How do I learn to become a handyman?
August 16, 2011 8:05 AM   Subscribe

How do you gain "handyman" skills to the extent that you can manage a rental property?

I've always rented an apartment and never had a reason, or a chance, to fix things up myself.

I'm currently saving for a house, but instead of purchasing a single family house, I want to try to purchase a duplex or something similar. I would like to have at least one or more units that I can rent out.

I have read up on this subject and many people suggest that for it to be profitable, you have to know how to do things like repair leaks, paint, change carpet, etc.

I'm fairly limited in my house repair skills. Let's just say, if it involves more than changing a lightbulb, I hire someone to do it.

I think I'll start by attending home improvement workshops at places like Home Depot and volunteer with Habitat for Humanity.

But maybe you have some experiences or ideas I haven't thought of. How did you learn to become a handyman?
posted by abdulf to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Hi! Former landlord here.

This book deals with home repair as it relates to landlording.

Also, pick up a nice, thick, general home repair book. Look at Youtube videos and the This Old House web site.

Also, depending on where you are buying, the old adage that you must fix things for a rental property to be profitable is NOT TRUE because home prices are in the toilet. Combine that with banks that are super conservative when it comes to making home loans to new homebuyers and people with questionable credit, and you've got a high-demand rental market with abundant and cheap real estate. It is the best combination you could possibly hope for. I know landlords in my city that are picking up foreclosures for 40k, contracting out the repairs, and then renting them within a couple of days on a two year lease for $800+.

So, talk with a few management companies and see what they would charge to manage the property for you. It might be worth it. Then make your decision.
posted by Ostara at 8:14 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I learned handyman skills in the theatre -- if you've got a community or summer theatre around you, see if they take volunteers. The basics that you need to be focused on are *safety* and *proper tool usage*. Details like how far apart to put balusters or studs or how to hang a door can be looked up in a book, but the right way to use a circular saw that both accomplishes the task and keeps all your fingers is best learned from another person -- like the workshops at Home Depot or HfH, too.

(While workshops can teach you electrical wiring, I'd suggest always getting an electrician to do the work -- there's a little more risk involved in that).
posted by AzraelBrown at 8:17 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Step one: Be the person who is available when your friends need help painting a room, replacing a door, pouring cement in the driveway.

Step two: Collect tools at yard and estate sales, try not to pay full price for them. Ask questions about what you're buying. Don't build a collection just to have a collection, buy things that you'll reasonably need. Vise grips, screw drivers, wrench set, socket set, soldering kit, hammer, bags of nails, miter saws, drills. All this and more can be had at yard sales. If you anticipate having a yard with trees, get a chainsaw and the appropriate ladder. Then find yourself a friend you trust to teach you how to use it safely. I learned as a teenager, and I cannot tell you how often it has come in handy! Also, you want knee pads, if you anticipate being your own plumber. Trust me, you want them.

Step three: Know where the water shut off valves are. Know to always turn off the electricity before mucking about with wiring.

Step four: have a collection of friends you can call when you need help painting a room, replacing a door, pouring cement in the driveway.

See how that makes a full circle? Life is funny that way. There are books you can buy on the topics, which I recommend over the internet, because books you can go through page by page and some of it will sink it, even if you don't need it while you're browsing. The internet requires you to know what you're looking for, so if you don't have the correct terminology it might slow you down, though I'm sure there are actually some good diagrams that could help improve your input into YouTube.

That's right, YouTube.

Step five: don't be ashamed to call professionals if you start to have doubts about the quality of your work. Better to get help sooner rather than later, if it turns out you really need it.
posted by bilabial at 8:18 AM on August 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

I got started by helping the owner of a decrepit rental property that I lived in fix it up. I got to live there for free, in exchange for my labor. I didn't learn very many particular skills that way, but I learned not to be afraid, that houses are just one part attached to the next rather than monolithic wholes. After that, I was much more inclined to attempt fixing things myself. I kept doing that wherever I lived... for, oh, 20 years or so.
posted by jon1270 at 8:19 AM on August 16, 2011

I almost forgot. You can rent heavy tools in 4 hour time blocks from Home Depot, and they are very interested in your safety. I most recently rented a power chipper (a big chisel that's related to a jackhammer) and they made absolutely sure to tell me about the proper angles, etc). They did not, to my amusement, tell me about the tool grease! Glad I knew about that already.
posted by bilabial at 8:21 AM on August 16, 2011

I did exactly this: bought a duplex (first-time owner) and started learning on the spot, helped at times by books, youtube, and friends and family. After only 2 years I can work on plumbing, fixing gypse walls, sanding, painting, a bit of plumbing and electricity (changing wall plugs and thermostats, installing valves and switching sinks and faucets, that kind of thing). I had an electrician once to help out with a few things I did not know how to do, as well as a well guy to change my well pump. These two times I learned a lot. I also rented an excavator to change a sump pump pipe. Nothing terrible happened and I think I did a better job than the previous guy! If it is not structural (roof, foundation, supporting walls), give it a shot. If it's only swapping wires, or putting on ceramic tiles, give it a shot. It will be hard the first time then you'll almost be an expert.
I usually practice in the apartment I rent, and when I'm good I do it in mine!
posted by ddaavviidd at 8:26 AM on August 16, 2011

A final thing: get to know all the experts at your local hardware store, and tip the delivery guy, always. It's amazing how much time and money I saved just talking to the sales people at the store, they taught me how to do stuff and how not to do it. They know my name, and they know I don't come in just to get tips but to buy stuff as well. Invaluable relationships!
posted by ddaavviidd at 8:29 AM on August 16, 2011

Advice from a different angle: try to have a handle on your limitations. The confidence in this thread is great I'm sure, but nearly every place I've rented from a smale-scale property owner has had all sorts of weird and/or sloppy work done by a landlord who either thought they knew what they were doing, or (as ddaavviidd seems to actually suggest you do?!) were practicing on their rental property in preparation for work on somewhere they actually care about. Pulling this kind of stuff is going to filter the kind of tenants you get (I'm a little bit sick of it tbh), to at least some extent, and probably not be all that great for the property in the long run.
posted by advil at 8:37 AM on August 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

If you didn't learn this stuff (being handy) from your folks, you are pretty much stuffed. Sorry!

Seriously ... Best suggestion is to find out which of your friends actually know how to "do stuff" and proposition them to help you and teach you at the same time. I found that compensating them for their time and efforts by feeding and liquoring them made "helping me" something that was looked forward to and enthusiastically undertaken. After a few years I went from being un-handy to being confident in attaching pretty much anything.

posted by jannw at 8:37 AM on August 16, 2011

advil: I understand you concern and lived it as well. This is why I included the bit about becoming good at it (and it is also why I became a house owner in the first place...)
posted by ddaavviidd at 8:54 AM on August 16, 2011

I did this; bought a 2 family house and lived in 1 unit. Great plan, great way to build equity. You need lots of skills, but you need them incrementally. If you have to call a plumber to re-light the gas furnace, you pay attention, and now you know how to do it next time.

Painting gets better and easier with practice. Woodwork is always white, for ease of touchups. Not Navaho white, not Linen white, white. If tenants want a dark red room, they should pay an extra deposit for painting. Allowing tenants to paint is nice and separates you from Mega-Rental-Corp.

Buy tools as you need them, and learn to be crazy organized about keeping them put away, and not loaning them out. These are professional tools, they have to be available.

QFT: Know where the water and gas shut off valves are. Know to always turn off the electricity before mucking about with wiring. When you have the place inspected, and you must have a very good inspection, ask these questions. Have a list of emergency numbers - gas co., water co., electric company, and emergency professionals - plumber & electrician. When there's a serious problem, you need someone you can trust, and you need them now.

QFT: call professionals. If it's structural, if it's wiring, if you aren't sure, get some help, at least to inspect the work.

What you didn't ask: Finding good tenants. Our 1st tenants after the ones there when we bought it lasted 7 years. 3 roommates, and when 1 moved out, they'd get a new one. It was terrific - low turnover means less wear & tear and less hassle. I took a lot of time to interview tenants, and talk about expectations, i.e., what times of day noise was okay or not. I tried to be a good landlord, keeping the place in repair, allowing pets with extra deposit, etc. Bad tenants will make your life miserable. Contact legal aid in your area and find out about the rights of tenants; you need to know this.

Also, learn about the tax implications. 50% of my landscaping was a tax expense. Mileage to Home Depot - tax expense. Tool, etc. Do good bookkeeping.

Adult Ed or local community college may have home repair courses.
posted by theora55 at 10:16 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Time-Life has a great set of books for noobs on Home Repair and Improvement. (Get the Updated Series, though, since they're . . . updated, and they have spiral binding so they stay open.)

You can get hurt, you can mess stuff up, but if you're smart and really study ahead of time, these probably won't happen.
posted by resurrexit at 11:05 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Amending bilabial's great list above:

Step five: don't be ashamed to call professionals if you start to have doubts about the quality of your work. Better to get help sooner rather than later, if it turns out you really need it. [my addition:] Once they arrive, follow them. Be exceedingly nice to them. Ask questions, politely. Compliment their work - everyone likes to talk about themselves, unless they feel like they're being set up, ridiculed, or used, so make it a casual ego stroking.

You'd be amazed how many pro tips a pro can spill in an hour, while he/she does the job you hired them for.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:20 AM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

How about volunteering for Habitat for Humanity? Being a helper for a handyman (who works for a charity?)
posted by CodeMonkey at 11:28 AM on August 16, 2011

You can either learn by the trial and error approach or you can learn under the wing of someone who knows what they are doing. Picking the latter is usually the preferred method. Hire an experienced handyman who will give you a cut-rate by being his apprentice. Typically an older handyman will know nearly all of the tricks of the trade.
posted by JJ86 at 11:49 AM on August 16, 2011

Definitely have the number for a decent plumber/electrician/whatever on hand for the specialized jobs that are near your limit. If you get too far, they can bail you out. Some of them will also give good advice during the quoting stage, too. (Hint hint.)

If you hire one for a job you can't (yet!) handle, it's a great idea to watch a contractor work. Some of them might not like it, but the good ones should be OK. Pay attention and you'll learn something; if they're nice they'll answer questions (I have a great ignorant-but-eager face and a friendly smile, which usually works), and you also get to be there immediately if they screw up. (I am looking at you, Glib Guy Who Drilled Through My Heating Line, and I am still no thappy.)

I like to ask good contractors for a couple of names of guys in the area that they trust. That lets me triangulate on the best in each field.

Also consider doing part of the labor on a job in exchange for a cut in the price -- and another chance to get lessons from the contractor.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:55 AM on August 16, 2011

Community colleges often have classes towards a construction certificate. They might have some more advanced subjects like electrical work and plumbing. I second the idea of volunteering at the theater. Two of the best handymen I know help build sets.
posted by Foam Pants at 12:33 PM on August 16, 2011

My initial reaction is to just go back and watch older and new episodes of "This Old House" on PBS in the US. It is a great show and they definitely have taught me many new tricks and super secret tricks over the years and helped add to things that my 20+ years of experience have not encountered.
posted by Nackt at 5:36 PM on August 16, 2011

I can't favorite the comment about the Time-Life books enough! They are the best investment for a first time home owner ever. The books cover EVERYTHING and virtually everything can be done by a layperson with the right tools and materials. All of the tools and materials are covered in the books too. Nothing is left to chance in those things.

In preparation, I wouldn't worry so much about getting your hands dirty quite yet. I'd just read up on the stuff that you KNOW you'll have to work on sooner than later. Faucets, drains, garbage disposals, etc. That will give you an idea of what stuff looks like inside and out and you'll have some idea of what your procedures will be.

The most important advice I can offer is to really put your home inspector to work. If it's not a requirement for home buying where you are, spend the 2 or 3 hundred bucks and have it done before you sign anything. Prior to the inspection take some time to inspect the property yourself and make notes of anything interesting, unusual, or new to you. Anything that you would like to know more about.

During the inspection follow the person closely and ask about anything and everything that you think might be a concern in the future, AND everything on your list. Typically inspectors are very cool and very willing to offer up knowledge about things. Also typically, though, they are apt to cruise through a place while looking for the obvious usual suspects and deal breakers. Don't learn the hard way, put that person to work.

Other than that, install pressure assist toilets and throw away the plungers.

Best of luck to you, this is a great endeavor and I'm very excited for you!
posted by snsranch at 6:07 PM on August 16, 2011

Do it yourself manuals don't show the little things that make the project a success that observing can.

The best experience I gained was watching a close friend who happened to be a top notch general contractor work. Unfortunately for me he moved across the country

Therefore, I use do-it yourself manuals also. I have found that getting a manual for the specific type of project you want to do covers more situations and provides better detail.

Finally I practice.

I had never done copper pipe before so I bought some pipe, fittings and spouts then made a loop that I could attach to a hose end to test. After several tries I felt confident to attempt it for real.

Same for electrical work(which scares the hell out of me), set up a loop of switches and lights with the power connected via a plug.

The one thing my friend did stress that I have found to be true is to buy good tools. An investment that has paid off.
posted by pianomover at 9:14 AM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

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