If you own a home long enough, some day you’ll need a major remodel or repair. You’ll have to hire some kind of expert—a tile installer or landscaper or carpenter. You’ll be tempted to do this work yourself, but few generalists can match the quality output of an experienced specialist. So heed your inner Clint Eastwood. Understand that “a man’s got to know his limitations.” If you want the job done right, sometimes you’ve got to hire someone else for the job.
But while the experts you hire bring along years of experience, they also bring along helpers who have much less skill. These extra hands raise your project costs. If you’ve got the time, you can save some money by stepping into the role of helper yourself. The arrangement is simple: you agree to hire the craftsman and in turn the craftsman agrees to hire you.
I’ve now co-starred as someone’s lackey on two big projects at my house. Here’s how both shows went down.
Hot Tub Part-Time Machine
A few years ago I decided to tear out my outdoor hot tub. This was going to leave a big hole in the deck so I hired the same carpenter who had worked on my bath remodel. I agreed to pay him a set hourly wage. In return, he agreed I could serve as his helper. So while he disconnected the electrical, installed new joists, and located post supports; I loaded the dumpster with debris, fetched tools, and painted new planks. In all, I worked for about 25 hours and saved myself about $625 (3 days x 8 hours x $25).
The Fault in Our Stairs
This past week, I’ve been reprising my role as gofer (please cue the “Love Boat” theme). This latest project involves our front stairs, which are perched on the side of a hill. Shortly after the house was built in 1991, the hill began to slump—and so did the supporting posts. The soils have since stabilized, but the stairs are badly out of kilter and in need of realigning.
From the outset, I knew I lacked the skills this job required. New post piers had to be poured, but I’d never mixed cement before. I lacked the right tools—table saw, wood clamps, post hole diggers, reciprocating saws, and rebar cutters. My carpentry skills were undeveloped. On the other hand, from prior experience I knew I would make a great lackey.
The carpenter from the hot tub project wasn’t available, but my wife’s cousin is an experienced craftsman. We struck a deal where I would pay him hourly and he would let me be his helper. It’s a five day project, so by the time we finish I figure I’ll have saved about $1,000 (5 days x 8 hours x $25).
So far I’ve been an excellent fetcher of tools. But I’ve also picked up a few new skills that I can carry into future projects. I’ve learned how to work a post hole digger (I dug a 36″ deep hole). I’ve learned how to make cement ( I loaded 80 pound bags into a wheelbarrow, added water, and mixed them together with a hoe until they looked like oatmeal). I’ve learned how to work a plumb line (we used one to relocate support posts). So far everything’s going well, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know my wife’s cousin better.
A Lackey’s Checklist
If you and your specialist agree to pursue this approach on your next big project, consider the following:
1. Get Comfortable With Each Other’s Roles. Let the craftsman know that although you’re the one writing the checks, during work hours he is in fact the boss of you. Follow all orders.
2. Know the Requirements of Your Job. Talk upfront about what you’ll be required to do. If you have a fear of heights and there’s a ladder involved, maybe you need to find a different lackey.
3. Set Aside Enough Time. If you’re retired, your calendar’s wide open. But if you’re trying to fit this project into your vacation, your temporary boss needs to follow your schedule.
4. Learn Everything You Can. Pick the brain of whoever you hire. Seek explanations. Talk over details. Maybe you’ll soak up enough expertise to undertake future jobs yourself—and then you’ll be the one hiring the lackey.