home equity

DIY dilemma: Hire or play the pro?

Highlights
  • The DIY trend has been fueled by the ease in finding project information.
  • Doing some demolition and cleanup are manageable possibilities.
  • Just proceed with caution when playing the contractor role.

Even natural do-it-yourself types sometimes find themselves facing a project and asking: Should I handle this myself or hire a pro?

"There's this innate American sense that we should fix things up ourselves," says Gregg Hicks, director of business development for ReliableRemodeler.com. He says he sees it as the way to get the most out of a project -- provided the homeowners are willing to roll up their sleeves and give up their weekends for weeks, months, or even years to get the job done.

The do-it-yourself, or DIY, trend has been fueled by the ease in finding project information. With home improvement television shows, home store seminars and the Internet bringing how-to's right to the workbench, opportunities to learn abound.

Experts say a project is more likely to become a DIY if the project is on the small side and if the homeowner is on the younger side. Growing up in a household where an adult tends to tackle in-house improvements also helps breed DIY confidence.

Of course, sometimes there's overconfidence. Dean Bennett, president of a Colorado-based design and construction firm, has seen many instances in which homeowners thought they knew everything, but fell short.

Some things are just not as easy as you might think, he says. Say the idea is moving a wall to create some extra bathroom space. This could involve moving the plumbing in the basement, adding new floor framing, rerouting electrical wires, removing and replacing trim on the wall, matching the wall texture to the original, and painting.

Many homeowners with basic skills experience unexpected problems, says Jim Rocchetta, vice president of marketing for Handyman Connection, a network of more than 4,000 independent craftsmen. "A small problem can very quickly grow into a huge one," he says. "A sizable percentage of our business each year, in fact, involves salvaging do-it-yourself projects that have gone wrong."

Here's how to determine the best route to take on your next home improvement project:

Hire a pro or do it yourself?
  1. Assess your skills.
  2. Consider the costs.
  3. Evaluate your options.

1. Assess your skills

Dan Fritschen, author of "Remodel or Move?" says that before starting on home improvements, potential DIY homeowners should ask themselves: Do I enjoy physical labor and do I like getting dirty?

But a successful project requires more than a can-do, will-do attitude. Check in with staff at home stores and friends who may have tackled similar projects and consult books and other detailed resources.

Write down each step in the process, says Bennett. "Just being able to predict and know each step is a test right there."

And speaking of friends, who in your circle works in a trade? Could (and would) he or she be willing to lend a hand in the project if you hit a stumbling block?

As you learn what's involved in a project, keep in mind that some things are better left to the pros -- like electrical lines or natural gas pipes. "The cost of failure in these two cases can be serious injury or death," Rocchetta says.

Other experts warn against plumbing, which isn't complicated, but can cause big, water-clogged headaches.

Local building codes and regulations also come into play, says Rocchetta. Failure to comply could result in fines and problems when you later try to sell your home.

The inherent difficulties of some projects also make them good candidates for a contractor's skilled hand. Experts mention installing solid surface countertops, cabinets and drywall.

Some simple jobs, such as laying self-locking laminate flooring, can even get tricky, says Trevor Welby-Solomon, vice president of technical training, support and development for Pillar to Post, a North American home inspection service. Frequent cuts are difficult to hide.

Research can boost confidence in the idea of tackling a project yourself. But in the experience of loan officer Becky Nelson of Opteum Financial Services, more people "are feeling confident about making the phone call to have someone tackle the project."

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2. Consider the costs

While doing it yourself doesn't always come with the best price tag when all is said and done, it does eliminate labor costs. That can mean overall savings of 25 percent to 50 percent.

"You will save money, in theory, by doing it yourself," says Hicks, "if you don't mess up too badly." Mistakes can require do-overs and cause empty wallets.

When doing the math, keep in mind that contractors can often purchase materials at a much lower cost than individual homeowners, plus they already own the required tools.

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