How to save money by doing basic repairs yourself
by FI Designer
Being handy is a powerful lever to reduce your living expenses and accelerate your progress to financial independence. This post will illustrate the cost savings we have realized and hopefully allow you to question your own views if you have prematurely discredited your DIY abilities. Finally, if the job really is impractical to tackle yourself I would like to challenge you to acquire a general understanding of the work involved before making the call to a repair person.
Before we jump into the financial benefits of home repair here are some qualitative benefits.
One wonderful benefit of being able to fix something yourself, beyond the obvious cost savings, is the pride in knowing you can do it yourself. There is also less anxiety when something does stop working around the house. Imagine the experiences of two separate individuals when a stove breaks. The non-handy person stresses over how many hundreds of dollars it will cost and the time they will have to take off work to meet a repair person. The handyperson asks Google “why is the stove not heating” and realizes the most common reason is a broken heating element. The handyperson next goes to YouTube to find a video tutorial to replace the part and then to Amazon to find that the part only costs $25.
Save Time and Hassle
I would never claim that I can repair something quicker than a professional, and there would rarely be cost savings either if I valued my time at the same billable rate that I use as an engineer. But when you consider the time it would take to call a service person, schedule a time for a house visit, or coordinate a vehicle dropoff, there can be savings in time and less overall hassle by fixing something yourself. The Covid pandemic starting in 2020 has made us appreciate the added benefit of fixing something ourselves and not needing to bring a service person into our home.
There is an environmental benefit to repairing versus replacement too. Every time you fix something that would otherwise be a throwaway item there is less that will go into the landfill and fewer raw materials are needed to build a new product. Protecting the environment is not always the overriding consideration for me, but it is great when frugality is aligned with environmental stewardship.
Family DIY Lessons
It was likely my role models while growing up that empowered me to become handy. My father was an electrician by trade and a competent home builder. Our neighbors could tell they were having another kid every time my father built an addition to their house. Next was my grandfather who seemingly could fix any motorized toy we brought to his desk.
Neither of them necessarily included me in their projects, but watching them work was enough to empower me to believe being handy was normal. A goal of mine is to empower my children to repair things themselves too.
Handy for FI
My father told me that he was handy out of necessity when we were growing up because they could not afford to buy new things every time something broke. It puzzles me why, in the present day, my parents appear to think we are out of our minds for repairing things ourselves when they know we can afford to buy new or hire a repair person. I like to think we are leveraging our working-class upbringing for Financial Independence.
Without further ado below are the cost savings of some of our past DIY projects that illustrate the financial benefits of repairing things yourself. My automotive examples will compare the mechanic’s repair cost versus my own repair cost in parts. The appliance examples will compare the appliance replacement value to my own repair cost assuming the appliance is essentially a throwaway item.
Brakes are a fantastic job to do yourself because the parts can be so cheap versus what a mechanic will charge for installation. I agree that changing brakes can sound intense if you have never seen it done but it is really not as hard as it sounds. I would advise everyone to search YouTube for a video on how to change the brake pads on their specific vehicle and model year just to understand what a mechanic is charging you for. To build up confidence for this project, you could try rotating your tires yourself. You will learn how to jack up your vehicle and you will have a clear view of your brakes. Automotive parts stores often have specialty tools like torque wrenches and disk brake caliper tools for rent at close to free after a nominal refundable deposit.
$430 = Mechanic’s quote on a car for brake pads on 4 wheels and rotors on 2 wheels
$25 = Front brake pad parts
$105 = Rear brake pad and rotor parts
$130 = Total cost of parts ($300 savings)
Plus I installed new front brake rotors at the same time for an additional $100 which was not included in the mechanic’s estimate.
Optional bonus hack: The ceramic brake pads had a lifetime warranty, and as the parts store employee explained to me, I may be able to get a refund on the pads when they wear out. That sounded too good to be true, but my friend said he had successfully done it by buying the second set of pads and returning the worn-out ceramic pads along with both receipts.
Spark plugs are another automotive repair job with great potential for cost savings. The trickiest and most time-consuming part of the job in my opinion is accessing the spark plugs. That is likely the reason for the higher mechanic’s quote over the material cost of the spark plug parts.
$146 = Mechanic’s quote to replace 4 spark plugs on a car
$40 = Total cost for 4 spark plugs ($106 savings)
$400 = Dealer’s quote to replace 6 spark plugs on a truck and “tune-up” engine
$25 = Total cost for 6 spark plugs from dealer’s parts desk ($375 savings)
Note: The person working at the dealer’s parts desk said they call the service a “tune-up”, but really all they do is change the spark plugs and the onboard computer recognizes the new plugs and recalibrates itself.
On-Board Diagnostic Readers
Often when there is an issue with your vehicle’s engine your check engine light will illuminate. On-Board Diagnostic (OBD) readers will tell you what the error code is and can sometimes tell you what the probable repair is. OBDII scan tools can be hand-held units or some even operate with smartphones via Bluetooth. They are remarkably inexpensive, starting at around $30 on Amazon. I chose the app-based BlueDriver Scan Tool at around $100 because it had slightly more advanced functions. It can provide approximate repair costs based on the error code as well as Amazon links to replacement parts within the BlueDriver app.
Note: When shopping for OBDII scan tools beware of ultra-cheap devices that may require you to buy a subscription to look up the meaning of the error codes. I recommend purchasing a device that has full functionality without requiring a subscription.
If you do not wish to purchase your own OBDII reader most auto parts stores will scan your codes for you at no cost if your vehicle’s check engine light is still on.
My latest GE dishwasher has made me a little cynical believing that modern appliances are practically throwaway items because the dishwasher started breaking down just more than 1 year after we initially purchased it new. For appliances, I will compare the repair prices to the initial purchase price assuming one would throw it away and buy a new one.
$540 = Actual new purchase price of dishwasher
$0 = Cost to troubleshoot and reset the thermostat switch
$80 = Diverter assembly with leaking rubber fitting
$80 = Total repair costs to date ($460 savings over replacement cost)
Washing Machine & Dryer
My new favorite appliance hack is to find a repair person selling refurbished washing machines and dryers on Craigslist. The repair person we found told us he would only refurbish Whirlpool brand models because they were easier to work on in his opinion. That advice was worth its weight in gold as far as I was concerned.
$1,200 = Estimated purchase price of new washing machine and dryer
$250 = Actual Craigslist purchase price for refurbished washing machine and dryer ($950 initial savings over new)
$35 = Washing machine motor coupler replacement (this part turned out to be wrong)
$35 = Washing machine gearbox repairs after gear oil leaked
$20 = Washing machine motor coupler replacement
$10 = Washing machine drive block nut
$20 = Washing machine spring kit
$50 = Dryer drive belt & heating element kit
$170 = Total repair costs to date ($80 savings over refurbished replacement cost)
Note: These figures do not make a strong case for repair versus replacement with another refurbished unit. But the washing machine was significantly more problematic than the dryer and one of the parts I purchased turned out to be a bad fit. Additionally, I learned a lot about appliance repair in the process.
Call to Action
Please do not stop here. Consider the following actions, and please share your thoughts in the comments below.
- Everyone has the ability to be handy in some fashion, even those who proclaim themselves as hopeless.
- YouTube is a great societal equalizer. There is almost no skill that you cannot acquire at a basic level, by watching a YouTube video.
- The next time something breaks search YouTube for a repair video even if you intend to have it fixed by a repair person. Acquiring a general understanding of the work to be performed will reduce your likelihood of being ripped off by a service provider.
- Avoid the dealer for automotive repairs unless the work is covered under your vehicle warranty. You will almost always save money by finding a trusted local mechanic to do the work over a dealer mechanic.