I grew up one step removed from handiness. My brother and father built stuff, fixed stuff, but I never so much as even mowed the lawn. But I knew enough to believe that when stuff breaks, I can save money on home repairs by putting in a little elbow grease.
I recently came across an old article in the LA Times that insisted “being handy is an attitude.” If you’re coming to it later in life also, I’m living proof it’s not too late! But if it’s worth it to you to keep some cash in your pocket and you approach home repairs with a curious mind, you too can learn how to do basic plumbing, construction, weatherizing, and repair! There’s a world out there waiting to help you.
Here are 6 ways to learn to be handy around the house:
1. Take a class. Options include Home Depot, your local hardware store, and a local community college’s continuing ed department. My local CC has a three week class that covers electrical outlets, plumbing, wall repair, home security, weatherizing, and basic tool use, for $109 (less than a house call from a plumber!). Home Depot offers free Do-It-Yourself workshops on home repairs and a variety of small building projects. They also offer “Do-It-Herself” workshops for women only (although the topics seemed more stereotypically female: installing a glass mosaic backsplash; building a hanging garden) and workshops for kids age 5-12.
2. Shadow someone. Search through your family tree and your “friend tree.” If you find someone who’s handy, ask if you can watch/help them complete projects and repairs around their own house. You could also offer to cook for them or barter a service to have them help you with a project at your own house. I find many people are excited to teach me what they know.
3. DIY websites. There are a number of websites dedicated to teaching home improvement skills, tips, and tricks. Most are broken down well and include photos or videos. Some reputable ones are the DIY Network, www.bobvila.com, and the Old House Web. If you prefer to have a book in your hands, there are a number of Home Improvement for Dummies books, likely available at your library for free!
4. Talk to staff at your local hardware store. You’d be surprised sometimes how far you can get by bringing in a broken part. Even better, take a picture of what you’re working on (before you’ve taken anything apart!) and staff at your local store can often help you find the right parts, suggest extra parts or steps you may need, and tip you off to things you may not have thought of yet. Staff at my local store helped me pick out washer hoses that were just a few dollars more than the rubber hoses I was replacing, but had floodsafe valves which will shut off if a pipe bursts or there is a rush of water through the line. Local store employees tend to be more experienced than associates at the big box hardware stores, though there are certainly exceptions on both sides. Even better, go to a professional supply store (like a plumbing supply store) to get access to the most specialized knowledge.
5. YouTube Videos. I put this down lower on the list than the more reputable websites because it can be hit or miss. While learning to install my gas dryer, I found a number of very helpful videos and a few that were unclear. Basically I just made sure I watched enough videos to have a sense of what all the steps were and how it might look for my particular dryer. Then I confirmed my plan with a live human being (my brother, who has experience installing gas appliances) and used a video call with him to confirm my hookup was correct prior to turning on the gas. Beware video projects that appear jerry-built: this type of construction may be fine for someone who really knows what they’re doing, but novice DIYers should stick to quality materials.
6. Volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. If you have the time and are interested in a well-rounded DIY education, volunteering for this charity can be an excellent way to pick up construction skills, as well as just to become more comfortable with tools and building materials. Specialized projects (e.g. electrical work) are contracted out to professionals but I have heard that some may be open to allowing a volunteer to shadow or assist them (confirm this with your local chapter).
Remember to be safe! The first things you should identify are your shut-off valves and circuits for water and electricity. Also, don’t assume that all major jobs (such as large-scale plumbing, or involving gas or electricity) are necessarily out of your reach, but make sure to get solid advice from a professional about whether you are safe attempting a repair on your own.
I’ve added slowly to my toolkit on each job that I have taken on, and over the years have built up a decent tool base. If I need a tool I don’t have, I can either buy it (if I think I’ll need it for the future), or rent or borrow. Tip: I often find estate sales are a great source quality tools for a fraction of the price of new.
How have you learned to be handy?