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Do It Yourself (DIY) or Hire a Contractor for Home Improvement Projects?

When you buy a fixer-upper, you can expect to spend many thousands of dollars on home improvement projects. According to HomeAdvisor, it costs an average of around $10,000 to remodel a bathroom, $20,000 for a basement, and $25,000 for a kitchen remodel.

For most of these jobs, labor accounts for a big chunk of the cost. For instance, HomeAdvisor says it adds up to between 30% and 35% of the cost for a kitchen remodel and about half the total price of a bathroom remodel. Thus, supplying your own labor for a home repair or remodel can save you a big chunk of change.

However, just because you can do it yourself doesn’t mean you should. Some jobs are easy to handle on your own, while others are best left to skilled professionals. The trick is figuring out which is which.

Deciding Which Jobs to DIY

My husband and I are fairly dedicated DIYers. I have a long list of all the projects we’ve done on our house in the eight years we’ve owned it, and the overwhelming majority of them were DIY jobs — both small ones, such as replacing cabinet hardware, and big ones, like insulating our attic.

Yet there are a handful of jobs on that list for which we hired professional contractors without hesitation or regret. In every case, we chose to do so for one of three reasons: safety, difficulty, or time. These are the three points experts say are most crucial to consider when deciding whether to DIY.

Safety First

There are three major signs a job is too dangerous for DIY:

  1. It Could Kill You. The first question you need to ask yourself about any DIY project is, “What’s the worst possible thing that could happen if I mess it up?” For some jobs, such as roofing or major electrical work, the answer is, “I could get killed.” That answer is a clear warning sign this is a job for a professional trained to handle its dangers.
  2. It Could Destroy Your Home. Major plumbing jobs, such as moving bathroom fixtures, fit into this category. A mistake on this kind of job could result in a water leak weakening a wall to the point of collapse. Of course, plumbers can make mistakes too, but they could be on the hook to pay for the damage if they do.
  3. It Requires a Permit. Some home improvement projects require a building permit, a document guaranteeing they were done safely and in accordance with local building codes. Each city has its own rules about which jobs require permits, how much they cost, and how hard it is to get one. In some areas, you can’t get a permit at all unless you’re working with a licensed contractor. But even if you can, the fact that you need one is a sign the job might be too complicated for DIY.

One job that fit into this category for us was replacing our water heater. If it had been electric, we might have tried to do it ourselves. However, ours ran on gas, which poses a risk of fire, explosion, or poisoning. We decided any job that involves cutting into gas lines is a job we aren’t going to touch.

Know the Ropes

There’s no way you can tackle a home repair job unless you know how. In some cases, having no experience isn’t a deal-breaker because you can learn everything you need from a DIY book or YouTube video. Sources like the DIY Network can teach you how to handle all kinds of straightforward repair jobs, such as fixing a leaky toilet or squeaky door hinge.

But other jobs are so highly specialized it takes years of training to handle them on your own. Even Nicole Curtis of the DIY Network show “Rehab Addict,” who fixes up houses for a living, hires subcontractors to help her with complicated jobs like moving plumbing fixtures or pouring concrete.

There are a few reasons for choosing a professional to do a difficult job.

  • It’s Dangerous. The danger component bears repeating. Many jobs that require technical know-how are jobs that are dangerous to do yourself. In these cases, hire a contractor for safety reasons.
  • Mistakes Could Be Costly. If you’re not quite sure what you’re doing when you tackle a job, you risk having to call in a contractor to fix your mistakes. Instead of saving money by doing it yourself, you could end up paying twice for the same job.
  • It Could Hurt Your Home’s Value. In an article written for NEA Member Benefits, real estate broker Jim Smith warns that slipshod work is a turn-off for future buyers. Elizabeth Goltz, a designer quoted in Consumer Reports’ guide to bathroom remodeling, agrees, saying even the priciest bathroom tile looks cheap if it’s poorly laid.

My husband and I ran into this problem when we noticed the bricks of our side porch stoop coming loose. At first, we thought we could simply reset the loose bricks, but it soon became clear the entire stoop was falling apart. When we talked to a contractor about it, we discovered it was because of poor drainage, which was weakening the foundation.

At that point, we realized it was simply too complicated a job for us to tackle ourselves. It made more sense to pay a professional to rebuild the stoop properly than fix it ourselves and end up having to do the whole job over a year later.

Time Is Money

You get the most value from DIY home improvement when it’s much cheaper to do it yourself than hire a pro. The snag is that the more a job costs to have done professionally, the more of your time it’s likely to take.

To figure out whether it’s worth it, you need to estimate both the cost and time involved and work out your savings on a per-hour basis.

  1. Price the Professional Job. The most accurate way to figure out how much it would cost to have the job done professionally is to get quotes from contractors. But you can also get a quick estimate from Homewyse. Just select the job and enter your zip code, and the site displays a price range based on cost data for your area.
  2. Add Up the DIY Cost. Next, figure out how much it would cost to do the job yourself. Add up the prices for materials, tools, and permits to get your total DIY cost. Then subtract this total from the cost of a professional job to determine how much you can save by doing it yourself.
  3. Estimate the Time Required. Time is a lot harder to estimate than cost because it depends on your experience and skill level. But home repair books often give estimates of how long a job usually takes for novice, intermediate, and expert do-it-yourselfers. You can also find time estimates for some DIY jobs with an Internet search.
  4. Calculate Your Hourly Wage. Divide the potential savings from DIY by the time required to find out how much money you can save for each hour of work. In effect, that’s the amount you can earn per hour for doing this job yourself. Now all you need to decide is whether you’re willing to work for that wage.

For example, my husband and I decided to rewire our basement, including adding several new ceiling lights and moving around all the switches. It was going to be a much more complex job than we’d previously done. And since we both worked full time, we knew we’d only be able to work on it during evenings and weekends.

Based on the size of the job, we realized it would probably take us weeks (if not months) to complete, while an electrician could do it in one day. Furthermore, it was a job that required a permit, and getting one in our town is not an easy task. We decided shelling out $600 to save ourselves all that time and hassle would be money well spent.


Keeping Costs Down

Both DIY and professional jobs have their costs. For a DIY job, the most significant investment is time. When you hire a contractor, it’s cash.

But in both cases, you want to get the most bang for your buck. By keeping a few tips in mind when you start a remodeling project, you can maximize your investment in both time and money.

Saving on Professional Jobs

DIY is probably the most crucial way to save money on home renovation projects, but it isn’t the only way. Even when you hire a contractor, you can take several steps to keep the cost under control.

Choose High-Return Projects

Repairs are necessary, but home remodeling jobs are optional. To get the most out of them, you can choose to focus on the projects that add the most value to your home when it’s time to sell it.

For instance, the 2020 Cost vs. Value Report from industry publication Remodeling magazine shows that when you add manufactured stone veneer to the front of your house, you can expect to get back over 95% of the project cost when you sell. But adding a new master suite returns only a little over half its cost.

Exact costs and values for different projects vary based on where you live. For more specific information, go to the Cost vs. Value Report and select your location.

Choose the Right Contractor

The single most meaningful thing you can do to get the best value from a professional remodeling job is to find a good contractor. Ask your friends and neighbors for recommendations, and get quotes from at least three contractors. Ask them about their fees and experience with this type of work.

Next, do a little homework on all the contractors. Check their ratings with the Better Business Bureau and ensure their licenses and insurance are up to date. Then you can make an informed choice, balancing the contractors’ quoted prices against the quality of the work you can expect from them.

Communicate

According to Consumer Reports, most of the problems homeowners have with contractors (and vice versa) come from faulty communication. Homeowners get upset when contractors don’t show up on time or listen to their requests or leave a mess. Contractors get upset when homeowners call them at inappropriate hours or let their kids and pets interrupt the work.

To avoid such problems, establish clear guidelines about what you each expect: working hours, working conditions, cleanup, and where to go if you have questions. If a problem arises, talk to the contractor about it as soon as possible. Putting it off just makes it more expensive to fix.

Do Your Own Demo and Cleanup

Even when you can’t DIY an entire job, you can often save money by doing parts of it yourself. Demolition is one example. It doesn’t require a professional’s skill to swing a sledgehammer — just do so carefully.

You can also save money at the other end of the project by doing all the cleanup and other finishing touches, such as painting. That way, you only need to pay the contractor for the parts of the job that an expert really needs to do.

Saving on DIY Jobs

Given the cost of materials, tools, and permits, even a DIY job can get expensive. But there are several tricks for keeping these costs down and getting the best value from your work.

Build Your Skills

Even if it’s your first time doing DIY, you can tackle small jobs like fixing a leaking faucet or putting up a shelf. Instructions are available online, and you can’t do too much damage if you mess up. After building your skills and confidence with little jobs like these, you can work your way up to bigger ones, such as replacing a toilet or building a bookcase.

Prioritize

According to the Consumer Reports bathroom remodeling guide, it’s a mistake to skimp on elements that have to stand up to heavy use, such as bathroom tile. But you can save money with more basic light fixtures or faucets since performance is about the same at all points on the price spectrum.

Save on Materials

You can save on all sorts of materials for home building projects, from kitchen cabinets to windows and doors, by shopping at reuse centers. These stores take unwanted materials, such as leftovers from building projects, salvage from demolition, and items homeowners have discarded, and sell them to the public for bargain prices.

One of the best-known reuse centers is the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, a chain of nonprofit stores and donation centers run by Habitat for Humanity. You can look for listings for reuse centers in your area at The Loading Dock or do an online search for your location and “reuse center” or “architectural salvage.”

Save on Tools

If a DIY job requires a tool you don’t have, borrow it from a friend or neighbor. If that’s not an option, check out Craigslist, eBay, and (if you have time) local garage sales to see if you can buy it secondhand.

If it’s a large tool, such as a floor sander or paint sprayer, you can rent it from a store like Home Depot instead of buying it. For something you only expect to use once or twice, renting is almost always cheaper than purchasing.

If buying new is your only option, find a family member, friend, or neighbor who would like to share the tool with you and split the cost. That way, neither of you has to pay full price for a device you only expect to use occasionally.


Final Word

The choice between DIY and hiring a contractor is more than just a matter of dollars and cents. It’s a careful balancing act between money and a long list of other factors: less hassle, faster results, safety, and professional-quality work. All these advantages explain why so many homeowners come down on the side of hiring a professional despite the higher cost.

However, there’s one advantage of DIY you can’t put a price on: your pride in showing off a job you did yourself. If nothing else gives you quite the same thrill as taking your friends on a tour of the newly finished basement you built with your own hands, that’s more than enough to make up for all the time and work you put into it, even when the cost savings are minimal.

Amy Livingston
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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