When Alex Hadjis was a young lad, his father took him down to the basement of his grandparents’ house, gave him a handsaw and small board, and said: “Here, cut this piece of wood, son.”
From that early introduction to carpentry, he progressed to handyman projects, a woodworking hobby and … well, check out the accomplished amateur’s biggest scope of work:
During the major renovation of his family’s home, he dug out the basement, did the wiring, installed flooring and trim, painted inside and out, and created custom cabinetry. He even made a little window for their Goldendoodle Ruby in the privacy fence he built. And that’s only a partial list.
Hadjis, who hired a contractor to do the “heavy lifting” during the seven-month home reno project, estimates he saved $175,000 by doing so much work himself.
“I’ve always been quite handy … and I can do a really good job because I’m willing to spend the time,” says the East York resident, who’s a mechanical engineer by profession.
Hadjis spent “countless hours” working evenings, weekends and vacations during the conversion of their 800-square-foot brick bungalow into a two-storey home with more than double the living space. The rebuild was completed in mid-2019, well before he and his wife Kathryn welcomed their first-born, Elise, now 18 months old.
While Hadjis may be the Superman of do-it-yourselfers, he exemplifies the booming interest of homeowners and renters who tackle their own home improvements as rising prices of just about everything continue to hammer budgets.
You don’t have to be able to nail tall boards in a single blow (even Hadjis doesn’t make that claim) to save hundreds or thousands of dollars on renos, repairs and redos.
“The biggest constraints are time and experience,” notes Ryan Meagher, lead estimator and business development manager for BVM Contracting, the Toronto-based family business Hadjis hired for his project.
The 25-year-old company recently added a DIY renovation planning service to its repertoire because of the “looming recession and high interest rates,” says Meagher.
Although BVM’s primary focus is building and renovating homes from start to finish, he points out that managing your own project can lower costs significantly.
The money you save depends on how much you’re willing to learn and the jobs you tackle, says Meagher, pegging the average rate of experienced tradespeople at $50 to $100 an hour.
Based on his own experience doing plumbing, tiling and flooring during the conversion of his house in Prince Edward County to a B&B, Meagher notes that using your own elbow grease can save up to 50 per cent of the cost.
Makeovers of cabinetry, countertops, flooring and small bathrooms are good items for personal to-do lists, he suggests, but cautions that electrical, plumbing and structural work is best left to the pros.
In Hadjis’s case, installing the electrical system himself — saving 75 per cent of a $40,000 job — was possible because of help from his dad, a retired electrician.
The biggest challenge over the months was “finding the stamina to remain committed,” he says, admitting he “ran out of steam” to finish the basement bathroom.
But through a 50-50 partnership with his wife, who helped dig out the basement and select paint, materials and finishes, the family has a home that’s “exactly our own place.”
In addition to the cost savings, Hadjis gained “an immense sense of accomplishment and pride in having done the work myself.”
Smaller, hands-on projects such as refinishing your own furniture bring similar rewards, according to longtime creative DIYer Erika Coulson.
“My whole house is upcycled. I don’t own anything new.”
Using tricks and tips she learned from online videos, Coulson transforms everything from old dresser mirrors to vintage table lamps — pieces she finds in thrift stores, on Facebook Marketplace and even roadsides.
Coulson is such a prolific “furniture artist” that she recently opened her own store called Flipping Beautiful in downtown Cobourg.
She sells wood furniture and home accessories she’s made over with paint, self-adhesive wallpaper, stencilling and new hardware. And she stocks pieces for customers to do themselves.
Coulson is quick with advice and how-tos, extolling the ease of Fusion mineral paint for makeovers of metal, plastic and wood items. “It makes projects quick and easy.” Selling for $28 for a 500ml jar, Fusion comes in 53 colours.
She shows off some of the pieces for sale that she upcycled with paint and basic carpentry skills: a faux apothecary cabinet made from two stacked night stands of ash wood, $225; a mirror turned upside down and a shelf added on top, $125; a solid wood desk cut in half to make matching night stands, $240.
Unfinished pieces range from small tables, $20 to $40, to a set of four dining chairs for $100.
For customer and DIYer Ali White, a Fusion paint job in pale mint was just the rejuvenation her great-grandfather’s old wooden desk needed.
“I want it to be quick and easy to freshen it up,” explains White, who’s trying to curb costs after paying for house renos.
“Thirty-one bucks with tax, and I don’t have to pay anyone for labour — sounds like a good deal to me!” she says of her paint purchase.
Turns out painting is “the number one place to start” for try-it-yourselfers, according to expert Zack Jurkowski. “If you mess up, you can always repaint.”
Tiling is also “a fun one” along with shiplap, wainscotting, flooring and other “cosmetic” projects, says Jurkowski, a Lowe’s collaborator who’s best known as host of the home improvement retailer’s how-to series, The Wall.
“It’s possible for anyone to jump right in to DIY,” says the president of Montreal-based MTL Contractors, comparing it to cake-baking where you start with a recipe, learn the basic steps and go from there.
“Don’t be afraid to trying anything as long as you’re armed with good info,” he encourages newbies.
A few tips, tricks and resources for DIYers:
BVM Contracting rep Ryan Meagher: Be realistic; doing it yourself takes time, often two or three times longer.
Experienced DIYer Alex Hadjis: YouTube is a great resource for tutorials and learning about new materials.
Professional contractor Zack Jurkowski recommends using quality materials and tools, and not taking shortcuts. And call in the pros for the big stuff.
Upcycler Erika Coulson: Preparation is the key to refinishing furniture: “Wash, sand, then paint.” Ironing loose veneer over a damp cloth softens the glue so it can be reattached. Cracks and gaps can be covered with Bondo wood filler.
For a yearly membership starting at $55, the non-profit Toronto Tool Library lends out a huge variety of hand and power tools for renos, repairs and other projects.
Home Depot Canada offers free virtual workshops on different topics. Registration is required for the one-hour sessions that are livestreamed monthly.
Lowe’s offers ideas, inspiration and instructions online and in-store, for everything from design hacks for renters to make-your-own home office desk. Registration is required for the free virtual and in-person workshops. Lowe’s also provides helpful info and how-tos on its home improvement YouTube channel.
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