Last month, the LiveCheap site ran an article by a guy who had worked in the information and software business. He laid it down as a basic law of software development that out of fast, cheap, and good, you can have any two, but not all three. If you want to develop good software quickly, you should expect to spend serious money; if the client insists on having it done both quickly and cheaply, then the quality will suffer. However, if you are prepared to spend some extra time, you can get the job done well on a low budget. He then goes on to explain how this same principle applies to many other areas of frugal living, from buying a computer to booking a hotel room.
I can personally attest that this rule definitely holds true in the area of home improvement. For instance, the previous owners of our home seem to have tried to make every job as fast and cheap as possible. We saw many examples of this when we started work on the big basement room. Rather than taking the time to make the walls smooth, they had covered up the defects with cheap (and cheap-looking) plastic paneling. When putting up the ceiling, they had slapped the panels into place willy-nilly, without bothering to align them with the joists. They hadn't even bothered to make sure the panels they used were all of the same thickness. They'd thrown down a piece of sheet vinyl on the floor that didn't even reach all the way to the edges of the room; they'd left a visible gap between one wall and the ceiling; they'd wired up the lights in a way that made no sense and didn't really illuminate the room.
Now, I've watched enough HGTV to know that a lot of homeowners, faced with a problem like this, would spend thousands of dollars on a good and fast solution. They would rip out everything and start over from scratch, hiring professionals to put in new walls and ceilings, reframe the windows, and install new flooring. However, we approached the problem differently. Since we didn't need the space right away, we could afford to take the time to do a good and cheap job. Over the course of two and a half years, we worked on every single part of that room—ceiling, walls, windows, doors, lighting, and floor. We always looked for inexpensive solutions that would salvage as much as possible of the existing material. We also did as much of the work ourselves as we could. The only professional we hired was an electrician (and that was mainly because our town really makes it difficult to get permits for DIY work). It took time, but the results were worth waiting for, and we can feel confident that we got our money's worth out of the job. And as a bonus, we have a space we can feel proud of, because we know it's the fruit of our own labors.
I have to admit, though, that as we gear up for the next big project—the downstairs bath—I'm starting to wonder if maybe it would be worth spending just a little more money so we can see results a little faster. So while we're planning to become regular customers of the Habitat ReStore up in Morris County, if we can't find everything we need there in a reasonable amount of time, then the hell with it—I'm prepared to...[whispered] pay retail.