Thursday, December 18, 2008

DIY Isn’t All or Nothing

There are many times when you have to choose whether to “do it yourself” (DIY) or hire someone to do a job. This choice comes up with house repairs, investing, landscaping, to name a few instances. We tend to think of the choice as binary: either DIY or hire someone. However, there is a middle ground.

Let me use an example to illustrate my middle ground approach. I have a large natural gas pool heater that became flaky after about two years. I have no training with these heaters and had little choice but to call a repair person.

It turns out that fixing natural gas heaters is specialized work and calling in the repair person wasn’t cheap. I always had to pay for some minimum time plus the cost of some expensive part that had to be replaced. The repair person would get the heater working, but the flakiness never went away.

During the fourth service call in two years I did my usual thing of watching the repair guy and asking questions. This guy happened to mention that the controls on my model of heater had a tendency to get corroded. In addition to charging me for some part that didn’t really need replacing, the repair guy jiggled some connectors. The heater worked fine for two years after that.

So, I paid over $1000 in repair bills before I finally learnt that the problem had been flaky connections the whole time. Ever since then I routinely undo a few screws, pull off the connectors and reconnect them. All the flakiness is gone.

What has all this got to do with a middle ground between DIY and hiring an expert? Even when you pay an expert, you should learn something about the work being done. This will make you a more informed user of the expert’s service and may allow you to do it yourself the next time if you choose.

Experts I hire differ in how they deal with having me pepper them with questions. Some like it and some don’t, but I do it anyway. I prefer to learn a little. I don’t like to be the one paying experts for something I can easily handle myself. When it’s not so easy to do myself, I keep hiring the experts.

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