Home Improvement Projects: DIY vs. Pro?

Here’s how to decide when to do a renovation yourself or hire a contractor.

DIY projects can add value to your home and save you on labor costs. / Shutterstock

When Matthew Ross bought his first house in Rocklin, California, last year, he had a long list of home improvement to-dos: install new flooring, fix dry rot, remodel the kitchen and bath. Ross, co-founder of the review site, took on some projects himself. For others, he hired a contractor. But even in deciding to go with a pro, he underestimated how serious the bathroom repairs would be. Ross tried to cut costs and ended up spending $20,000 to repair damage caused by an unlicensed contractor. "It came back to bite me," he says.

DIY remodeling has never been easier, thanks to home improvement TV shows and online how-to videos that provide a wealth of inspiration and resources. California homeowners spent more than $20 billion on improvements in 2018, according to the National Association of Home Builders, up from $15 billion in 2015. Personal finance company NerdWallet reports that U.S. homeowners took on 43 million home improvement projects between 2015 and 2017. But when NerdWallet surveyed homeowners in 2018, more than one-third said a DIY project inspired by a home improvement show had ended badly.

It doesn't have to end badly for you. Even the professionals agree that DIY projects done well can add value to a home—and can be a lot of fun—if homeowners know their limits and follow some basic principles.

Some projects—such as plumbing—are best left to professionals. / Shutterstock

How to Decide Whether to DIY or Hire

1. Put safety first.

Knowing when to do a job yourself and when to hire a professional contractor can be a tough call. Savings should never outweigh safety, which means some tasks are best left to the experts.

Mina Starsiak Hawk, co-star of the HGTV home improvement show Good Bones, says her rule of thumb is to get professional help with anything that can burn down (electrical), flood (plumbing), or damage the structure of (removing walls) a home. Hardware stores like Home Depot hold workshops on how to safely complete DIY projects such as tile installation and kitchen counter makeovers, including how to use the necessary power tools. 

"If you get in over your head, stop digging and get help," she advises.

2. Set yourself up for success.

DIYers should feel comfortable with any project that can be undone. "If you've never painted before, the worse-case [scenario] is that you're going to get paint on the floor," Starsiak Hawk says.

Homeowners usually get into trouble on DIY projects by trying to accomplish too much. But how do you know when to stop before you've reached that point? Ross says his big mistake was not doing research before starting projects. "I would just jump in and say, 'I can do this myself,'" he says. 

Experts say your progression from "I just learned what a hammer is" to "let's demo the bathroom" should be a series of many steps. Jim Hunter, CEO of House Doctors, a national home renovation and remodel company, says that starts with recognizing your limits.

"Read up before you start," Hunter says. "If you don't understand what you read, or you don't understand the wording, get help."

3. Figure out the costs.

Before beginning a project, homeowners should calculate the potential savings (subtract the cost of purchasing your own materials and tools from the cost of hiring a professional) and divide it by the total time the job will take to finish. 

"Is that "hourly rate" worth working for?" asks John Bodrozic, co-founder of the HomeZada app, which helps homeowners manage remodels by tracking costs, receipts, and warranties.

"Review your current work and life schedule” Bodrozic says. “Are you willing to devote the time necessary to complete the remodel in a timely manner? Is the time trade off worth the savings?" 

4. Hammer out the details.

"Whatever you do, don’t start a renovation or remodel without a detailed floor plan," says Jessenia Toro, an executive at the renovation firm MyHome Design + Remodeling. The availability of easy-to-use 3-D design apps like SketchUp or Sweet Home 3D is a boon for DIY homeowners.

To start, measure the physical dimensions of the room you’d like to remodel, using either a conventional tape measure or an app like Measure. Then plug those measurements into the software and create the remodel layout. You can also populate your 3-D design with furnishings to visualize the finished space.

Even if you aren’t planning to do the remodel yourself, a well-crafted design is a great way to communicate your ideas to a contractor. Does the design need to be digital? No, says HGTV’s Starsiak Hawk. "Most of mine start as chicken scratch on paper," she says.

5. Assess your risk.

General contractors should be licensed and bonded, which assures the homeowner that they not only have the skills and experience needed to do the job but also carry the proper insurance (to cover any property damage or injuries). Always ask to see proof of a license and bond. 

Hiring an unlicensed contractor is cheaper but highly risky. "The short-term cost savings are not worth the potential long-term headache," Ross says after paying thousands to fix damage caused by an unlicensed contractor.

If you tackle a home improvement project on your own, your homeowners insurance will similarly cover any property damage as a result of the work, says Gary Reid, manager of insurance operations and specialty products marketing for AAA.

Home improvement experts recommend sketching out the details of a project before beginning.

Halfpoint / Shutterstock

Popular Renovation Projects That Add Value to Your Home

Boosting Curb Appeal

Replacing a garage door yourself yields a high return on investment. DIYers can typically recoup more than 97 percent of the cost when they sell the house, says Leslie Eiler, design manager at CRD Design Build. Planting trees, repairing a patchy lawn, building a fence, and updating a front entry door (or even just the doorknob and lock) are DIY slam-dunks too. 

"Start with smaller, easier projects, and then work your way up to more challenging projects," Eiler says.

For instance, building a deck is DIY-able, but it requires woodworking knowledge and often, depending on the size, city building permits, says House Doctors CEO Hunter. Patching a deck or opting for a patio instead are more manageable. Leave big projects like repairing driveways and sidewalks—which require specialized machinery and skills—to the pros.

Updating the Bathroom

Subtle changes to the bathroom can give the room a new look and feel. HGTV’s Starsiak Hawk suggests making minor updates instead of, say, replacing an entire vanity. Consider sanding and repainting cabinets, upgrading handles and knobs, gluing new or distressed wood around the mirror to create a frame, and refreshing the moulding and crown moulding with a new paint color.

Installing new tile is a bigger project—the demolition can be messy, and you'll need a specialty saw to cut the new tiles—but it’s within the motivated homeowner's reach, Starsiak Hawk says.

Homeowner Ross recommends taking any water-related issue extremely seriously, including leaks, grout, and waterproofing new showers and bathtubs. "Water issues can become very expensive very quickly,” he says.

Renovating the Kitchen

According to data compiled by Remodeling Magazine, a minor kitchen remodel gets one of the highest returns on investment, with homeowners on the West Coast recouping more than 87 percent of the cost. All the improvements in a minor kitchen remodel are DIY-able, including updating cabinet fronts and hardware, upgrading to energy-efficient appliances; adding a tile backsplash; installing new flooring, and applying fresh paint. 

A major remodel, or one that entails structural, plumbing, and electrical work, should be handled at least in part by a contractor. "Doing things like DIY electrical work is not only dangerous, but it can lower the resale value of your home if it was not properly permitted," Eiler warns.
Installing Attic Insulation and a Smart Thermostat

Adding Attic insulation is a hot and sweaty, but feasible, job for a DIYer—and it will immediately improve the home's energy efficiency and save you money on heating and cooling. Both loose fill and blanket insulation can be layered over existing insulation for quick results. 

To save even more on your energy bill, you can install a smart thermostat. You'll need to disconnect the wiring in your old thermostat and move it to the new one, a straightforward job. However, some older homes may require additional wiring, which is a good job for a professional electrician.

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