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  • Writer's picturePaul Hogendoorn

THE ECONOMICS OF BEING HANDY

Updated: Nov 13, 2023


The TV character Red Green said many times, “If women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy”. The show segment on how to be handy were creative and very comedic, but there is sage advice in his slogan.


I’ve always been considered quite handy by my neighbours and friends, and it has saved me many tens of thousands of dollars over the years - and my friends, family and neighbours equal amounts. This past spring as an example, my 10 year and 3-month-old furnace failed – 3 months after the 10-year warranty expired. I called the local dealer, who promptly sent a technician, who informed me the warranty had expired a few months earlier, and the manufacturer was making no exceptions – there had to be a line somewhere, and that line was crossed 3 months ago.


Long story short: the first technician couldn’t fix it and he recommended we buy a new furnace. A second, more seasoned technician couldn’t fix it, and reiterated that we needed a new furnace, and that there were government incentives to help with the cost of a new energy efficient unit. I called a second dealer in, and they sent their top man, and he said it was likely the control board (estimated cost $2,000) but I should buy a new furnace.

I’m a practical, pragmatic and common-sense person. (Not to mention of "Dutch" decent!) I bought the existing high efficiency furnace leveraging a similar incentive program ten years ago, and the new one proposed was only rated 2% more efficient, but to get the full benefit of the financial incentives, I’d have to replace my fully functioning air conditioner with a heat pump. My options were, replace the control board for $2K, or replace the furnace for $5K, or replace everything for over $10K (after “incentives").


But it was late April, and warmer weather was approaching, so I figured I had time on my side; I wasn’t going to get pressured into buying a new furnace or throwing out a perfectly working air conditioner. I’d use the summer to investigate other options.


I have a few friends that are as equally handy as I am, and we feed off each other. Over the years, its been as much about socializing with like minded buddies and the satisfaction that completed “tactile” tasks yield than it has been about money saved. But this time it was all about the money. After paying the experts to come in and give me their assessments, I asked a friend who mentioned he has had to tend to his furnace a couple of times, and he told there was a little red LED on the control board that would flash out an error code. I checked, and there it was, flashing out 2 distinct pulses. On the inside side of the panel was a schematic of all the sensors connected to the control board and a chart to decode what the error code meant. In my case, it meant that one of two vacuum sensors was remaining closed when they should be open. With a bit of digging on the internet, I found the two vacuum sensors and replaced them, but the problem persisted. The diagnostic procedure (which I also found on the internet) then suspected the control board was keeping the exhaust motor running, specifically identifying the possibility of a stuck relay. I had a simple meter and could easily test for that, and the 4 relays on the board were easy to identify. After a quick check, 3 were “open” as they should be when the board was out and unpowered, and one was “closed”. The faulty relay turned out to be a commodity item, common in appliances, and they were in stock locally. The cost was only $6, so I bought 2, just in case one of my buddies need one some time in the future.


So, what’s my point to this? Its not that any formal training gave me a unique ability to troubleshoot furnaces, or fix leaking pipes, or deducing that tapering gardens and sidewalks sufficiently away from basement walls would keep a friend’s basements dry, it was years of using basic hand tools around the house and helping and learning from others doing the same. I credit my dad and some friends I had when I was a teenager. We built things together (from tree forts to rec rooms) and fixed things together (first our peddle bikes, then our motorcycles, then whatever else we needed to use but broke or became inoperable). We didn’t fix everything, but we assessed it, or took a shot at it, before yielding to the wisdom or convenience of buying a new replacement.


This past summer, thinking only of my furnace and my friend’s wet basement, the economic benefit of simply “being handy” exceeded $15,000, perhaps as much as $25,000. On any given year, its not difficult for me to identify $10,000 of savings that I or my friends and family members have realized through "handy" knowledge. Multiply that by 50 years, and it works out to a half a million dollars in a lifetime.


Here’s my point: instead of buying your kids another Gameboy, or new cellphone, or even a new bicycle to replace one that’s slightly broken, buy them some tools and spend a bit of time with them. Fixing brake cables, or oiling a chain, or repairing a flat tire – yes, I know there’s easier and more convenient ways of resolving those problems – but slow down a bit, take the long way and invest in their economic and future wellbeing a bit. Yes, a college or university education may be what’s best for your kid’s future, and perhaps you are not feeling all that handy yourself, but giving them a familiarity with basic tools and the confidence that they can master simple things like using wrenches and hammers and screw drivers can go a long way in helping them become more self sufficient and self reliant. They can even use YouTube for guidance (and perhaps teach you a thing or two in the process).


Without being at least a little bit handy or possessing even a small understanding of how things work (or knowing where to look or ask), you, or your kids, will always be susceptible to salesmanship of others. Our economy is a “consuming” (and disposing) economy driven by skilled and motivated salespeople and by relentless marketing. If you want to get ahead (or just keep from sinking) in this economy that is getting tougher to keep up in, these become increasingly valuable skills. Plus, if you’re “green inclined’, anytime you “repair” instead of “replace”, you keep something dirty and environmentally ugly out of the landfill as well as saving the energy and raw materials required to make the new one.


Whichever way you look at it, being handy comes with significant economic benefits, with the added benefits of time and triumphs shared, and the satisfaction of doing your part for the environment.


Final thoughts: It was my dad that gave me my first experience with hand tools. He was an immigrant and worked very hard for the money he made; there was no way he was going

to pay someone else to do anything that he might be able to do himself. It was his (and his generation’s) economic reality - they did it primarily for economic reasons. I however, found

I enjoyed working with those tools, and even though he was often grumpy (when the task didn’t go as smoothly as he hoped), I enjoyed and now cherish the time spentwith him. I know the same is true for many of my handy friends; we now often chose the do-it-ourselves path because there’s an enjoyment and satisfaction element to it, as much as the economic factor. Now however, as sustainable income levels become harder to achieve, (especially if home ownership is a goal), basic handiness once again becomes a critical economic advantage. Its something that I see some high schools starting to introduce, but I think our society would be wise to introduce at the elementary school level as well.





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