01/02/2019 08:30 EST | Updated 01/02/2019 11:15 EST

Going From Rookie Homeowner To Part Of The Renovation Generation

I spent a year teaching myself home improvement skills. Here's what I picked up along the way.

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I counted myself out of the real estate market for most of my life. Growing up, we lost our family home, twice — the first time to a lack of economic opportunity in rural Canada, and again, a decade later, amid the U.S. auto industry's slow-motion crash.

So from the time of my parents' early years as immigrants, to the rentals in between the two houses we lost, to the apartments my brothers and I shared in university, to my days as a young journalist in Toronto, I was a tenant. For many millennials in the GTA — fellow products of a brutal Recession — renting is becoming the norm.

I had missed out on some life lessons that people with a family home in their history may take for granted.

When I moved out as an adult, I considered renting a fiscally responsible choice — not that my freelance income qualified me for a mortgage at the time — and appreciated the flexibility and lifestyle it afforded. There were fewer headaches, but you could never really shake the feeling you could be royally screwed over at the whim of your landlord.

Years later, my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I moved into a modest, budget-friendly condo we bought in Toronto, which we later sold to finance our move to Hamilton, Ont. It was only then that it hit me that I had missed out on some life lessons that people with a family home in their history may take for granted.

Case in point: home improvement skills.

Enter the renovation generation

Millennials have been dubbed the "renovation generation," so-called because those of us who do have the option and inclination to buy a house are moving into the most affordable homes we can find — those of the older, grittier, original-wood-and-linoleum variety, not unlike my craftsman-style house, circa 1920.

Back in 2017, MoneySense reported we're rapidly edging out boomers on renovation spending. One thing about contracted renovation costs, though: they can balloon very quickly. For homeowners who are strapped for cash — and who among our generation of homebuyers isn't, when a mortgage can eat up a majority of income — taking on a do-it-yourself ethic is a must.

Alas, I had the ambition, but not the skills.

I feel like I missed out on learning opportunities. When we lived in a single-family home in the Detroit area, during the so-called "good times," I was too young to have an interest in learning renovation skills from my handy father, who was an engineer by trade and had worked as a contractor in the past. By the time my formative years rolled around and I might have had more interest (or a longer attention span, at least), I didn't need to know how to lay floor or install a light switch — just my landlord's phone number. From then, we were in apartment after apartment.

That's why I really looked up to anyone who had mastered this practical skill set — the people I see showing off the decks and fences they built for their homes on Instagram, or the neighbour who gave me a tour of his newly rebuilt shed, or the family member who tore his kitchen down to the studs for a top-down rebuild. Skills I see them pass onto their children, and I'd like to teach my own daughter one day. They didn't have to rely on hiring someone else to make their house a home. They just had to roll up their sleeves, grab their power saw and get to work. Me? I got my first real toolbox as a gift on my 30th birthday. That was a year ago. (Rest easy, Ikea FIXA tool kit.)

There's a first time for everything

Now faced with the million-and-one things that could go wrong in a full-sized house of my own, I can't lie — I felt totally in over my head. I had to smarten up, fast.

It took a few weeks for the new-house honeymoon to come to an end, and for me to start seeing the ways our place was showing its age.

Nicholas Mizera
Redoing a drafty, century-old attic was a little out of my league, so we contracted out the job and I completed the finishes.

Our original-wood window and door casings, however handsome, had either developed gaps or started falling off entirely in some rooms. The backyard concealed buried bricks (and a skunk den!), and the front yard was a mess of deeply rooted perennials in place of a lawn. Our 30-year-old furnace chugged hot air straight out the uninsulated, unfinished attic. Oh, and is that asbestos tape? Clearly, I had my work cut out for me.

Always one to try something new (and Not Bitter At All about that one time my wife suggested I call my brother-in-law to change a lightbulb), I dove in with both feet to personally upgrade as much of our new place as I could. That meant learning as much as possible, and swallowing my pride when asking for advice.

Don't put things off

Perhaps you hate painting, or you're worried of failure like I was, but the hardest part of finishing a project is getting started in the first place. You'll have to find something to get you over that hump. I had a nine-month deadline working in my favour to motivate me to start checking projects off my list, but whenever I noticed myself dragging my feet I'd think back to our previous home.

The first night in our condo was spent listening to the drip-drip-drip of the bathroom sink — and every night after that, until we "got around" to fixing the leak two years later. Now imagine the same problem spread across four times the square footage. Cringe.

Nicholas Mizera
First project in our new house? The bathroom, of course.

The blessed silence that followed was an object lesson in fixing problems (or implementing improvements) as soon as they crop up. The sooner you start, the longer you'll be able to enjoy the rewards of your labour.

Watch and learn

One balmy summer day last year I helped my brother-in-law lay sod in his backyard. It was a veritable family affair as we split the work up among a half-dozen volunteers, led by him and his horticulturalist buddy. I was charged with less pivotal tasks such as wheelbarrowing dirt and unrolling the grass, but by paying attention to the process and asking questions I learned the basics — strip, till, add topsoil, fertilize, sod, seed and water like hell.

Nicholas Mizera
I sifted the top 12 inches of my front yard by hand to get rid of every root and bulb, because why rent a tiller?

I was able to put the knowledge to work when I installed grass in my front lawn, solo. After taking a few seasons to dig out the sprawling garden that had aggressively taken over our frontage (a neighbour affectionately called it "the jungle" — um, thanks, I guess?), I was the proud owner of a healthy green lawn, established just in time for fall.

Be patient

If you've moved into what you hope will be your forever home like I did, congratulations! You have years of non-stop renovations and repairs to look forward to. In fact, it never ends, I'm told. But your takeaway here should be that you have years to go. The best thing you can do for your budding skillset — and mental health, for that matter — is to slow down.

Nicholas Mizera
I turned a spare bedroom into a nursery — it was my first time hanging wallpaper.

When I set out to repaint two bedrooms, I assumed it would take me a day each, tops, to bang out the work. Then I discovered the rooms needed more than a fresh coat of paint. There were cracks to be filled, doors uninstalled, surfaces sanded, edges taped, plaster patched, gaps caulked, walls primed, walls re-primed... you get the picture. Rather than brood over the rapidly expanding scope of the job, I spread the work out over a period of weeks rather than days to save me the mental anguish.

You should also create a schedule that works for you. I chose to handle the majority of interior projects this year, and hope I'll have time for exterior jobs like repointing the brickwork next spring and summer. This helped me compartmentalize the work and set more specific goals. The longer timeline eased the pressure, giving me room to make mistakes, fix them, and learn how to do each step correctly.

I went to great lengths to get rid of a skunk in my backyard.

Oh, and you'll make mistakes

Speaking of which, you can measure twice, cut once all you want, but that won't prevent the dozens of mistakes and oversights that go into every successful final product. The best way to avoid errors is by spending more time planning — especially when you've never done something before.

Things like sketching out a flower bed plan or researching the right primer to go over oil-based lacquer reduce the time it takes to complete the job and ensure it's done right the first time. When, not if, you make an error, the upshot is there's always a fix. Don't panic.

Admire your work

One of my final projects — for this year, anyway — was building the window casings for our newly finished attic. When I called my wife up to check them out, she was impressed with not only the final product, but how my skills had progressed. Similarly, I have a feeling my family has stopped seeing me only as a soft writerly type, and more a soft writerly type with excellent sanding and painting skills.

Nicholas Mizera
A most unflattering shot of me sanding the new window frames I built for the attic.

And I have to admit, I'm starting to see it, too. A year ago we would've hired out for all of the projects I tackled myself. I can walk to almost any corner of my house and confidently say that I had a hand in making it more beautiful and functional.

The loft space that we use as an office-media room, the nursery where my little girl will sleep, the lawn I'm hoping will become the envy of the neighbourhood — taking it in makes me happy I stepped out of my comfort zone. Still sporting paint-stained hands on a Monday morning is a small badge of honour. My wallet doesn't hurt so much, either.

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There's still so much left to do, but finally I feel confident enough to take on some jobs currently out of my depth. Next up on my to-learn list? Handling my own electrical. Because there are only so many times you can call your brother-in-law over to change a lightbulb.

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