Build, Learn, Save: A Student’s Guide to Home Maintenance

I bought my house in 2012, and it definitely needed some work when I moved in. Fortunately, I had two things to help build my confidence with home projects: 1) I didn’t have any money to pay someone else to do the work, and 2) My father did a ton of home projects when I was younger (and still does now). Seeing my father do all these things gave me confidence in knowing that I don’t need to be a professional handyman to get work done. And when I can’t figure something out, it is always a relief that I can call him. However, you don’t need my dad to start getting this stuff done. Resources such as YouTube can give you all the answers you need, (and they have bailed me out of jams on many occasions).

So, in order to save some money and learn a few things, I began working on the house. In the last five years, I have refinished or replaced every room in the house, turned a half bath into a full bath, done major plumbing work half a dozen times, cut down four trees, built a 12 foot by 8 foot shed, painted the house (inside and out), built a patio, and insulated the crawlspace and attic, not to mention the dozens of smaller jobs like installing new light fixtures, fixing the washing machine, building bookcases, etc. And for those of you who think I inherited these talents from my dad, please know that I am almost always just as worried as I am excited to get started on a project, and I make lots of mistakes along the way. I still remember how terrified I was the first time I drilled a hole in the floor or fired up the blowtorch inside my house. When I attempted to turn the half bath into a full bath, it probably took about eighty trips to Home Depot and forty hours of internet investigation to get what I needed. But it has been worth the frustration every time.

Luckily, I got an early start working on these types of projects with my dad at an early age. Every high school student should start learning to do home maintenance alongside mom or dad, for a number of reasons:

Family members are cheaper than professionals

It costs between $3,000 and $5,000 to hire someone to build you a 96 square foot shed. However, I did it myself for $1,500. A painter will charge between $300 and $1000 to paint a room, but you can do it on your own with $50 of paint and a few other supplies. It costs $100 to get a plumber to walk in the door; I walk through that door every day for free. I would estimate that in five years I have probably saved $20,000- $30,000 on my house by figuring out how to complete projects without professional help.

Having your son maintain the home allows you to acquire new tools

In addition to saving money, you also build a collection of tools. For example, my brother just had a plumbing issue at his new house, just days after purchasing it. The real estate agent advised him to call Roto-Rooter, which probably would have cost him about $200. Instead, he and I went to Home Depot, bought the necessary tools to snake that drain (a mere $50), and did it ourselves. We saved $150, and now he owns a power drill.

When your son takes things apart and puts them back together, it makes the world a bit more understandable

It was terrifying the first time I put a hole in the floor, but when you look through that hole and see how each wire and pipe connect to every other wire and pipe, the world becomes a little bit less confusing. And when you see the doll stuck in your drain, the drain loses the mysterious aura that seems like it should cost $200 to fix.

I had no idea what I was doing the first time I took the dryer apart. However, aside from the computer, it is basically a large drum with a belt that turns it. The belt was broken, so that seemed like the logical thing to replace. Then the washing machine stopped draining. After removing ten screws, the problem was easily diagnosed: there was a sock in one of the tubes.  

Often when you learn how to fix one thing, it helps you down the road in fixing another. Even though each problem is itself unique, the physical world seems simpler and more manageable with each challenge that the house throws your way, and you learn to take a step back and reason through each situation until you can come to the logical conclusion.

Your son will learn real life skills he can put to work for the rest of his life (and perhaps even support a family while doing)

I worked through high school and college doing maintenance for a grade school, a golf course, and for some of my neighbors. I have also worked as a receptionist, a newspaper delivery boy, a painter, a fast food worker, a security officer, a soccer coach, a TA at a university, and a teacher. At each and every one of the jobs I applied for, the boss was mostly interested in whether or not I would be willing to work hard, resolve problems, and learn from each experience to be a better employee. Working on the house helps develop all of these much-needed skills.  

Also, I am comforted by the thought that when robots replace teachers, I can be a house painter until robots also replace house painters.

Fixing problems builds character, confidence, and real-world knowledge, and it puts idle time to good use

There is nothing like taking a unique problem and coming up with the correct solution. I know we do this in math and programming class at school, but it is way more fun when you can look at the result every time you walk down the stairs.

An economist would tell you that if you can make more money as an accountant than you would as a painter, then you should focus on accounting and pay someone else to paint your house. However, nobody does accounting every waking moment of the day (I hope not, at least). There is always idle time, and we can spend it one of three ways: relaxing (good), maintenance (also good), or getting into trouble (not good).  It’s good to relax and watch the football game. It is also good to get outside and clean the gutters while having a good father-son talk. It is bad to have so much time to relax that we find ourselves looking for trouble.

So, you may be asking, what are some good projects to do? Below you will find a list of tasks that I believe everyone above the age of fourteen should start learning how to do, ordered according to difficulty. Of course, personal circumstances may change your list, but if you have a small house like mine, all of these should be reasonable enough to try. And if you mess something up, it should not be too big a deal to fix. Finally, keep in mind that this is not a complete list of home maintenance necessities. I left out a lot of the obvious stuff that everyone already knows, like mowing the lawn and raking the leaves, as well as the stuff that doesn’t pertain to everyone, like cleaning out the fireplace and chimney. Also, until you are an expert, avoid working with the electricity and gas. Those can kill you if you are not very careful and knowledgeable!

Beginner:

  • Change the air filter on the furnace according to the recommended time (usually between two and twelve months, depending on the width of the filter).
  • Turn off the water supply to the outside faucets and drain them before freezing weather hits. Easy, and much cheaper than replacing a burst pipe.
  • Replace the batteries in the smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors twice a year. One of the most unappreciated and most important tasks to keep on top of.
  • Change a tire on the car. Basic necessity. The first time I had to do this, I was sixteen, and it was not a dry run. Wish I had practiced this one ahead of time.
  • Learn how to find the studs in the wall. Then use them to hang up heavy pictures, TVs, etc. While you are at it, learn what wall anchors are, what they do, and how to install them.
  • Charge a car battery. If you are a good samaritan, you will have to do this at least a dozen times in your life. May as well figure out how to do it well, especially connecting the cables in the right order.
  • Grow a garden. I am constantly appreciative of God’s creation when I see that I can provide my family a dinner salad with a couple of seeds, water, patience, and clever squirrel repelling tactics.
  • Trim low-hanging branches from a tree. It takes a bit of planning to do this without the branch falling on you. Take your time and use your brain.
  • Powerwash the deck and siding. This one is lots of fun, but it can be destructive if you stay on the same spot for too long.
  • Repair/Replace a screen with holes in it.
  • Recaulk the bathtub or any other spots where caulk is old or failing. Trail your finger behind the caulk to get that nice smooth finish, and keep the rags handy for cleanup.  
  • Shine your shoes. It might make the difference one day of getting the job or not getting the job.

Intermediate:

  • Change the windshield wipers on your car. Some models are easier than others…
  • Replace the broken head or tail lights on the car. Align them so they shine in the intended direction.
  • Install a door sweep on the front and back door. Can save you money all year long.
  • Snake a clogged drain. Basic necessity. If you think you can solve most clogged drains with a bit of chemical drain cleaner, you are in for a big surprise.
  • Paint a room. It costs a lot of money to have someone else do this for you.
  • Clean the gutters. Lots of people don’t clean the gutters. And lots of people get water damage to their home because they don’t clean their gutters. Be careful, and get a second person to hold the ladder for you.
  • Assemble any furniture the family buys.
  • Change the failing brakes on a bicycle. Could save your life, if you do it right. Test them before you take off down the big hill.
  • Winterize the lawn mower. One of those jobs that oft gets forgotten. Make sure you disconnect the spark plug before you start.
  • Flush out the water heater. Saves money on your gas or electric bill. Read the instructions to avoid scalding.

Advanced:

  • Sand and varnish a chair or other piece of wood furniture. Start with one that isn’t a family heirloom.
  • Fix a leaky faucet. This is when you start realizing that you can do anything.
  • Patch a hole in the drywall. It is very satisfying to do this well, and it looks very bad when you don’t do this well. So learn to do it well.
  • If and only if you know how to shut off the electricity safely, change the faulty light switch or replace the broken ceiling lamp.  

And for those of you who don’t get enough of these things to do, either because stuff in your house actually works or because no one wants to see your first paint job, there are some other things you can try in order to build these skills:

  • Build a birdhouse;
  • Make a cornhole set;
  • Make a picture frame (harder than it seems);
  • Make a coffee table or side table;
  • Make a marshmallow gun or potato gun using PVC pipe;
  • Build a fire pit in the backyard;
  • Make some raised garden beds.

Now, in order to do home maintenance, everyone is going to need some basic tools to get started. Here is my suggested beginner’s list:

  • Hammer
  • Screwdrivers
  • Electric Drill
  • Wood saw
  • Hacksaw
  • Socket wrench set
  • Allen wrench set
  • Wrench
  • Measuring tape
  • Level
  • Paint brushes
  • Drain snake
  • Sand paper
  • Work gloves

Start with these (great Christmas presents!) and then build up from there until you own a jackhammer (I got to get one when I had to mash through the concrete foundation while installing the plumbing for the new shower. Despite buying this toy, I still saved $2,000 on the job).

And don’t forget your shoeshine kit and a car emergency kit (one per car). Also, if you’ve got any other ideas, advice, or experience in teaching home maintenance, be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Good luck!

Dan Sushinsky

About the author:

Dan Sushinsky


Dan Sushinsky is an alumnus of and teacher at The Heights School who likes to think of ways to build up practical skills, learn new things, and save money at the same time.

  • Lionel Yaceczko

    Great ideas, Dan. I don’t know if I’m more happy to have the sage advice, or worried about all the things I’m doing wrong.

    On the topic of Christmas gifts for boys—how many times have I been into AutoZone with one or two of my sons and heard them point at and beg for at least two or three random things (LED hook-and-hang garage light, anyone?) that cost the same and would make better gifts than an action figure for the latest trending movie?

    On the same lines, rolls of tape are good, too.

  • Rich Moss

    Home Depot has a Christmas sale on starter tool boxes–most of the tools above for $19.00.