Where there’s a will (and a little skill) there’s a way to cut the cost of home upgrades. Here are 8 projects to help you keep more cash on hand. Plus: how to know when to call in a pro.

By Brett Martin
Illustrations by Angie Wang

1 Tackle a stump

A PRO KNOWS how to subdue stumps and roots using unwieldy machinery. In fact, an expert can grind a 50 cm stump down to 20 cm below ground in about 20 minutes. Problem is, stump-grinding machinery isn’t readily available for hire in South Africa, so you’ll need to call in the experts and pay accordingly.

YOU CAN DO IT YOURSELF IF (a) you own a 4×4, and (b) the stump doesn’t have a root system that penetrates the soil as far as Australia. Wrap a cable firmly around the stump, fix it to a dedicated recovery point on your tow ball receiver (not to the tow ball itself; ask your local 4×4 accessory fitment centre for advice), and haul it out, roots and all. Be sure to clear the area of people and pets; the potential lethality of a snapped cable under tension doesn’t bear thinking about. A third alternative is to leave the stump intact and use it as a flowerpot stand, or as the base for a picnic table.

PRO’S COST: About R15 per cm, excluding transport and complications such as paving.

DIY SAVINGS: For a 1-metre stump, figure on R1 500 at least.

Difficulty vs Satisfaction
D *****
S *******

2 Seal an asphalt driveway

A PRO KNOWS how to remove tough oil stains by burning them off with torches before seal-coating. Pros also have access to commercial-grade sealers that contain more latex than those sold to DIYers at home centres. The extra latex gives it a longer-lasting, more durable finish. “In South Africa’s hot conditions we find it useful to add a little sand for better traction,” says Brett Swanepoel, owner of Pride Asphalt.

YOU CAN DO IT IF you can master the sealant brush, which resembles a broom paired with a squeegee, to apply the sealer evenly. Squeeze out heavy lines or buildup. Repair fissures with a crack filler, scrub oil stains with a liquid laundry detergent, and add a kilogram to every 10 litres of sealant. (But leave the torching to a pro!)

PRO’S COST: R22 to R32 per square-metre, depending on the quality of the original surface.

DIY SAVINGS: For 100 square-metres, you could pocket around R2 500.

Difficulty vs Satisfaction
D ***
S ****

3 Build a cupboard storage system

A PRO KNOWS how to factor in odd shapes and angled ceilings to create a design that maximises utility. A familiarity with useful accessories helps. “We can install lots of bells and whistles, like ironing boards that pull out of drawers, and tie racks,” says cupboard customiser Mike Musick. “With tall ceilings, we can install racks that pull down so you don’t need a ladder.”

YOU CAN DO IT IF your jigsaw skills are sharp enough to trim shelves precisely to span from one out-of-square wall to another. Musick suggests doing a bit of research into standard rod and rack heights to keep clothes from dragging on the floor. To make a sturdy shelf that can take a lot of weight, Musick recommends laying 12 mm plywood atop three level 25 x 50 cleats.

PRO’S COST: R3 000 per lineal metre, plus R500 per drawer.

DIY SAVINGS: A 3-m-wide cupboard could tuck away up to R7 000

Difficulty vs Satisfaction
D *******
S *********

4 Hang a ceiling fan

A PRO KNOWS how to install new electrical cable safely to an open spot on a ceiling – and in any case you have to be a licensed electrician to handle this kind of work. Electricians can also evaluate the breaker panel to see which circuits will handle the new load. Another detail a pro can nail: the need to mount fan-rated electrical hardware securely to hold the heavy, gyrating weight.

YOU CAN DO IT IF you don’t have to run new cable, but rather are replacing an old light fixture with a fan, switch and a fan-rated electrical box. The job is a lot easier if you have access to the ceiling from above, and if surface mounting rather than conduit is employed, says Neville Smith of Computer Cabling Installations. Just be sure to walk on joists only, so you don’t step through the ceiling. Oh, and turn off the circuit breaker for the wires you’re connecting. Safety first!

PRO’S COST: R450 (using existing wiring) to R1 000 (running new wire).

DIY SAVINGS: As much as a cool R450.

Difficulty vs Satisfaction
D ********
S ******

5 Tile a splashback

A PRO KNOWS how to compensate for problems such as wavy walls, bumps or irregularities which affect the finished look. An expert also makes sure the tiles frame outlets and gaps with symmetry and uniformity. Pros also have their own tile saw, and they’re masters at mixing tile-setting mortar. However, says tiling company owner Deon Solomons, a job as small as a splashback isn’t necessarily economical for a contractor, who would charge a minimum fee.

YOU CAN DO IT IF you rent a standard tile cutter at about R80 a day or R300 (plus R100 per mm for a blade) for a wet cutter, used for porcelain tiles. Tony LaPelusa, who runs a home improvement company, says to buy 10 to 15 per cent extra tile for waste and practice cuts. Use spacers between the tiles. Install box extenders in electrical boxes first, then tile around the extenders. Expect it to get messy.

PRO’S COST: R120 per square metre for a big job; a splashback would be charged at a single call-out rate of about R700. You buy materials either way.

DIY SAVINGS: A 1,5-m2 job scores at least R180.

Difficulty vs Satisfaction
D *****
S ********

6 Install a water softner

A PRO KNOWS signs that you need a water softener to reduce
mineral content. In big urban centres it may not be an issue, but out in the country it’s not uncommon. “We do a lot of work on the West Coast, where they use boreholes,” says Hennie Nel of Aura Water in the Cape. Stopping calcification buildup caused by hard water, whose pH is well above neutral, or 7, can help plumbing fixtures and appliances, Particularly tankless water heaters, last up to 15 per cent longer.

YOU CAN DO IT IF you have basic plumbing skills, including the ability to sweat metal pipes and connectors or work with PVC tubing, the latter being somewhat easier to handle. Having
familiarity with your system helps you set up the softener so that water used for drinking or gardening is not unnecessarily softened.

PRO’S COST: R1 000, plus a R9 000 softener.

DIY SAVINGS: At least R1 000.

Difficulty vs Satisfaction
D ******
S *******

7 Replace countertops

A PRO KNOWS how to take precise measurements and keep a
steady hand on a laminate trimmer. “A contractor sees potential layout problems that a homeowner never thinks of,” LaPelusa says, citing a DIY counter install that prevented the dishwasher door from opening.

YOU CAN DO IT IF you can accurately cut medium-density fibre-board as a base and mount laminate with contact cement on the fi rst try (once it sticks, it’s stuck). LaPelusa’s tips: use old countertops as a template for new ones, trim MDF with a belt sander, and shape laminate with a router.

PRO’S COST: R1 600 for 5 metres of laminate countertop.

DIY SAVINGS: Up to R500.

Difficulty vs Satisfaction
D ******
S *******

8 Build a brick braai

A PRO KNOWS the masonry skills and design experience to create an outdoor social hub. “Masonry is always a good investment (and) will last for decades if it’s constructed properly,” says construction company owner Geoff Thomas.

YOU CAN DO IT IF your bricklaying skills are satisfactory. A
hard, clear floor (for instance, the corner of a patio) will do for a foundation, but if you are working on bare ground you will need to level an area about 150 mm larger than the base of the completed braai, excavate about two courses deep and fill up with bricks and mortar. (Source: Corobrik)

PRO’S COST: Perhaps R1 000 built from scratch by a bricklayer,
plus masonry and steelware, about R2 500.

DIY SAVINGS: You could keep R1 000 of the pro’s cost.

Difficulty vs Satisfaction
D ********
S *********

9 Put in a stone path

A PRO KNOWS the secrets to laying flagstone over a stone-aggregate base for an attractive, long-lasting path. “Water drainage is key,” says landscaper James Tucker. “You want 20 mm per metre of slope so water doesn’t pool.” To cut the stones, Tucker scores the top with an angle grinder, then hits them with a dead-blow hammer.

YOU CAN DO IT IF you can haul rocks and dig all day long. Place landscape fabric under the aggregate to prevent weed intrusion. Tucker says to dig to the depth of the base and flagstone so the path top will be at ground level. He points out that square-cut stone, such as a 300 x 300 style, is easiest for a DIYer to install. “If you’re using irregular stone, start by laying the big pieces first, then fill in the path with smaller pieces,” he says. Tamp the aggregate base to aid drainage and prevent the stones from shifting in winter.

PRO’S COST: Average of R400 per square-metre, based on stone type.

DIY SAVINGS: 6 x 6 metres nets R14 400.

Difficulty vs Satisfaction
D ****
S *********

10 Lay a french drain

A PRO KNOWS ways that lawn topography can be used to eliminate standing water. Experts plan and dig a trench, lay perforated pipe on a bed of gravel, and redirect water to a well or a stream. “Divert surface water and you’ll keep it out of your basement,” Tucker says.

YOU CAN DO IT IF you have an itch to use a baby backhoe to dig it out. (Bobcat’s E35 excavator rents for about R2 000 a day, including operator, but excluding transport.) “Wrap perforated pipe with a nylon sock,” Tucker advises. “It lets the water go in and keeps dirt out, to prevent clogging.”

PRO’S COST: Approximately R500 per cubic metre.

DIY SAVINGS: For a 30-metre run, save up to R18 000.

Difficulty vs Satisfaction
D ****
S ********

When to hire a pro

DIYers with sweat equity to invest can successfully undertake an impressive range of projects. But sometimes it makes sense to call in the experts. Put away your tools and pick up the phone if:

You need a licence. Running electrical wiring or gas lines usually requires a licence. A pro’s work is also insured, while a DIYer can be liable for future problems. “You always want a contractor to run gas,” says construction company owner Geoff Thomas. Accidents can happen years later.

The work poses unforeseen danger. For example: cutting trees and large limbs can challenge even pros with years of experience. “Limbs definitely carry a high danger factor,” says Dylan Saito, an arborist. “You have to understand how quickly things can go wrong.”

The project could cause a hazard. As a rule, amateurs should not reconfigure the circuit breaker box. “Never go into that circuit panel,” says Tony LaPelusa of LaPelusa Home Improvement. “If you do something wrong, you could start a fire. You could literally burn down your house.”

The work is beyond your expertise. Avoid jobs in which errors could go unnoticed. For instance, an incorrect window-flashing install can cause hidden leaks. “The entire side of your house could rot away before you know it,” says Bob Peterson, co-owner of a building and design company.