Design & DIY

Help! I share the cottage with a DIY dud

A confused man applying plaster to a wall By Elnur/Shutterstock

Q: “My family shares a cottage with my parents and cousins from both sides. I am not very handy, but a few of my cousins are DIYers who insist on doing all cottage repairs. Normally this would be a good thing, but they usually do a very poor job and a lot of projects have to be done twice, which is a waste of time. I have suggested that paying someone to do the job right the first time would be money well spent, but they say any tradesperson would just ‘rip us off,’ even though we have never hired one before. No one in my family wants to rock the boat because my cousins are good people, but I’m getting tired of paying twice for materials. How can I change this situation?”

A: Having single-handedly staffed the Shared Cottage Complaint Hotline for the last while, I can safely say that your cohabitation experience is fairly unique because most family squabbles about fix-it stuff pivot around a central axis of laziness. Usually, this means family members are unwilling to help with chores and maintenance, sometimes to the point of defiant work avoidance. But it can also manifest itself in that special form of indolence where human arms are so lazy that they cannot reach down to pick up a purse or a wallet, or peck out an e-transfer on a smartphone. Sadly, at many shared places, sloth and stinginess walk hand in hand.

You are in an unusual bind. Like your cousins, many DIY enthusiasts—particularly the new, heavily bearded kind who refer to themselves as “makers”—are loathe to spend money on any task they could imagine performing themselves. It doesn’t matter that they have never installed a 200-amp electrical service panel before. How hard could it be? That’s why YouTube exists. Besides, they saw Mike Holmes do it once, and it only took his guy 22 minutes. Bear in mind that these are “normal” DIYers we are talking about. Your cousins are outliers because they see contractors as rip-off artists rather than hired help, and they appear to be extreme in their aversion to paying a professional to ensure professional results.

For regular DIYers, doing things themselves is all about pride, personal accomplishment, and a desire to learn a new skill. But because your cousins have comingled those same qualities with miserliness and suspicion, it will be very difficult to convince them to pay actual money for professional help, even if it is badly needed. And it’s curious that they repeatedly botch jobs only to redo them. Because while enthusiasm is a big part of DIY DNA, most of us have enough self-awareness to identify a job that is just too large, too complex, or too dangerous to tackle. That’s when you hire someone who is smarter and owns the proper tools and equipment to do the job. Having to redo a project you just finished last year? It’s proof positive you were never up to the job in the first place. But ultimately, it depends on the project: messing up a garden planter is no big whoop but screwing up more serious repairs, like plumbing or electrical or major roof fixes, will have serious and expensive consequences.

I guess you could try to convene a family meeting and lobby to raise money for some badly needed work, but I fear you’d be in for a rough ride. If expenses are shared evenly, your cousins won’t want to pay a red cent. And you might find that other members of your family suffer from alligator arms and are happy to put up with someone else’s half-assed job if it costs them little or nothing. To complicate matters, you would be operating in a perilous zone of hurt feelings, given that your cousins mean well and work hard, no matter how poor the result.

I recently spoke to a cottager with the reverse of your problem. His uncle, a retired contractor, also insisted on doing all the repairs and upgrades at a multi-family cottage. He had the talent and the tools, and any work done was of the highest quality. But he worked very slowly, with many stops and starts, so small projects took forever and big ones never ended. But he always had an excuse for slow progress and was adamant that a pro would take just as long and do a substandard job. Talk about a no-win situation. The guy is slow, but he does really good work for free. How do you find fault with that without looking like a total jerk?

Short of putting up with the status quo, I can see only two ways forward in this stalemate and both will cost you a lot of money. In a weak bid to minimize hurt feelings, you could make a pitch to the group that identifies specific jobs and suggest that money for them could be voluntarily contributed by family members. It’s a crapshoot. If everyone else votes to chip in, your handy cousins might cave under pressure and cough up some dough. But if they refuse to participate, the dominoes could fall, and you might be left with meagre or nonexistent support.

Agreement in any group is difficult. When the group is related by blood, consensus is usually impossible, sometimes just because when they were both 12, Kate gave Justin a wedgie in front of all the kids at the regatta. My advice, if you can afford it, is to simply pull an end-run around the whole family and personally pay to have a job that is important to you performed by a competent tradesperson. Secure a contractor well in advance, and try to schedule the work for a time when no one else is around. When the dust has settled, tell your cousins you feel terrible because they work so hard, and you can’t even swing a hammer. Mention their dedication and selflessness. Your kin might grumble, but I bet they’ll take the compliment. I’d also give 50/50 odds that other family members will feel pangs of conscience and toss some bucks your way. Or maybe they won’t. It’s actually quite impossible to know. But when you share a cottage with extended family, the relative who risks nothing, gains nothing.

This article was originally published in the June/July 2022 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

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