed them while they were still behind the drywall. When the drywall came down we could see where the termites had been, and the familyroom was riddled. “Luckily” 95% of the damage was to the parts that were being demolished anyway, and the other 5% is not load-bearing. We also found the usual evidence of a few rats and other critters. We uncovered several “innovative” design choices from the previous owners that could have been avoided by following the building codes with proper materials and craftsmanship. We also found an empty six-pack tucked away between the study’s ceiling joists, which confirmed our suspicions about the quality of the familyroom’s construction.

Work started 46 days ago. The old flat eight-foot ceiling and torch-on roof were demolished in a few days, and after two more weeks they were replaced by a planked-beam ceiling with wood rafters ascending to a 14-foot peak. (The five-ton stakebed demolition dumpster truck was parked in our driveway for nearly six weeks but it just left last week.) Two weeks later the roof had been sheathed with polyisocyanurate foam panels and reflective foil. After the roof was ready for shingles, the familyroom and master bedroom walls were re-framed for their new windows. The new aluminum bronzed windows (and the lanai’s sliding glass door) are insulated, double pane, low-e, and tinted.

Going from one flat roof to two peaked roofs.

We hope estimate we’re past the halfway point. We hope the roofers show up before November. The electrician will be here soon, and then the walls will get regular ol’ fiberglass insulation plus more reflective foil. The construction permit was approved last week. (Or it will be as soon as they get our $706 check.) Siding is going on the walls right now. After the roofers are done, spouse and I are ready to lay out our new photovoltaic racks and clamp on the panels for wiring. The inspector should be here during the first week of November. Drywall will go on after that, and hopefully the floor tile will be laid before Thanksgiving.

Insulated roof up, waiting on the roofers.

If there are no other surprises or problems then we’ll be moving furniture before Christmas. Luckily our daughter will be home from college to help! (Right, honey?)

New familyroom and back lanai with tinted energy-efficient windows.

I can’t imagine doing this project if I was in the office every weekday. We’ve saved a tremendous amount of time (and stopped several mistakes) just by being home to walk around the site every hour or two, talking story and taking photos. (We quickly see where we made bad choices, before it’s too late.) We’ve helped coordinate deliveries, haul supplies, and remove interference. Problems have been rapidly discovered and promptly dealt with because we’re immediately available. Suppliers hear about missing items within minutes after the delivery. Nobody’s had to stop work to find us or to un-do their mistakes. Living among the chaos has been noisy and stressful, but we’re coping.

I’m typing this from our study which now holds three huge desks, three computers, five large cabinets, two extra chairs, a rat’s nest of power strips and extension cords, miscellaneous tchotchkes, and very little open floorspace. The diningroom and livingroom are also piled high with furniture and books, and our daughter’s bedroom is stacked full of chairs and window blinds. (She won’t discover the mess be home for another two months. We’re almost certain this will be finished in time.) We moved out of our master bedroom because we could see through its back wall straight through both familyroom walls to the back of the yard. I almost feel as if I’m “living” in a submarine in a shipyard drydock. (That’s not much of a life.) Another submarine metaphor is that these days my spouse and I are spending hours of quality time in a very small space amid construction chaos, noisy power tools, and demolition debris… you married dolphin-wearing veterans know what I mean.

Retirement DIY is also saving us thousands of dollars. Considering the contractor’s $80 hourly rate, my spouse and I are happy to spend a daily hour sweeping up. (The contractors think it’s a luxury too!) When the lumber was delivered, we laid it out in the yard and spent the first three weekends (5-6 hours each day) priming and painting the rafters and ceiling planks. It’s a lot easier to paint on a sawhorse than to paint over your head with a roller extension. (We’ve already snorkeled through 32 gallons of primer and paint, and the drywall’s not even up yet.) Sure, the paint got dinged up when the rafters were raised and the ceiling was nailed on, but we only had to touch it up instead of starting from raw wood.  For the last few weekends we’ve borrowed a neighbor’s paint sprayer to do the outside eaves and fascia boards. I enthusiastically recommend the Wagner “Paint Crew” high-performance airless sprayer (ours is a 2003 model).  “Unfortunately” the spray job looks so good that spouse has talked me into doing the rest of the house’s eves and fascia boards before the new gutters go up. Happily the sprayer has the power to spew undiluted KILZ primer on the new drywall before we roll on the finish coat.

So how much have we saved? At least $10K so far, and we’ll probably double that. My spouse and I already have over 100 hours of cleanup and painting. We’ve also saved thousands of dollars in furniture moving, demolition expenses, and dump fees. We’ve avoided many extra hours of overhead ceiling painting, and we’ve cut through several days of misguided labor on bad decisions or outright mistakes. We’ve been able to help recycle much of the old lumber and siding back into the framing and walls. Our daughter even contributes from four time zones away– she knows drafting and she’s studying civil engineering, so she’s looked over the designs and asked questions about the construction. Every pair of eyeballs helps.

Here’s a surprising tip for saving on contractor expenses: bathrooms. Many homeowners are reluctant to have contractors “trooping through the house” to use their bathroom. Many less-enlightened contractors will expect their employees to find their own bathrooms, which means that they’ll leave the job site or “find their own” somewhere else on your property. More established contractors will expect you to pay for a port-a-potty. We’ve been delighted to have our crew using our public bathroom (near our front door). They’re enjoying a better quality of life, they’re spending more time on the job and getting more done, and we’re all saving money & hassles.  Admittedly this may not work for every situation or crew, but it’s worked very well in this case.

How much have we spent? Yikes. We just hit $50K but it’s slowing down. The remaining labor & materials should bring the project in under a grand total of $75K (plus our sweat equity). It’s a huge chunk of our retirement savings, and a very big commitment, but we’ve planned the details of this one for over a decade.  We’ve had the cash sitting in CDs and we’ve negotiated discounts for paying in cash.

Wondering where to start your own frugal DIY education? When you’re on active duty, take every chance you get to watch someone work on their gear. Whether or not you’re on active duty, you can read Family Handyman’s website or subscribe to their big truck & power tool ads magazine. If you’re really getting into it then spend an hour or two at Home Depot’s classes. At the very minimum you’ll learn how to tell when something’s breaking down. Better yet, you’ll get to the point where you can do your own maintenance & repairs to avoid expensive service calls. As your skills improve, your hobby can even help you find real estate bargains and turn them back into attractive homes. It’s how we recognized that this was a great property in terrible condition.

The hard part of home improvement is reminding yourself to take a break once in a while.  I was on a Mainland trip during one weekend when spouse had to carry the painting duties all by herself, and since then I’ve felt guilty about catching up on my share.  I’ve even been finding it difficult to take off for a morning or two of surfing. But when this project’s finished and all the furniture is back where it belongs, I need to spend a few months catching up on North Shore winter surf!

Related articles:

DIY home maintenance

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About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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