The Most Valuable Lessons My Dad Taught Me About Home Improvement

Being handy around the house is an indispensable skill. Here are the finer points.

When I was eight years old, my dad told me it was time to gut the basement. We’d knock down all the walls, reframe the rooms with new studs, and make it look the way it was supposed to look. The whole project would take three, maybe four months, he said. One year and a myriad of frustrations later, the basement was finished.

The project took longer than my dad thought it would, but it was time well spent. In that year, I learned how to swing a hammer, how to guide a drill, how to read a tape measure, and plenty of other skills. Since then, I’ve worked with my dad on countless projects in his home and my own – and with each new one comes new skills and new frustrations.

Maybe most importantly, I learned that there’s something to be said for a man who’s willing and able to roll up sleeves and fix (or, at least, try to fix) whatever's broken or needs fine-tuning. I'm not saying you have to become a master carpenter, but there are some jobs that every man should at least attempt before calling in someone else and paying an exorbitant hourly rate.

But before you break out the tool box, there are ways to mentally and materially prepare.

Do Your Homework

Before you tackle any big job, you need to research how to do it the right way, how long it will take, what pitfalls you can expect, and what tools you'll need. The internet is a great place to start, but if you want the best advice, you need to talk to people who have actually done the work that you’re going to attempt.

When I moved into my house, I noticed one of the bathtub faucet handles was loose and leaked as a result. After some ignorant tinkering on my part, the handle shot across the room – along with a stream of hot water that wouldn’t stop until I turned off the water supply to the whole house. When I called my dad, he told me to go to the plumbing supply store one town over.

I balked at this. I knew the place, and they charged a premium for parts. My dad said, “Yeah, it’s expensive. But you know those guys who work the counter at the back of the store? Most of them are retired plumbers who just like having a part-time job. They can help you.”

He was right. I went to the store, got the right parts, and more importantly, the right advice. I had the faucet fixed in ten minutes.

Buy High-Quality Tools

A man's toolbox is sacred, and it's not a place for being cheap. Buy the best tools you can afford, and make sure they have a lifetime guarantee.

The first time I painted my bathroom, the paint looked terrible; the texture was inconsistent and the coverage was uneven. Some of this was because I was still an amateur painter, but my dad explained that the real problem was the discount paint brushes and rollers I had bought. A few weeks later I couldn’t stand it, so I went back to the store, bought high-quality brushes and rollers, and I repainted the bathroom. Now it looks great.

To save yourself undue stress, accept ahead of time the fact that throughout the course of any reasonably involved project, you'll probably need to make a few runs back to the hardware store for tools you hadn't considered. In the meantime, here are the basic tools you should have just for good measure.

Don't Cut Corners

There's a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things, my dad always said. And we do things the right way. There are cheaper and faster ways to do any job, but this is your house. Your castle. And you need jobs done both correctly and safely. 

The real reason the basement took so long to complete was because gutting and refinishing a basement isn’t a cheap job, and we were a middle-class family. My dad didn’t want to buy the lowest quality materials so he could get the job done right. He saved, he bought what he could, and we completed the job in stages. The result was a project that took much longer but was done the right way. Nothing half-assed. Nothing questionable.

Double Your Timeline

My dad's famous last words were always, "This should take about two hours." Next thing you know, it's midnight.

Even if you anticipate problems, you'll undoubtedly run into issues you simply couldn't foresee. So when you're sizing up a job, double the amount of time you think it's going take. Installing a new toilet, for example, should realistically take no more than 20 minutes. When it was time to install mine, I lifted up the old one to find the floor underneath was completely rotted. Some hack had installed the old toilet completely wrong (there wasn’t even a flange, which is asinine), and it didn’t help that my 60 year-old house has 60 year-old plumbing. Suddenly, my 20 minute job stretched into a few hours.

Likewise, sometimes you’ll start a “two-hour” job early in the morning, and when the sun’s gone down, you’ll still be working. It’s okay – you can’t predict everything that will go wrong. Go to bed, walk away from it for a few hours, and start again tomorrow.

Know Your Limits

If you're not a trained carpenter, plumber, electrician, or whatever, there are some jobs you shouldn't do. Installing a new toilet? Go nuts. Installing a light switch? No problem. But when you start getting into jobs that could potentially kill you – working with gas lines, heavy electrical work, or structural projects that need proper support – call in a professional. 

My house has gas heat, but when I moved in, the former owners had an electric stove. Nope. If I have natural gas coming in, then I’m cooking on a gas stove. I ordered a new, stainless steel stove, then called my dad. I said, “You want to come over this weekend and help me run a gas line to the kitchen?” He said, “No. But I can give you the name of a good plumber who works with gas lines.” To me, it seemed like a small job, but to my dad, it was a risk not worth taking. Writing that check to the plumber made me tear up a bit, but he was a professional. I’m not, and I don’t want my house to blow up.

I’ve owned two houses in my adult life, and I’ve saved thousands of dollars by completing home projects on my own (or, okay, with help from my dad). Because since I was a kid, it’s been ingrained in me that a man should be willing to roll up his sleeves and give it the ol’ college try before turning to the yellow pages.

Whether or not you grew up swinging a hammer like I did, it’s never too late to consider picking one up and learning how to pound in a nail. There's an undeniable satisfaction when a household job is complete, marked with your sweat and newly-acquired know how, and as long as you know what you’re getting into and are okay with hitting obstacles along the way, tackling a home project is usually a lot more doable than you might think.

Now, go fix something.

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