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DIY Projects: What to Tackle Yourself and When to Call in a Pro

Insights & Ideas Team •  June 15, 2016 | Home and Family

Jason Young has a growing family and a fixed budget. When he bought a fixer-upper as his first home, he knew he could use his carpentry skills as an asset to make his house into a home, but he also knew he would have to pay for outside help for electrical work the home needed. “I didn’t want to gamble, so I hired it out,” says Young. Safety trumped cost with little ones running around.

Steve Milbrath retired at a young age from a union job as an electrician. Milbrath and his wife decided their old farmhouse needed some modern updates, and he loved the idea of taking on a new project. The couple sought advice on the design, but Milbrath did nearly all the work himself. He says, “You have to have an interest in it, an aptitude for it. I love this stuff, so I don’t find it to be a hassle.” It took him years to complete everything from the demo work to the eventual installation of an addition. The home is now a showcase of the couple’s taste and Milbrath’s mastery of new skills.

So who’s right? When is a do-it-yourself, or DIY, project really something you can do yourself and when should you call in some reinforcements? Here are four major things to consider when deciding if you want to brave the waters of home repair and renovations.

1. Knowledge. You took a weekend class to learn to use a saw, but does that really qualify you to take on a big project? Before tackling the DIY adventure you are considering, remember to ask questions like these: Do I know the building codes for my area and how to pull permits if needed? Can I identify safety hazards? Do I know what repairs I am legally allowed to do myself? Jim Wall owns Wall Construction, a general contracting business based in West Bend, Wisconsin. He says the Internet offers a wide variety of blogs and video tutorials that can teach you how to do just about anything. But he cautions, “That can also mean researching and renting or buying the tools and products to get the job done. It’s a part of the package.” So ask yourself, is it something you want to take on?

2. Time. Are you on a deadline? Tile can take longer than expected to ship. Extra outlets in a basement remodel may need to be moved. The perfect lighting fixture may be on backorder. Wall says time is a key factor in deciding whether or not you want to do a project on your own or hire a pro. “If you have a month to figure out how to put in a kitchen faucet, more power to you. But if you have a party coming up, then I find it’s easier to just hire a professional.”

Wall also cautions people who are considering doing the job themselves to factor in time to deal with the unexpected. “Nothing is truly ever straightforward. There’s a lot of ad-libing that goes on. Most of the time you have to fix something before you can actually do what you want to do.”

Creating a Solid Financial Plan: Your Guide to Money Management3. Money. Being budget conscious doesn’t always mean you need to do the work yourself. Pros know where to add to an estimate to cover for supply needs and where they can trim with efficiencies. They’ve done jobs like yours before, so they can anticipate things in advance. But sometimes it’s tough to beat the free labor you can offer yourself, especially when you know enough to do at least part of a project. Wall suggests a compromise. He says smaller contractors or a local handyman would be happy to help you tackle a portion of work that may be over your head. Wall says, “They may even offer you free advice or talk you through the rest of your project.” One last money tip: Many big-box stores offer discounts if you use their credit cards to buy things like tools and materials. Wall says some of his clients save by buying the supplies for a job themselves and asking him to do only the labor.

4. Enjoyment. If a DIY project is something you are naturally skilled at, have as a hobby or have always wanted to try, then it’s hard to say you shouldn’t go for it … or at least a portion of a project you can manage in a safe manner. Some people use DIY projects as bonding events with family and friends. If you fit into this category, virtually no amount of money or time will detract you from digging in and getting dirty. And who can argue with that?

All DIY projects are not created equal, just as the patience, budget and skill level of all homeowners are not created equal. When deciding whether or not it’s a good use of your time, money and sweat equity to do it yourself, try picturing yourself in the middle of the project and then at the end when it’s finished. What does your face look like at each stage? For Jason, money was tight, but the stress of making a mistake on a repair job that could put his family in danger would have cost more. For Steve, the satisfaction of showing off what had been years of work with gorgeous results was worth any stress he encountered along the way. And he also had satisfied his craving for the knowledge of how to do it. In the end, both have wonderful houses their families call home. 

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