After a few months of being house-bound with a very bored six- and seven-year-old, Catlin Bartman decided to take matters into his own hands and build something that would be a welcome distraction for the kids – and him and his wife, Julie.
Julie gave him a photo she’d found on Pinterest, a playhouse complete with a trap door and ladder to a spacious loft. He scoured websites and YouTube videos for ideas, bought the building materials and spent two months this summer completing a project that is an envy of his Calgary Pump Hill neighbourhood.
“I wouldn’t have been able to take this on if I wasn’t working from home,” says Bartman, 34, who works in oil and gas. “Doing the work myself saved us thousands of dollars and was mental therapy for me.” The mechanical engineer has always been handy, but never had the time to let his inner do-it-yourselfer go a little wild. “Now I’m planning on building the kids a hockey rink in the backyard with LED lights embedded in the ice,” he says.
Bartman isn’t the only one whose DIY impulses have kicked into overdrive during the pandemic. A recent report from Toronto-based real estate consultancy Altus Group estimated Canadians will spend about $25-billion on DIY projects in 2020, which is approximately 30 per cent of the $75-billion home renovation market.
Instead of discretionary dollars going to restaurants, clothing (aside from comfy casual) and travel, thousands of Canadians are investing in wood, nails, drywall and power tools to take on projects around the house they finally have time for.
And a wellspring of DIY videos on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, and their accompanying comment threads, are making the jobs easier and more accessible for this army of everyday folks who want to make their homes more comfortable, save money, and perhaps most important, feel like they’re accomplishing something at a time when COVID-19 feels like it’s brought the world to a standstill.
“Once I’ve showered and am ready to go for the day, I want to feel purposeful, with COVID even more so,” says Lisa Mihalcin, a recently retired legal assistant in Thunder Bay, Ont. with two grown kids. “We’ve been talking about replacing the deck on the back of our house for years. So I went online, watched a couple YouTube videos, and hit the lumber store. It took me a couple of weeks to finish the job.”
She bought 16-foot boards, replaced old wood pickets with aluminum ones, and screwed it all together with a new tool her husband, Al, surprised her with. “He came home with an impact driver, which was very exciting,” says Mihalcin.
Do-it-yourself used to be a male domain, but this new vibrant virtual community – which includes blogs (the Home Depot’s is popular), websites and community forums such as doityourself.com and hometalk.com, Instagram sites and YouTube channels (two popular Canadian offerings are MySelfReliance and Home RenoVision DIY) – is replete with valuable do’s and don’ts. More important, it’s levelled the playing field and given women like Mihalcin the confidence to strap on tool belts.
“YouTube is kind of my extended family,” she says. “I’m asking questions to everyone who’s out there listening. I put what I’m looking for out to the masses and get all the best answers.”
One guy who seems to have all the answers is Ottawa-based Jeff Thorman. His YouTube channel, Home RenoVision DIY, has 10-million viewers and 1.3-million subscribers.
Since COVID-19 hit, Thorman has seen a 20 per cent jump in traffic. “It’s a little weird. We did a live show a week ago [on LED lights] and we were taking calls from South Africa, Ireland and Japan,” he says.
A contractor for 15-plus years, Thorman started his channel four years ago after he identified a market niche that wasn’t being fulfilled – practical, easy-to-follow tutorials for people to fix up and take care of their homes.
The age demographic for his YouTube channel is 24 to 45, millennials and Gen-Z’s for whom online research is the norm. Thorman does 110 videos a year and his viewership numbers are staggering. For example, a video titled How To Paint Like a Pro garnered 4.7-million views, How to Install Drywall has 4.2-million viewers and How to Build a Shed A to Z, 4.8-million.
“It’s never a problem to come up with subject matter,” says Thorman. “It’s the world of renovation, so it’s endless.”
When 26-year-old Megan Judges realized she needed to reconfigure her 10-by-20-foot bedroom so she could work from home, she, too, went online to figure out how to build a desk. The Queen’s University business grad, who works at Capital One Financial in Toronto, read up on how to glue plywood together (for the desktop), what waterproof materials are best to cover that surface (contact paper, which she triple wrapped) and how to install desk legs.
It took her a weekend to complete it, cost her $200, and now she and her roommate each have separate “home offices” in their 800-square-foot apartment.
“You do your first one [DIY project] and you’re a little bit nervous,” says Judges. “But then you have the confidence to go onto the next thing. Now I’m feeling inspired and thinking about installing a slider for my keyboard. It’s good therapy during these really strange times. It’s also kind of empowering – not to mention, a little bit addictive.”
Mihalcin, in Thunder Bay, can attest to that. Since the deck overhaul, she’s moved on to some bathroom renovation work and is currently refinishing some furniture in the garage.
She says the work is a respite from the general craziness of a COVID-focused world. It’s a movement, she adds, that seems to fit with the current trend to take pleasure in doing things the old-fashioned way, like baking sourdough bread or making preserves.
“For me it’s relaxing and gratifying,” says Mihalcin. “It’s like going for a walk to clear my mind.”