Monday, April 11, 2011

The frugal queen of my castle: Saving on home repairs

So, as previously mentioned, I bought a house toward the end of 2009. Unlike renting a home owned by someone else, owning a house makes you solely responsible. Responsible if the blower motor on your furnace (which furnace happens to be almost as old as you are) goes out on the coldest weekend of the year. And responsible for paying the oil bill to keep said furnace well fed through Western New York winters. Responsible for cutting the grass, shoveling the drive and battling the industrious planting of squirrels. (I’ve got a half-dozen trees growing in the two-foot strip between the garage and the fence that I now have to kill. Thanks guys!) If the roof leaks, or the tub leaks, or the utility sink drain leaks, I’m the one who gets to decide when and how it gets fixed. There’s a definite upside to homeownership; don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with the decision I made. But that’s not what I’m talking about today.

What do you do then, when the faucet won’t stop dripping, you need to change the locks or you accidentally flush a plastic bottle down the toilet and it gets stuck? Thankfully, there are options.
1.      Fix it yourself. Seriously, once you stop laughing, you’ll realize that there are some home repairs that aren’t that tough. I replaced my old thermostat with a programmable one. I also changed all the locks myself. I’ve learned how to use a miter box and am steadily increasing my stash of power tools. Don’t take on big projects first, if ever. Ask friends and family if the task is one they’ve completed and the relative level of difficulty. There are great online resources, like doityourself. They tend to be pretty upfront about the complexity of the repairs or improvements. There are also free videos on sites like YouTube that will walk you through basic repairs.
        Home Depot offers free Do-It-Herself workshops that cover various things--like how to change a faucet, paint a room or plant a garden. You might want to look at your town's community or continuing ed courses. You'll often find classes on such topics as how to tile a shower or counter, or how to change a light fixture.
2.     If you have a boyfriend, brother, father, friendly neighbor, etc., who happened to be at all handy at home repairs, now’s the time to beg or barter. Play the damsel-in-distress card if you must. But be aware that there can be consequences. Often home repairs look simple enough—until you attempt to fix them. So, you might assume that the task at hand will simply require something straightforward (a bathroom drain that needs to be snaked) but as the work progresses, it turns out that it’s not that easy (it’s blocked with roots). Will your knight in shining armor know when to say “uncle”? If his attempts to fix the problem make it worse, how will that affect the relationship? And who will cover the cost for the professional?
3.     Find a good handyman. If you can find a competent, trustworthy jack-of-all-trades who can fix things around the house, you’ll save yourself some cash. My handyman has taken care of plumbing and electrical issues for me, as well as put in a door where there used to be a window and replaced my kitchen sink and faucet. He also got the hot water heater working again when the pilot light mysteriously went out. All for $30/hour, plus materials. Hiring a plumber costs about $125 for the first hour and $60 for each additional hour. An electrician will cost about $50/hour.
4.     And, if all else fails, call in the professionals. If you don’t already have a relationship with a plumber/roofer/electrician/landscaper/HVAC-person ask friends and family for recommendations. Also, services like Angie’s List can be a great help in finding someone who is trustworthy and reputable. Sites like ServiceMagic can also be helpful. I do have to admit that in desperation, I used ServiceMagic and went with the person they recommended to replace some gutters. It did not go well, but was resolved in the end.
5.     Also, when dealing with a professional, make sure to get a written estimate. In fact, get at least two, and maybe three. Compare. Ask questions and understand where the differences are. When I needed a new roof, I had one estimate for $3500, another for $4500 and one for $7000. The first was someone who was uninsured. The second was from a reputable, smaller operation recommended to me by friends. The third was from a larger company, one that advertises on television. What were the differences? Well, insurance to start with. The larger company also provided me with lots of glossy, pretty brochures. Their people show up in matching shirts and vans printed with the company logo. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I went with the less formal, less expensive option and saved myself a couple thousand dollars in the process.
6.     If you do hire someone, make sure that you feel comfortable with him (or her) and that he or she is willing to explain what work is needed and how AND WHEN it’ll be completed. This service professional should be able to provide you with a written estimate.  Make sure that whoever you hire (and his or her crew, if applicable) is insured. Also make sure that he or she is bonded. (This allows a client to make a claim to be reimbursed or compensated for any money lost if a contractor quits or abandons a project without completing the project.) If licensing is available (plumbers, electricians), ask whether this person is licensed. Ask for references and call them.
7.     You can also consider a home warranty. There are various companies and various options available. Most of the reviews I’ve read have not been favorable, and most experts do not recommend investing in this type of warranty. The house I purchased was part of an estate and came with a one-year home warranty. It was more trouble than it was worth. First, they sent a plumber who lied to me and/or them (and I had to pay him $100 just to come by and assess.) Then they sent out a roofer who was uninsured and told me he planned to work on my roof during the days after working all night at Wal-Mart. The contractors they used routinely failed to call me. The warranty company got dodgy when I tried to register complaints about their contractors. (You’d think they might care if one of these folks was uninsured!)


  1. Keep in mind that Service Magic, unlike Angie's List, requires service providers to pay for their listing, so keep that in mind when looking at their profiles.
    Angie's List does cost for you to join, but they send out 40% off emails a LOT if you want to join.
    Make sure to ask people you know for recommendations, as well, of course.
    Full disclosure: I work for a great plumbing & heating company ;)

  2. Thanks! That explains the crappy service I got from the gutter company via ServiceMagic! The initial installation had the gutters running AWAY from the downspout (apparently, we defy gravity at my house!) Then they treated me like a "hysterical woman" when I called to complain. I *was*, in fact, hysterical, but legitimately!!!