Living Below Your Means
Life Skills & LBYM Part II

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By millerpim
November 3, 2003

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I've been thinking about ARRazorback's mighty fine post about life skills and decided to share some of skills I, too, believe everyone should develop. Although, I will say I don't do very much with car maintenance these days, apart from making sure my tires are inflated properly. I learned how to fix cars back when I owned a 1965 Mustang. A while back, a dealer wanted to charge me a ridiculous price to replace an air filter on a vehicle. I thought it was a ripoff and went to an auto supply store to buy my own danged air filter.

Walked out with my prized possession in my hot little hands, opened the hood, put both hands on my hips and snorted. Where the heck was the filter? Finally, I resorted to pulling out the owner's manual, only to discover it was put in sideways, below a bunch of other cables and what-not, and it took me an hour, a few broken finger nails, to finally insert the stupid filter. The long shot was I would have been better off letting the dealer put the thing in. However, to people who can work on their own vehicles, my hat is off to you.

The skill that I think is necessary, particularly if one is a homeowner, but even renters can find value in it, is to be able to make your own home repairs. Granted, some things are tougher than others and some things, such as laying a new roof on a 12 pitch three stories high, are better off being left to experts who get paid for such things.

That's not to say there aren't a lot of easy things that a person can do for herself or himself that will save a lot of money.

For instance, everybody should know where the circuit breakers are in their house and where they can turn off the water, if necessary. Those two things alone can save a lot of headache and should almost always be the first thing one approaches before tackling a plumbing or electrical problem.

I recall when I bought my first home and was scared to death about what I would do if I someday switched on the lights and they didn't go on. To get over this fear, I started reading home improvement books, and to my amazement discovered it's nothing more than a hot wire, a cold wire and a ground wire. A light switch costs less than a buck. Replacing one takes ten minutes. Right there a person can save the cost of a $75 per hour electrician.

Once you know how to do that, putting in a ceiling fan or replacing a light fixture is simple.

It's just that for many of us, electricity is a magical thing. It turns on and it turns off, and few know how it really works. It stands to reason when you see people whom you know possess the intellectual capacity of a potted plant hanging Sheetrock or repairing a hole in the roof, that you, too, could do it if you knew how. And it's not hard or complicated.

Just last week, our kitchen sink started to leak underneath. Our faucet was on its last legs. The top had already been broken off months ago, and now the base was coming loose. One of the faucet connections was made out of copper and just stuck into attachment to the shutoff valve.

In the old days, I would have put a bucket under the sink, called a plumber and paid the $200-some bill, plus parts, after waiting 3 days for a plumber to show up. But knowing that a faucet is attached with plumbers putty to the base and it nothing more than two connections underneath, one to the hot faucet and one to the cold, I was able to go to Home Depot to purchase a new faucet. And I picked up a new connector to replace the copper jerry-rigged one.

In less than an hour, my kitchen faucet was installed, and it wasn't leaking. Plus, now I have a sprayer, too, which I didn't have before.

Everybody should have basic tools such as a pliers, a needlenose pliers, an electrical socket tester, a drill, hammer, screw drivers and a good handheld saw. On top of that, throw in a bucket of mud, sandpaper, a couple of good paintbrushes (not the cheap kind), putty knives, a roll of Romex, and know where your local hardware store is that is open on Sunday.

One of my first home improvement projects involved putting in a series of three skylights in my master bedroom. I didn't know any better. I thought I could do it. I didn't spend a lot of time thinking I couldn't do it. I talked with a few contractors, bought a few books, picked up skylights from Home Depot, did more research online, and then I hopped up on the roof (after tying myself to the clothes line below), power saw in hand and cut three holes in my roof. I figured out if I drove four nails through each of the corners in the bedroom, I could find the corners on the roof, and I was right.

It wasn't difficult. And the skylights were installed beautifully. That gave me courage to put in a fireplace. And to sand my wood floors and refinish them. And to rip out everything in the kitchen, put in new cabinets, tile the floor, install a dishwasher and new counter tops.

I'm not saying everybody should go overboard and start tearing apart the house, but it does help to know how things work and why they work the way that they do. This will tell you how to fix stuff when something goes haywire or malfunctions.

Besides saving a lot of money, it takes away the mystery of repairs. And if you should end up hiring somebody to do a certain project, you can speak the same language with the person you hire. A contractor is less likely to rip you off or charge an excessive rate for a project if the contractor knows you know what's involved. And you can make sure the job is done to your satisfaction, because now you know what it takes to do the job properly.

I was speaking with an electrician a few days ago about replacing wiring in an attic of a house I'm presently selling. I could say to him, "So you're going to replace about 40 feet of wire and install junction boxes at each end, probably six of them, that shouldn't take more than two hours, right?" I'm absolutely confident that a person who had no idea how to tackle this sort of problem might believe it was an all-day job and would get sucked in to paying for an eight-hour job when it required two hours of labor. And then I was able to negotiate a flat price, regardless of how long the job would take.

So instead of saying to a plumber, "What's wrong with my dishwasher?" One could say, "You need to replace the hose. That part costs $10, and it should take you about 15 minutes. How much are you going to charge me?"

And a little home improvement/repair knowledge can make you feel more in control and less of a victim in your own home. That, in itself, is priceless.


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