home equity

DIY dilemma: Hire or play the pro?

In any case, there are ways to lower costs. "You don't need to own a workshop that looks like Norm Abram's," says craftsman Bruce E. Johnson, author of "50 Simple Ways to Save Your House." Tool-rental shops are great for one-time needs, like a drum sander for hardwood floors.

If you're going the contractor route, you may be able to save by telling the pro you want to help defray costs. Doing some demolition and cleanup are manageable possibilities. Other "unskilled" tasks might include hanging sheetrock or digging a trench for a foundation.

As with any service project, get multiple quotes. You don't need to hire the "expensive, full-service contractor with the biggest ads and the biggest trucks in the neighborhood," says Fritschen, who adds that the more quotes you get, the better. "Ten is better than five. Most important is to get quotes from different types of contractors." There are those large contractors that advertise extensively as well the as the small, harder-to-find contractors to consider. The effort will pay off in helping you select the best contractor for the project.

There's also a hybrid option: Act as your own general contractor, but farm out the actual work to subcontractors. This extra time and effort cuts out the middleman.

In Fritschen's 2006 study of 5,000 homeowners, 32 percent of those planning to remodel, rather than move, said they plan to be their own remodeling contractors -- a number that is up from 25 percent in a 2005 survey. And 65 percent said they would do at least a portion of the remodeling work themselves, up from 60 percent in 2005.

The results are an indication that homeowners are looking to save money with the projects they do, Fritschen says. He adds: "With housing prices falling and interest rates higher than they were a few years ago, homeowners are still remodeling, but with an emphasis on managing costs."

Just proceed with caution when playing the contractor role. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to be a contractor ... but to make contracts you have to understand an awful lot about what you're contracting for," says Morris Carey, one half of the Carey Brothers team on the nationally syndicated radio program "On the House." "When you want to become your own contractor, it means you're becoming your own plumber, electrician, carpenter, flooring contractor. ... It also means you're becoming your own attorney."

3. Evaluate your options

There's more to DIY decisions than money.

Between the research, shopping and physical labor involved in a project, the time it takes to go at it alone adds up.

Bennett suggests making a detailed time assessment based on your list of steps. If you can devote, say, six hours a week to a 48-hour project, prepare to spend up to eight weeks living with it.

And hiring a contractor, who can not only be there all day, but has the connections to get subcontractors to find an open slot in their schedules, may well result in a significantly faster completion.

The new home construction slowdown being seen right now means it may be a little less difficult to act as your own contractor, Fritschen says. Many tradespeople who were building new homes may now be looking for work, and homeowners who are remodeling can become their customers.

Still, doing it yourself gives you the chance to pay more attention to detail than a contractor might. Take Carey's friend, who installed some sheetrock. "The job he did was 25 times better than what a sheetrocker would have done," Carey says. "He was so careful about it, and he took his time."

Hesitant homeowners can take small, careful steps leading to an involved DIY project, too. "Before you refinish all the hardwood floors on the ground floor of your house, try staining some unfinished furniture," Johnson says. "Before rewiring an addition, see if you have the skills and interest to change a wall outlet."

Learning to complete projects yourself also helps maintain the privacy of your home. And you can always make changes mid-project. That kind of freedom goes along with the DIY pride.

Successful DIY can also earn you bragging rights.

"I think people want to go to the water cooler and say, 'You know what I did this weekend? I put in a new countertop.' Or 'I did this ceramic tile,'" says James Carey, Morris Carey's brother. "There's a lot of satisfaction in sharing that."

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