Do-it-yourself labor has powerful economic forces at its back. You can participate—or invest.
I broke the mirror on my pick-up. To replace it (parts, labor, tax) my friendly dealer wanted $431. There would be a wait, because the parts would have to be ordered and openings in the service schedule were scarce.
Impatient, I located a Chevy dealer on the other side of town with the parts in stock. They cost me $203. A YouTube video told me how to take apart a truck door. In an hour I had the mirror mounted and the door reassembled.
My effective salary during this hour: $228. Tax-free. I’m not going to pay a nickel of income or payroll tax on this money.
Have you thought about all the ways you could make a side income by acting as your own pro? Tax preparer, pastry chef, plumber—be all you can be. Or, if this sort of thing scares you, just invest in the D-I-Y phenomenon. Below, suggestions for stocks that would benefit if do-it-yourselfism picks up speed.
There are two reasons why it might do that. One is that the internet is getting ever better at finding the things you need, like repair parts, advice and how-to videos.
The other, and bigger reason, is the dead weight of government that lies atop professional work.
I’m not resentful of the Chevy dealer that quoted a stiff price for installing a mirror. At the dealership I would be paying not just for the mechanic’s time but also for his income tax, his payroll taxes, his medical insurance, the property tax on his space, a scheduler, a service manager, an OSHA inspector, a bookkeeper, a tax CPA, a compliance team at whatever stockbroker handles the dealer’s 401(k) and probably a Small Business Administration consultant. Plus a sales tax levied on all of the foregoing. My $203 includes sales tax, but on a much smaller bill of goods.
Which companies will gain ground and which will lose in a service economy where the cost of overhead is inexorably going up?
You’d probably like Intuit (INTU, $370), which gets more revenue from supplying D-I-Y tax software than from supplying professional hand-holding. You’d avoid H&R Block (HRB, $33), which has the reverse revenue mix.
You’d favor Morningstar (MORN, $228), which sells database subscriptions that let retirement savers pick their own funds, and you’d reject Morgan Stanley (MS, $73), which charges gigantic sums for the same work.
You might like Williams-Sonoma (WSM, $119), which sells equipment to wannabe Julia Childses. You’d shy away from Darden Restaurants (DRI, $114).
I’d like to be able to say that practice makes perfect in the business of stock picking. That’s not really the case; luck is the dominant factor. When it comes to mechanical work, though, experience pays off, and scraped knuckles or disappointments early on eventually give way to money-saving results. Here are three of my recent projects.
The busted mirror
A tree collided with my 2019 Silverado, crushing the motorized side mirror on the passenger side. Could I possibly replace the part on my own? Just a look at the door was intimidating. It was not at all obvious how I’d get access to the mirror bolts.
Google came to the rescue, with a video that matched my need in car model and task. To get at the mirror mount you pry off some of the door trim, exposing hidden screws, and unhitch wiring harnesses by clicking certain clips.
I estimate that a professional mechanic could have done in 20 minutes what took me an hour. His tools would have been six feet away; I was making multiple trips to the basement for metric sockets and whatnot. He would not have been so timid with the prying. Still, all the overburden of running a dealer service operation would have made his labor very costly.
How might an investor bet on an expansion of the universe of auto repair videos? The 5,784 stores of O’Reilly Automotive (ORLY, $587) serve up auto parts, mostly to weekend amateurs. Stock to avoid: Snap-On (SNA, $196). Its tools are of top quality, but, by dint of being sold almost entirely to the pro crowd, come encrusted with those OSHA inspectors and service managers.
The broken switch
A mishap snapped the stem of a speed switch on my 1993 Garland range hood. The usual drill with appliances has you typing the model number into the website of the manufacturer, getting an exploded diagram of the appliance with part numbers, and getting a chance to buy the part from either the manufacturer or one of several well-stocked parts companies.
At Garland, a dead end. The company, mainly a supplier of stoves to restaurants and hotels, says that it stopped selling into the residential market in 1999. Its website makes no admission that it ever sold any ventilation hood to any consumer. It does say that a Scottsdale, Arizona company will supply parts for Garland residential products, but that company informs me that it deals only with the stoves, not the vents.
What would a pro do next? Perhaps recommend that I yank the whole appliance out of the ceiling and start over with a reliable brand, at a cost of $1,000 or more.
I unscrewed the electric box. The switch bore the lettering KBMC-13BVL.
The internet jumped once more unto the breach. Google and Nexis revealed:
—KB Electronics, a firm whose founders were named Knauer and Bueller, started out in Brooklyn. Not long after I bought my stove vent, KB fled New York’s taxes and regulations, resettling in Coral Springs, Florida.
—The Coral Springs operation sold out to a Japanese motor company, Nidec Corporation.
—Nidec has dutifully retained the product line and publishes detailed spec sheets showing that, for my purposes, a KBMC-13BV will do fine.
—The KBMC-13BV can be found online, at Amazon and other vendors.
I did not have to replace the ventilation hood. I replaced the part for $27, including shipping and tax.
Stock to like: Nidec (NJDCY, $15).
Stock to not like: Welbilt (WBT, $24), parent of the perfidious Garland. An Italian outfit is planning to buy Welbilt. If the merger falls through, WBT will sink like a cast-iron stovetop.
The aging heater
A water heater can reasonably be expected to last only as long as a cat. My 30-gallon Superstor, installed 20 years ago by a pro, needed replacing.
This plumber is now so busy he doesn’t even return phone calls. Could I tackle the job myself?
Any amateur can put in an electric water heater. But the Superstor is indirect-fired, meaning that it feeds off a loop in the baseboard central heating system. Because of some complications peculiar to my situation, I would be making 31 joints.
Copper piping has the unfortunate characteristic of penalizing one bad joint by forcing you to rip out most of what you have done and start over. Very forbidding. If the odds that one joint will leak are 50-50, the probability that all 31 will be good is 1 in 2 billion.
After much sweating I had the thing installed, with no leaks, on the first go. A real-life plumber would have done the work in half the time. He wouldn’t have been intimidated. Also, he wouldn’t have had to watch YouTube videos on purging a boiler loop.
It will surprise you to hear who is the hero and who is the goat in this part of the home improvement industry. Home Depot (HD, $271) is virtually synonymous with D-I-Y. Its business model involves an underpaid, high-turnover staff that includes a handful of experts and a large number of clueless clerks. That model works fine for hammers but it doesn’t work for plumbing supplies. There HD is competing with supply houses that have better inventory and, behind the counter, people who know the difference between a CxC 1” coupling with stop and one without.
At least HD has bargains? No. At one of those supply houses I paid $1,185, including tax, for the HTP Superstor plus the Honeywell thermostat. HD wants $1,771.
The company to like is an underappreciated wholesaler that sells to supply houses: Ferguson (FERG, $110). FERG is a bargain at 11 times earnings, to HD’s 17.
Now, you may be curious how I had that contretemps with the tree, and I have a confession to make. I was using the truck to move a load of dirt. That was to save a landscaper’s fee.