Are DIY Home Renovations a Good Idea?

Photo (cc) by Brock Builders

Some people like cars, but I like houses. After watching about five episodes of HGTV’s “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.

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.

What the experts say about DIY renovations

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.

I also talked with Gonzalo Garcia, immediate past president of the Remodelers Council of the Greater Houston Builders Association and president of JRG Builder & Remodeler’s in Houston.

Both professionals say there is a place for DIY projects, but homeowners need to know their limits.

Referring to roof work, Watson says, “If you’re not confident you can step onto or off from a ladder, 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. For instance, a piece of rotting wood could be a 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 be right for DIY types

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. Such projects may include:

  • Laying tile
  • Painting rooms
  • Installing click-and-lock flooring such as laminates

On the outside of the house, Watson suggests projects that just about anyone is capable of completing, such as:

  • Caulking
  • Weatherstripping
  • Power washing
  • Filling holes with spray expansion foam

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 it’s time 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.”

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 worries you might 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

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 the same projects completed.
  • If it’s an exterior project, drive by examples of previous work done by the contractor.

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.

Have you tackled a DIY project? How did it turn out? Let us know in our Forums. It’s a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

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