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:
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.”
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.
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.”