My life (or at least my TV habits) changed last year when I bought a new house, moved in my 79-year-old mother and discovered that cable television was going to be essential for her to get her favorite religious channel. And you know what else I discovered? HGTV.
Some people like cars; I like houses. And now I’ve found a whole channel devoted to houses. After about the fifth episode of “Fixer Upper,” I started thinking, “Hey, I could do that,” and mentally began tearing down the walls in our oddly configured upstairs bathroom.
Maybe you’ve had the same delusions. Before you make an expensive mistake, here’s a little food for thought.
Are You & DIY Work a Match Made in Heaven?
To learn more about the realities of renovation work, I turned off the TV and picked up the phone. I spoke with two construction experts for their take on what projects homeowners could tackle and how you can decide if you’re a good fit for a DIY home renovation.
Mark Watson is the co-owner of Exterior Medics, a company specializing in roofing, siding and window and door replacement in northern Virginia and southern Maryland. In addition to Watson, I talked with Gonzalo Garcia, president of the Remodelers Council of the Greater Houston Builders Association and owner of JRG Builder & Remodeler’s in Houston.
Both professionals say there is a place for DIY projects, but homeowners need to know their limits.
“If you’re not confident you can step onto or off from a ladder,” says Watson about roof work, “don’t do it.”
In addition, Watson says homeowners should ask themselves these questions before starting a DIY project:
- Have I done this before?
- Have I seen someone do this before?
- Do I understand the general building concepts involved?
He says some seemingly simple projects can cascade into more complex work when, for instance, a piece of rotting wood is actually only the symptom of a serious structural problem.
Garcia agrees: “Most people don’t think [a project] completely through. They look at the major points and don’t thoroughly consider all the other factors of the project.”
Beyond your level of competence and planning, other things to consider before tackling a DIY renovation are your tolerance for mess, your ability to finish what you start and your access to tools.
The National Association of the Remodeling Industry has a laundry list of questions to ask yourself before you break out the hammer and nails.
Projects That May Have DIY Written All Over Them
While only you can say whether you’re up for the challenge of a particular project, the professionals say some work may be particularly well-suited for even the most inexperienced homeowners.
“It all depends on their comfort level, but I recommend cosmetic projects,” says Garcia when asked about DIY-friendly renovations. Those projects may include laying tile, painting rooms and installing click-and-lock flooring such as laminates.
On the outside, Watson suggests caulking, weatherstripping, power washing and filling holes with spray expansion foam as jobs just about anyone can do. Cleaning out gutters is a common DIY job, but Watson urges caution, particularly if you’re working on a two-story house.
“Gutter cleaning is the most common [exterior DIY project], but it is oftentimes the most dangerous one,” he explains. “It’s a really simple thing that can go horribly wrong.”
When to Bring in the Big Guns
With some estimates finding that you get more than five times the return on your investment if you do the work yourself, it can be tempting to ditch the professionals completely. However, there are certain projects that renovation newbies, and even those with more experience, should avoid.
When asked which projects should be left to professionals, Garcia replies, “Unless you have some basic skills, anything involving plumbing, electrical, cooling systems or structural changes.”
In other words, don’t rely on a YouTube tutorial to rewire your house or create an open-concept floor plan. Knock down the wrong wall, and the entire roof could come down on your head. Rewire incorrectly, and you may get to experience what it’s like to file a fire claim on your homeowners insurance policy.
On the exterior, Watson advises against homeowners doing roof work. “There can be a false sense of confidence,” he says about being on the roof.
However, it’s not just your safety Watson is concerned about. He’s also worried you might majorly mess up your house.
“A lot of times we see people put caulking on a roof or siding where it is not meant to be,” he explains. As a result, natural drainage areas are closed up and dams can form, which leads to all sorts of problems.
How to Find the Right Pro
Now, if you’re like me and need a friend to come over and help hang pictures, you’ve probably decided a DIY renovation project might not be for you. In that case, how do you find the right contractor?
Both Watson and Garcia offer similar advice that involves searching for trusted names and properly vetting potential contractors.
Watson recommends beginning with a review of the company’s website. If there’s no website, that could be a red flag indicating a fly-by-night contractor. After looking at the website, do the following:
- Confirm licensing and credentials on your state’s licensing board website.
- Look for complaints and the company’s response, if available.
- Check for adequate general liability insurance.
- Ask if subcontractors are used.
- Request and call references who have had similar projects completed.
- Drive by examples of previous work done by the contractor, if it’s an exterior project.
Garcia adds that it’s always good to ask the people around you for references to contractors they’ve used. Your local builders association and the Better Business Bureau may also be sources to find respected professionals. Garcia suggests drawing up a scope of work and asking two to three remodelers to come out and review the project.
That hands-on review may also give you an idea of whether your project really is DIY-worthy or if there are more steps involved than you thought. Watson urges homeowners to be sensitive to contractors’ time, but at the same time he says getting a professional’s opinion can help clarify whether it’s a project you can handle on your own.
So now that you’ve read all this, is the answer to the headline question still as clear as mud? If you remain on the fence, I leave you with two final questions to ask yourself:
- How much do I save by doing the work myself?
- How much damage could I do if I mess up this project?
If your answers are “a little” and “a lot,” put the hammer down and back away slowly.
This post originally appeared on Money Talks News.
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