Sunday, May 17, 2009

Home Improvement - The illusion of low labour cost!

We Indians are a DIFM (Do It For Me) type of customer when it comes to any kind of home improvement project. DIY (Do It Yourself) is an alien concept given the over abundance of labor in the Indian context. However, is it sustainable?

Traditionally the majority of urban Indians require an electrician to replace a blown fuse and therefore obviously the support of a plumber, carpenter and so on. Hanging a picture in the house is a major project because we need a carpenter for that! Why is that?

First and foremost, we are not taught even the basic skills required for some of the home related repair and maintenance work. And we don’t take the trouble to acquire these skills because of the existence of the neighborhood electrician/ plumber, etc. Therefore, we also don’t have the tools required to even do simple things like changing the fuse!

Secondly most neighborhoods have a hardware shop which has a resident plumber and electrician. These people are not employed by the store. They just use the store as their base of operations and a contact point. In return the sales generated due to the work they do is monopolized by that store. So, it is mutually dependent and creates a self sustaining cycle between the customer, the skilled worker and the store.

Lastly, given the cost of a proper tool kit, hand drill, etc., and while balancing it against the occasional repair needs as also the on-call low cost labor, most Indians prefer DIFM.

This is fine when paying a few hundred rupees to do minor stuff. Recently, the capacitor of one of the ceiling fans gave up. To replace the same we paid Rs. 75/- to the electrician who had come plus the cost of the capacitor. Even assuming that the price of the capacitor would not change, if I had changed the same, there is a savings of Rs. 75/-. Why did I not do that? Urban dwellers increasingly trade off money for time (Read this article about this concept - So, in my view the cost of the electrician’s time was far less than the value of my time and the required effort for this.

But, this also leads to conditioning and repetitive behavior. Even if I knew something about home improvement, I soon lose touch and my dependence on the skilled workers increases and thereby my latent need and dependence on contractors also grows, for larger home improvement jobs.

Now, imagine a slightly larger in scope but simple enough home improvement work. Painting your home or even one room! It is actually a simple enough job. One needs to sandpaper the walls and then paint the same. It becomes ridiculously easy of one were to use a roller instead of a brush. Yet, we usually ask a contractor to do this job.Ask anyone who has had to manage even such a simple job and there will pour forth a litany of complaints about how the painters usually did not come on time, made a mess and often left without cleaning and so on. If one were to calculate the cost of the time and effort required to follow up, supervise, clean up, etc., one would realize that the actual cost of the job was far more. Therein lies the irony of the supposedly low cost labor and completely undermines our main rational for being DIFM instead of DIY.


Ashwin Mahesh said...

I think there are different kinds of DIFM things, and moving some of these to DIY is easier than the others. Painting is one example - I always paint the walls myself, and frankly, I don't think the painter adds much value in this. Even papering over the cracks and smoothening those out is something that is DIY. We've also seen washing clothes as something that has moved into DYI space over the years - partly because of diminishing space in our homes to do this the old way. If driers were more energy efficient (and especially if energy used in homes became cleaner) we would really see a lot of acceleration in this too.

Plumbing and electricals is in a different league from painting or drilling holes in the walls to hang frames. There is a 'risk' element that people avoid by using the DIFM mode.

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