New Zealand’s DIY society

By Jane Clifton In Current Affairs

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Kiwi DIYer Rodney Hide

DIY converts: Rodney Hide and his wife, Louise, at their Wellington home, photo David White.

As a very successful advertising campaign has long told us, DIY is in our DNA. The urge to knock out a wall, whack up a deck or hire a post-hole borer can lie dormant for decades and, as former Act leader Rodney Hide found, without warning suddenly take over one’s life.

Over the past year or so, Hide unexpectedly became one of a new surge of avid do-it yourself home handy-people. He became fascinated with the work being done by the builder he’d contracted to renovate his house, and ended up spending the year as the builder’s labourer. “It was the most satisfying work I’d ever done,” he says wonderingly – after a career spanning academia, economic think-tanking and politics. It drove his former preoccupations – permanently he says – out of his scheme of priorities.

Not everyone gets bitten this badly, but company annual reports indicate the DIY epidemic is raging. In a corporate world beset by post-global financial crisis collywobbles and high-dollar woes, hardware retail chains such as Mitre 10 and Bunnings are expanding strongly, both replicating and upgrading their nationwide networks of warehouse- sized stores. Mitre 10’s sales topped $850 million for the last financial year, its highest ever, while transtasman Bunnings’ were $10.9 billion for the two territories. The sales growth is part of a “Yes, we can” picture of multiplying Bob the Builders. And the have-a-go urge is being piqued by the popularity of such television series as The Block, which often make renovation tasks look fun and achievable.

The DIY drive runs especially deep in the New Zealand psyche because of our geographical isolation and the resultant dependence on imports. Chronic scarcity of equipment in decades long past led in turn to the deathless “No 8 fencing wire” ethos. The Heartland Channel’s reruns of old Country Calendar programmes are a treasure trove of information about how remote rural dwellers fashioned machinery and houses from whatever they had to hand.

Import restrictions lasted till the 1980s, making DIY equipment expensive. A longtime DIY fiend, television producer Richard Harman, says even after import controls went, items such as power tools were almost beyond the reach of your average doer-upper. In recent years, this has changed. “I’m always amazed at how cheap quite sophisticated tools are from the big retailers like Bunnings these days. In the mid-80s you’d pay more than $100 for a drill, which was a lot of money then. Now you can get a good one for under $100. And I suppose, too, the other thing is that a lot of materials you can get are more user-friendly. You don’t have to have a building background or special knowledge to be able to work out how to do a lot of things.”

Another obvious impetus for the DIY surge is the stalling economy, with the ongoing economic uncertainty stoking people’s desire to save money. DIY retail is proving a recession-proof business, and not just because of its potential to save householders money. At another level, it’s part of the movement that includes the renaissance of handcrafts and artisan food – a counterpoint to people’s increasing interactions with tablets, smartphones and computer-based recreation.

“HE’S MY BITCH!”

A house in Auckland’s Birkenhead during its renovation.

Hide found it tapped into a primal urge. With a toddler daughter and another baby on the way during his renovations, “I felt like I was providing a home for my family with my own hands. That’s a really powerful feeling.” He relished even the humbling experience of being a know-nothing. He was chuffed to be deemed useful enough to help his builder mentor on other renovation projects, because he so enjoyed the work and the learning experience. One day another tradesman turned up at a job, clocked Hide doing some manual graft and asked the builder if that was who it looked like. Told it was indeed the former Epsom MP, the tradesman asked what the heck he was doing on-site, to be told playfully, “He’s my bitch!”

“And I reckon I got paid what I was worth, too,” says Hide. Which was? “Nothing.” He notes the common complaint of tradespeople that even in these times of worryingly persistent unemployment, labourers are hard to retain. A proportion of potential workers sent by Work and Income will typically leave by morning tea, a further tranche at lunchtime “and most of the rest get their mums to ring up next morning to say they’re not coming back”.

Hide can’t understand the reluctance, because despite the work being dirty and physical, it is interesting and varied. And the physicality of it quickly becomes part of the satisfaction. “It’s also like an architectural dig. You find yourself thinking about what life was like for the people who built the house in, say, 1910.” If DIY can save you money, Hide found, it doesn’t bear the scrutiny of costing your time. “I had to make eight pelmets. The first one took me longer than the next seven combined.”

The home renovator may only ever perform each new skilled task once and never get the chance to use the knowledge again. But Hide says it can also be false economy to insist on doing everything you physically can, because your amateur slowness can hold up other tradespeople needed on your project, increasing the costs. Home renovations are a military campaign of coordination, and delay can mean expense or exponential hold-ups. While waiting for you to faff about making heavy weather of painting work that a professional could knock off in a day, a tradesperson might get stuck into another project and put off the next stage of yours for even longer.

Hide and his wife, Louise, agree that putting up with discomfort and a lack of amenities for a long time requires a brave face. Louise and daughter Liberty moved out for a period when the house was without power; Hide rather delighted in the adventure of camping out in his own home. But it was a struggle during the months when the three of them bivouacked in two rooms, fighting a constant tide of dust and grime. However, not many home owners can afford to take a year off as Hide has. “And I’ve now got to think of what to do next so I can pay for it all!”

Lacking a willing builder to honorarily apprentice oneself to – “I just pestered my guy till he agreed; he knew I would keep asking!” – the aspiring DIYer can now learn in considerable detail how to do basic jobs, from relining walls to putting up retaining walls, using online tutorials, including those devised by hardware retail chains. Retailers have also introduced regular DIY clinics, including some aimed at women and even junior aspiring builders (although the less said about pink floral tool-belt sets the better).

IT’S NOT THE DIYERS CAUSING THE PROBLEMS

Old hand Richard Harman

Old hand: Richard Harman laments the restrictions now placed on DIY, photo David White.

The truly fortunate, like Harman, come from families where DIY skills have been passed down over generations. His know-how, augmented by a “quick fly-past” of architectural training at university, came into its own during the 1970s in the decayed but then highly affordable Auckland suburb of Ponsonby. Home do-ups became common in that era, partly because income tax rates were historically high. Harman says the bulk of such neighbourhoods were first-home owners who often pooled labour, know-how and equipment to improve their old houses. “Looking back, it was quite a social experience. Most people had a bit of knowledge. We’d all been taught some woodwork at school.”

The habit continued for Harman through the 1980s in Wellington’s Mount Cook where, again, much of his immediate neighbourhood spent spare time doing amateur upgrade work. The idea of, as the ad says, “getting a man in” was not one’s first impulse, he says. A lot of people did such extensive work that they practically rebuilt old houses from scratch – something one is not allowed to do under the new building legislation unless the work is signed off by a certified professional.

The post-leaky homes crisis crackdown on amateur do-ups remains controversial. As competent home renovators like Harman attest, it’s not the self-built or self-renovated houses that have caused the problems. Yet they’ve been severely restricted. “The amazing thing when you look back on it is that for decades, you could go to the timber yard to get what you needed to fix something, and there would be the exact same weatherboards as had been used when your house was originally built. The products were identical, they did the job and you used the products exactly the same way they’d always been used, because they worked.”

Weather-tightness difficulties began in part, he says, because new compound products came on the market in place of basic wood products, which were then used in various and not always successful ways.

The affected sectors, professions and authorities are still debating the causes and culprits of the leaky homes crisis. There’s broad consensus that the epidemic of unwanted indoor water features arose from an infinitely variable combination of deregulation, new and insufficiently tested products, architectural miscues, a natural cost-cutting impetus in the housing-development sector and the failure of local authorities to get on top of any of the above in terms of building-inspection services.

Nowhere along the line did any of the official inquiries or legal actions pinpoint incompetent or rogue DIY jobs as being even a tiny part of the problem. “I think what people are doing these days is landscaping, shelving and decks, rather than knocking out walls and the serious structural work that we used to do back in the 70s and 80s. If we wanted to replace a couple of windows, we just went ahead and did it. Now you’re going to have to get consents for a lot of that work.” A kitchen renovation that he once did with about four pages of technical drawings would now take a multiple of that in plan documents.

A career-long analyst of politics, Harman says he understands what the last two governments have been trying to achieve through more stringent regulation. But he regrets the consequent collateral restrictions on DIY.

ACCIDENTS WAITING TO HAPPEN

However, DIY is not an entirely benign activity, either financially or in terms of safety. The Accident Compensation Corporation doesn’t have an exact picture of the extent of DIY related injury, as not all claimants report the reason for having been up a ladder, or how they cut themselves or came to fall in a ditch.

But its statistics suggest it’s a significant contributor to our annual injury claims bill. For a start, most accidents serious enough to lead to ACC claims occur in and around the home. Overwhelmingly, the most common type of home accident is a fall, slip or trip, with ladder- and roof- related incidents extremely common.

Given that more than 10,000 claims a year are for accidents with gas or electricity – wiring and ducting are common and mysterious obstacles for amateur renovators – and that more than 1200 have to do with plugs, sockets and wiring, it’s clear home handypersons are upping their risk factor. Wellington builder Robert van Driel says clients tell him they find an evening or weekend’s plastering and painting relaxing and restorative, and he can understand that. And there are a range of other home renovation jobs amateurs can safely do to a reasonable standard provided they do their homework and are safety conscious.

But there are some surprising pitfalls. He says installing underfloor insulation is one of the most common killers of unskilled handymen. “They’re stapling cheap silver foil to the subfloor framing, and they accidentally put a staple into a live wire …” It’s a horrible way to die.

Cheap ladders are known in the trade as “leg breakers”, he says, because, not being sturdy or well designed, they make it all too easy for users to misstep, put a leg through the hole rather than on a rung, lose their footing and sustain nasty bone and ligament injuries.

Van Driel says amateurs should reflect, too, on the much more stringent safety rules recently introduced to safeguard building sites, such as the increased scaffolding requirements. Another builder interviewed for this story said privately that in his early days in the trade, he could be made to feel like a sissy for querying safety. After being mocked for expressing doubt about the soundness of some scaffolding, he was resoundingly proven correct when the scaffold detached from the building with him on it, resulting in two broken arms. Van Driel says a professional can misstep but an inexperienced householder is much more likely to do so.

Hide had exactly that experience up a high ladder in his elder daughter’s bedroom. “I just sort of forgot where I was, and I stepped off. On my way down, I realised I’d left tools on the floor around the ladder, and I thought in that split second, I’m going to break things.” Luck was with him and he missed the sharp-edged array of detritus on the floor. But he learnt that a professional tradesperson automatically clears the space around a ladder for exactly that possibility.

Another job van Driel advises the amateur against doing is ceiling work. A professional becomes conditioned to doing all that looking up. “It’s much cheaper to get a professional to do it than to have to go through months of treatment because you’ve injured your neck or your back.” The common practice of “just adding concrete” and calling it repiling is another waste of time, effort and money – house foundations are best left to professionals, van Driel reckons.

YOU NEED TO DO YOUR HOMEWORK

Hardware chains such as Bunnings are expanding to capitalise on the surge in DIY.

He also cautions people to consider the potential insurance implications of what they’re doing in amateur restoration. It’s not uncommon for insurers to refuse to pay out for fires they believe may have been caused by amateur electrical work, much of which is illegal. There are some legal grey areas, but in general, he says, amateur electrical and plumbing work is risky false economy.

Gas-fitting is a legal no-go zone. There’s no reason that straightforward jobs such as fitting a new kitchen or relining walls can’t be done by an amateur, van Driel says. “But you still need to do your homework. There are a lot of different sorts of linings, and sometimes you might be removing one that is important to the strength of the house.”

Replace a wall-bracing lining with a lesser-grade one and your house will not endure storms and earthquakes as well. The classic Kiwi DIY urge is that muttered while dreaming aloud Mr Toad-like and heard at many an open home: “Well, you’d want to knock that wall out …” Van Driel says this can be an extremely bad idea. Even if everything seems fine – that is, the house hasn’t sagged anywhere as a result of your knock-through – it can cause paralysis at resale time. “People these days are very careful after all the leaky home problems, so they’re much more likely to get a LIM [land information memorandum] report. And if they see that there’s a wall that’s not there any more and it’s an amateur job, it’s going to need to be investigated. Because that house might not be structurally sound, and the bank may not lend on it.”

What then has to happen is this: the vendor has to hire an engineer, the engineer has to inspect inside the surrounding walls to ascertain structural soundness and the vendor has to pay for possible strengthening work and for all that lining and decorating to be redone.

MORE CHANGE LOOMS

Still, further change is in the wind. It’s unclear yet whether the Christchurch rebuild, when it gets into full swing over the next few years, will cause a shortage of skilled tradespeople in other parts of New Zealand. But if it does, it will further boost our DIY DNA, through both scarcity and pricing pressures.

A further incentive could come through the shaming-down of building product prices, one of the tacit goals of the Government’s “affordable housing” policies. The fact that Fletcher Building, the undisputed market king and owner of the PlaceMakers chain, has in the past year complained about the sector “coming under attack” from cheaper overseas products underlines the dominance the company has had in New Zealand’s modern history. It’s not controversial to say the building products sector has not enjoyed the keenest of competitive pressure. The company will naturally be included in the ambit of the Government’s pending inquiry into the feed-in cost pressures affecting housing affordability.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment will release a draft document outlining the scope of its construction costs inquiry early in 2013. Material costs as well as the pricing of services will be the focus, and the issue of vertical pricing and other anti-competitive aspects of the way the construction sector is aggregated are expected to come under beady scrutiny. If the inquiry leads to downward cost pressures, the main benefits will be felt in the professional building sector. This could in time make DIY less appealing – or even more so.

DIY remains an uncomplicated tradition that exists in a complicated economic and regulatory habitat. The strong Kiwi urge to save money and to experience the satisfaction of home building is now running into belt-and-braces restrictions on the scope of that impulse – at the same time as the economy provides ever stronger cues to pick up that hammer.

More by Jane Clifton

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