The plaster in Mandy Stein’s 110-year-old home both pleased and puzzled her.
“You don’t see these building materials anymore. We bought our house because we wanted a place with character and the original stuff,” said Stein, 34, of the two-bedroom house she and her husband own in the Bancroft neighborhood of Minneapolis.
As the house had settled over the years, cracks in the plaster spidered across the walls of the living room, dining room and bedroom that Stein’s two children share. To learn how to restore the surfaces in a way that would be consistent with the classic style of the home, she turned to YouTube.
“I found videos by people who’ve done it and broke it down into steps. I watch ahead of time and then have my phone right next to me and stop and start it. I mimic their exact hand motions with the tools,” she said. “It’s a skill I had to learn. Video democratizes the process.”
Whether it’s a quick task on a honey-do list or an ambitious effort to enhance a home, do-it-yourselfers have singular access to expertise through YouTube. The 15-year-old platform offers hundreds of thousands of how-to videos, delivering digital tutorials for projects from attic to basement.
As people spend unprecedented time under their own roofs, the video-sharing site is seeing more hits, with segments putting help at the fingertips of anyone with a smartphone and a job to tackle.
Joe Mueller advises YouTube newbies to start where there’s little at stake.
An architectural draftsman, Mueller, 55, frequently turns to YouTube videos for inspiration and instruction; he’s built and installed concrete countertops and radiator covers for his St. Paul home. But he’s most proud of how he learned how to keep his 10-year-old, 50-inch plasma TV out of the landfill.
“It stopped working, and I had nothing to lose by trying to fix it,” he said. “I diagnosed it with a YouTube video. All I needed was a $5 fuse. I had to solder it on a circuit board, and the guy showed exactly how to do it. But I didn’t own a soldering iron so I had to watch another YouTube video to figure out how to use it.”
Watch and learn
Even before the pandemic made time at home mandatory for many Minnesotans, DIYers were on the rise. According to the Home Improvement Research Institute, a quarter of American homeowners spruced up their property last year, with just 7% working with a professional.
“The use of YouTube is a real positive for our customers. It’s enhanced their knowledge, they come in more confident,” said Mike Frattallone, the co-owner of 21 local Ace hardware stores. He said his staff seldom sees customers who’ve gotten themselves in a pickle by incorrectly following video demonstrations.
The streaming era takes advantage of how humans have evolved to take in new information.
“We’re prepped to watch and learn. It’s more efficient for most people to understand information delivered by video rather than by reading a manual or looking at a diagram,” explained Bodong Chen, a professor of learning technologies at the University of Minnesota.
“The theory is that 80 percent of what we process is visual, so our brains are trained to encode information that we see, then translate and process it,” he said.
Many home-oriented how-to videos are professionally produced by celebrity rehabbers with sponsors or big brands who populate their own channels with sophisticated segments that push their products.
Gary Hill sees the irony in his appreciation of on-air amateurs. A retired broadcast news manager who spent several decades supervising video before it went on the airwaves, Hill now enjoys enthusiasts who upload their helpful hacks.
“Some of these guys amaze me, how they can do the work one-handed while they hold the phone in the other hand and record. The quality suffers but if you get the information, who cares if the aesthetics are lousy,” said Hill, 67, of Maple Grove. He’s followed videos to repair a water softener, put a new belt in a dryer and replace a shattered glass stovetop.
“I always try to watch multiple versions of the same project. You see one guy who figured it out the hard way and another who found a much easier route,” he said. “If everyone does it the same way, you know you’re on the right track.”
Stretching the budget is a major incentive for many YouTube devotees to turn to video coaching. Janet Byrnes said she’s “saved a fortune” by taking on projects in her Brooklyn Park townhouse. She troubleshoots via video, and has fixed the door on the microwave that wouldn’t stay shut, replaced a toilet tank and installed a garbage disposal.
But it’s the feeling of accomplishment that has provided the most value.
“The video for the garbage disposal lasted a minute and a half and it took me an hour and a half to do it, and I hated every second of it,” said Byrnes, 60, an administrator at a long-term care facility. “But when I was done, I danced around my kitchen. My dad would have been so proud of me.”
Mandy Stein first went looking for a project to occupy herself while she was a stay-at-home parent in Austin, Texas. With guidance from a YouTube video, she tiled a bathroom backsplash. Emboldened by her success, she moved on to the living space.
“The air conditioner had leaked and ruined the laminate flooring, so I put in a herringbone tile pattern over 700 square feet,” she said. “It was tricky, a pretty ambitious project, but the YouTube video was super-helpful and it turned out awesome.”
With the discovery of her aptitude as a DIYer, Stein busied herself with a list of ever more challenging upgrades, teaching herself with YouTube, Instagram, blogs and books. She’s convinced that her sweat equity helped the Texas house to sell quickly and profitably when she and her husband returned to their native Minnesota and sought a fixer-upper with good bones.
“My husband has no interest in doing any of this; he says, ‘I trust your vision,’ so there’s a little pressure to deliver,” Stein said.
Growing up in Northfield where her parents worked for Carleton College, Stein was drawn to the liberal arts and double-majored in religious studies and art while attending Lawrence University. But what she’s learned from her hands-on home projects has changed the direction of her life.
“I wanted to ask more questions and get them answered by an expert, to have two-way communication that you don’t always get from YouTube and the internet. I wanted the best background to understand houses and buildings,” she said.
Now enrolled at Hennepin Technical College, Stein is halfway to a two-year associate degree in residential remodeling. She plans to put what she’s learning to use beyond renovating her own home.
“Working in a craft or the trades was not presented as an option for girls when I was growing up, but I’ve realized what an opportunity it is. I’ll have my pick of jobs; there will never be a shortage of work in construction and remodeling,” she said. “Watching videos encouraged me to get my hands dirty in my own home. This is an unexpected career, but I love it.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and broadcaster.