How to DIY with Your Spouse

It may seem tough to do home improvement with a spouse, but we have a few tips that can help.

I work with my husband, Mark. We’ve been working together and loving each other for more than a decade. More than any DIY question, the most frequently asked question we’ve gotten is: “How do you work with your spouse?” If you’ve ever attempted to do a home improvement project with a loved one, you can imagine the possible hazards of emotions that could become messier than taking out a toilet that’s full.

Before you begin a project with a loved one, it’s important to follow the same steps as if you were rocking the project solo.

  • Budget. Set the budget together, and add 20 percent for any surprises, from finding something that needs to be fixed, something that breaks while you are working, or for that tile that you can’t resist at the home improvement center.
  • Timeline. Then define a timeline for when you plan to start and hope to finish, with benchmarks of completion dates along the way.
  • Roles. The last step is deciding who will do what. The part where you define roles is when home improvement is most likely to become emotional. There are some projects you’ll want to do as a couple, some parts you’ll divide between the two of you, and then you may also hire a contractor to do parts. There is where ego and the complications of “his DIY” versus “her DIY” come into play.

Now let’s talk about how to work with your spouse.

  • What’s the difference between “his DIY” and “her DIY”? Typically, the male will want to win at any DIY project, which means he wants to get started, work hard and finish. He will want to do things by himself. She has other motives, which are secondary to the actual project. She wants to experience it, to be together, to share ideas and to create something with her loved one. He feels good moving fast and loading the curb with trash bags and he may even look for extra things to throw away to feed that beast. The key to understanding his and her DIY is to respect each other’s approach to the project and to try to find middle ground where forward motion and happiness are happening.
  • What are your hot buttons? Think about your and your loved one’s hot buttons. If you have to write them down and put them on the wall with some painter’s tape as a reminder, go ahead. Emotions are the biggest obstacle to finding success with a spouse. Those are what you need to avoid while you are working together. If you wouldn’t mention it at work, you don’t mention it while you are working. So talk about who is coming for Thanksgiving or the test that your daughter didn’t do so well on or the lump your friend found later.
  • Who’s in charge? Clearly define the roles you’ll take in the project. The “I thought you were going to do that” assumption happens too often during a couple’s DIY project. In essence, if you know your spouse is really passionate about one part of the project, decide openly that your spouse is the captain of that part. The same goes for the parts that matter most to you. If he enjoys going to the home improvement center, and she doesn’t, then maybe he could do the initial trip to narrow down choices for her to help make the final decision during a quicker trip. If she likes to pick out colors, and he doesn’t care very much about the nuances of the different blues, then she can select 3 colors and ask him to make the final decision.
  • How do you get started? Be careful getting started with any DIY project, especially if you are working on your home. In your haste to organize family heirlooms, you may break something. One of you may be so excited to demo that you start sledgehammering walls before checking where pipes are located, where the electrical runs, and which wall is a bearing wall. Start small and finish the small project with care. We recommend painting a closet or a bedroom before trying to take on a project that involves plumbing or electrical. You’ll develop good DIY working habits in the smaller project, then you are more likely to find success when it’s time to do a bigger project. Take the time up front to protect what really matters.
  • How are you juggling DIY with daily duties? You can’t renovate your bathroom during a weekend when you are going to your kid’s soccer game, taking the dog for regular strolls and maintaining a full and active social life. Life happens to all of us, so manage your time — realistically. Pad the schedule just like you pad the budget. You never know when life throws a surprise. It might be fun knocking back coffee at 6pm on a Sunday night, but almost nothing good comes from a miter saw at midnight.

When DIYing with your spouse planning  is your best friend. Below I’ve outlined some planning tips:

  • Design. It all starts with the design — what it looks like, how it works and how it impacts your family when it’s done, whether you’re hanging family photos or building a garden shed. Think it through as much as you can. Create measured drawings on graph paper or Google SketchUp. Pull a tape in the place. Use cardboard, string, tape, whatever it takes to get a good, solid visual so you can feel the real-time scale of whatever you’re making, fixing or building.
  • Scope. When designing, swing for the fences. Think about all the stuff that’d make the project cool, fun and yours.
  • Budget. When budgeting, you’ll probably have to pull the fence back some. Or a lot. Dreams and reality don’t always get along. Figure out how much stuff will cost in real life. Then make sure you have a slush fund in case (when) stuff goes wrong.
  • Tools. Before you start working, think through all the tools you need — or might need. It is better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. And better to know that your chainsaw starts a week before you need it than 30 seconds.
  • Permits. Building a large project is not a game. It’s fun, but there are laws and safety and stuff. Just because you worked as an electrician’s helper in high school doesn’t mean you’re an electrician. It means you’re dangerous. Pull permits for projects requiring them. It’ll add value and peace of mind to your project, your house, and your life.
  • Time Management. You can’t renovate your bathroom on the weekend, go to your kid’s soccer game and take the dog for regular strolls. Manage your time — both of your time — realistically. And it might be fun knocking back coffee at 6 pm, but almost nothing good comes from a miter saw at midnight. Just sayin’.
  • Contractors. Pick the best ones, be ready to hand over, use them to consult, don’t expect it for free. Work honestly with them because the relationship isn’t about who is smartest — business isn’t that esoteric—it’s about who is honest and wants honest work done well.

Lastly, love each other. You both have a dream. The dream may change, the goals may change and things will go wrong, but the point is seeing your dream come alive together.