Throughout the years we've been asked quite a few questions about our various renovation efforts. From the routine queries of "How do you a fix a hole in a plaster wall?" or "What's the best way to install crown molding?," to the truly bizarre, such as "Have you two ever had sex in one of your construction areas?" It sometimes feels like nothing is particularly off limits. I'm not even joking on that last one, someone we don't know personally actually asked that question at a party. I think I answered the question with a blank stare of amazement, which I'm sure the asker took as an silent and awkward confirmation. For the record, it wasn't.

As strange as some of the questions may be, one of the most common questions curious individuals ask on a regular basis is one of the harder ones to answer, and also one of the answers most difficult to understand.

Q: "Why don't you ever just hire someone to do the tedious and time consuming work?"

Though my initial reaction is to smack my head with my hand and stare back blankly (as I had with the construction zone intimacy question), I know that any person asking this question can't realize the level of obscenity they'd just leveled at me and my DIY prowess. Rather than turn my back and walk out of the room mumbling incoherently, I've always tried to come up with a reasonable response that goes beyond a simple, "Because we don't do that."

The response to this seemingly simple question requires a great deal of personal introspection, willingness to accept my emotional foibles, and an ability to adequately convey my desire to frivolously spend an inordinate amount of my own time toiling away on a project rather than an interest in spending money to have others do work that I'll forever and always be mildly disappointed in. Disappointed in quality, in price, in execution, in my own failure to complete the task with my own two hands. I know, how weird am I?

No matter the response, the person posing the question either agrees or disagrees with my stance before the words fly from my mouth. Hire out vs. DIY is almost as engrained as red state vs. blue state, and we all know how easy it is to change a red or blue stater's mind.

When it comes down to the answer, I usually say something along the lines of "I prefer to do the work myself. I enjoy it, and I enjoy the satisfaction I have when it's complete. I know the quality of work that many tradespeople perform, especially those willing to be hired by a non GC for smaller jobs, and it's all a balance of time vs. money for them. The longer a project takes, the less time they have to work on another project that could be making them more money. I also know my own ability, and my personal insistence that I want to do a project and do it well. I'll gladly take a much longer time to ensure a project is completed to the best of my ability, while a tradesperson will usually ensure it's completed with just enough quality to be accepted by the customer. Not perfect, but good enough for sign off." 

By the time I get to this point in my answer the question asker has typically either nodded off or has wandered away to find something or someone more engaging. I don't blame them, I'm quite boring, and especially so when I'm standing on a soap box. But I feel quite strongly about this topic.

However, every once in a while my DIY brain gets soft. It usually happens somewhere in the middle of a massive and long running undertaking. Subconscious notions of hiring out portions of work to completely qualified and professional tradespeople begins to creep into my fragile psyche. I start to imagine sitting on the couch and watching TV while a team of capable individuals knocks out portions of my project that would take me days in a matter of fleeting minutes, all while I happily write out checks for the work and eat cookie dough and ice cream. Ah, how nice might that be to wake up in the morning with progress on a project and not have an aching back, stiff knees and ankles, bruised arms, hair full of dried joint compound, and cut hands. DIY can be a full contact sport, and sometimes the allure of watching from the sidelines starts to draw me in. happens, and I'm reminded exactly why this life of perceived luxury comes with it's own set of torturous results...or at least torturous to me.

A nearby home that is quite beautiful and rather grand has a breathtaking front porch. The home just recently sold, and though it is in overall good shape, there has been a lot of work going on both inside and out. Many of the wood elements of the porch's columns were quite rotten and needed to be repaired.

The thing about work like this is that it's time consuming, tedious, and not cheap. You can't just run down to the big box to pick up new molding to replace the old, everything is completely custom and needs to be milled specifically for the job.

I've been watching with great interest as the work has taken place on this grand and beautiful home. I'm totally fascinated by being an external observer in projects like these. I have no concept of the cost, only of the time and effort necessary to do the job, and I love watching as other people's hard work comes together. A few weeks ago, the custom and very large molding started to go back on the front porch columns to replace the rotten and deteriorated elements that couldn't be saved.

The new pieces that had been custom cut matched the old almost perfectly. They were obviously new due to the lack of pitting, dents, and other evidence that it's been outside for over 150 years, but that distress and patina will come back over time.

As I walked by I silently inspected the work, how the corners met up, how it all looked so good, but that's when I saw it.

You know...IT! The thing that reminded me of exactly why I prefer to take my own time and effort to do a project. The reason why I sacrifice weekends, evenings, and free time where I could otherwise be at the pool or playing tennis. And the thing is, I think 99.9% of people that walk by this lovely home and its newly restored molding will never notice what I noticed. Here's what I saw.

Do you see it? It's right there. The lower square base of one of the several columns is set back about 1/2" from the front edge of the rounded detail above. I can see from the pencil marks that the measurement and the cut was just a little off, which resulted in this minor error. But the problem is that it would take a fair amount of time to correct, requiring the removal of at least three and potentially six pieces of molding to remedy the mistake. Here it is compared to the other side of the same element.

You can see how it's right in line with the front on all of the columns except for this one column. And to me, this is the detail that I get stuck on. This is the thing that I will see each and every time I walk by this house. Nobody else will notice. But I will see it, because I have a sickness, the same way I see the bump of wood filler on one of our door casings that I didn't quite sand enough before painting, or the slight gap left on a bit of window molding from an incorrect cut on the miter saw, or the crack in one of our closet door panels because I glued it in place instead of allowing it to float.

But the thing about all of these things that I see wrong with our house, they are our own fault, and I'm more okay with things that are my fault. I'd much rather know that the crack in our guest bathroom's marble threshold was caused by my own negligence than the shoddy work that I had paid for and expected to be perfect. I'll look at it every time I use the bathroom, and almost nobody else will see it or think anything of it, but I'll see it and know that it was my own fault, and that's okay. Had we paid for it and not noticed it until after the final payment check was cashed, I'd always beat myself up over the fact that we overlooked it and had expected it to be perfect.

The fact of the matter is that our home is over 125 years old. It was never perfect, isn't currently perfect, and will never be perfect, but I want to make sure that our own four hands are the ones responsible for whatever level of imperfection we bring upon our house. And the level of imperfection I'm talking about, well, that level of imperfection costs far more than I'm willing to pay anyone else. 

And that's the long answer of why we won't just hire someone to do the tedious and time consuming work in our house, at least not while we're capable of doing it ourselves.

Comments 11


9/6/2013 at 1:16 PM
Totally on the same page as you! We hired out a few things in our house and I cringe when I see errors like that. At least if I (or my husband) made the mistake, we can say we are not professionals and it doesn't hurt so much because we didn't pay someone else to do it. But, if we shoveled out money for a professional to do it well, we expect them to do it well and do it right, and that's when the cringe-factor is multiplied. We rarely hire out anything anymore, even if it does take us two years to finish something that a contractor could have finished in a day.
9/6/2013 at 2:39 PM
Right there with you, aside from specialty tasks (in our case slate roofs and timber framing) it's all us, all the time. My favorite question to date though is, "so where are you getting your windows and floors from"? w t f . . .
9/6/2013 at 3:33 PM
Our contractor was unable to match our 7 1/4" step bevel baseboards so instead installed big box (tallish) but completely different style & era colonial baseboards in half of our main floor. It drives me BONKERS. The rest of the house has the step bevel, we even have mini step bevel instead of corner round, and step bevel door casings. If I had a truck, I would be at the lumber yard right now buying $300 worth of new reproduction matching baseboards. The husband may kill me, but it would be WORTH IT. This is our (correct) baseboard and this is what I currently have Shudder
9/7/2013 at 10:24 AM
Oh that sucks. This would totally drive me crazy, since mouldings are something I'm very picky about. The even sadder thing is that your original casings would be super easy to replicate on a table saw (for dirt cheap if you want to make them yourself). It's even better if they're already available milled though.
9/6/2013 at 8:03 PM
We DIY as much as we can for all the reasons you mentioned, but especially when we make a mistake, it's OUR mistake and we can't feel bad about it.
We did hire out pros to refinish our hardwood floors (I've seen one too many bad DIY jobs) in our previous home and we were overall pleased with the results for a somewhat complicated job. But one part I'll never forget is when one of the crew members decided to nail (with a nail gun!) a custom made threshold (by the very hands of the owner) to span a drop of about 1 1/2 inches between our hall and the bathroom tile floor. Needless to say this bozo employee showed no respect for the owner's handiwork and split the threshold in half and then tried to hide the mistake with glue, hoping we wouldn't notice.
I hated that I had to call the owner back to show him what happened. When he saw it, his face dropped...I felt so bad! But not bad enough to live with it. He ended up constructing a new threshold and thankfully installed it himself.
I don't know if the employee got fired for such a costly (and completely avoidable) mistake, but I'm glad we didn't have to absorb the cost.
9/6/2013 at 10:04 PM
So true, what you and other commenters said. We pay for more trades people to do work than we would have 25-30 years ago, but hey, we're old and tired and need time to focus on the many things WE MUST DO OURSELVES. Over time you figure out what jobs you can compromise a little on (i.e. still must find very capable/careful people to work on) and which ones you can't let go of.

That said, we recently had a neighbor/friend who is a small jobs contractor work on the addition to our playhouse (mostly built by my husband). Our friend was very meticulous and probably did a better job than we could have done.

In general though, it's not totally satisying if someone else does the work (with some exceptions of course) unless you luck into finding a master craftman who doesn't think time = money.
9/6/2013 at 11:23 PM
I have a happy knack for seeing the overall picture and not the crappy error when I am done with a project, and I would be mortified if I could see your thoughts with some of the spots in our house! My husband is a bit like you but not as bad.
9/7/2013 at 10:35 AM
Alex: just for fun, I'd have a "cheat" to fix that projecting moulding. I would have done it properly in the first place (obviously), but the other way you could cheat and make it look less obvious would be to carve-down the projecting curve and blend it in. Not too difficult if you have a small plane and a curved chisel, and once sanded and painted it would hide well enough.

What I noticed just as much (or even more) however, is the fact that the moulding bases of the wood columns don't line up properly with the slab that they're sitting on. In the second photo it looks like the column base has a twist to it, and that it's too far to the front and to the right of the base block. The third photo looks just as bad. It looks like the entire column and railings are offset to the right by about a half inch. It almost looks like the bottom moulding on the right is passed the edge of the base block (concrete?).

I also want to pick on you a bit and just say: Your cracked panel can be caulked and repainted, your filler blob can be sanded down and the door side repainted, and if you really want, the crack in the marble can e corrected with a special epoxy used by marble and stone counter top installers.

I'm probably just as picky as you, but over time, I really tend to glaze over the imperfections and look at the overall picture. There are many places in my house that I could have fixed a bit better (especially drywall repairs), but in other places, the drywall has cracks and lumps that just can't be hidden unless it's completely replaced. At what point would it be good enough? I keep reminding myself that I have to aim for 80% perfection. If it's too perfect it doesn't look old anymore, and I hate when things look too new and too perfect. It's kind of a vicious circle.
9/7/2013 at 10:49 AM
Totally with you on this. I hire out stuff beyond my expertise, but it chaps my hide to spend money on subpar work. My floor refinisher was one. According to everyone, he was "The Guy" when it came to refinishing and patching legacy floors. And the sanding and finish is pretty good, aside from a streak of stain in the hallway where I see it every day. And the 2 staples from the old carpet pad in the hallway that I somehow missed, but you think would have been removed for the equipments' sake if not aesthetics. My beef was with the crappy patch jobs in 3 of the 5 major spots and the 1" hole in a closet that I specifically asked him to patch, but will now exist with stained and polyed Great Stuff. (which I put in as a stopgap to keep mice from entering) And a few 1/4 inch holes he patched with crappy filler which has shrunk & cracked instead of doweled, LIKE I ASKED! Oh my, this has stuck a nerve with me.

You go!
9/9/2013 at 5:02 PM
Oh gosh, that porch molding detail is sad. There's no reason they couldn't have taken the time to get it to line up right!

I don't trust most people to do a detailed job, so I get your reasoning completely!
I like to DIY if I can to get it just how I want it. Of course as a renter I have fewer serious projects. However, when we someday own, I have no idea if I will be willing to put in the time and effort to do every project myself. We shall see...
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