To do it yourself or not to do it yourself? How to decide

Shannon Lee | Improvement Center Columnist | December 8, 2014

Tempted to do your own work on your house? Many homeowners make plans to tackle projects both big and small in the hopes of saving time, hassle, and most of all, money. There are times when this makes perfect sense. But then there are times when doing it yourself is wrought with worry and eventual disaster -- and that leads to even more money spent. How do you know when you should do it yourself or hire the pros?

Learn how to do it yourself before you try

First things first: How much do you know about construction, remodels, and the like? Some seasoned homeowners might have a good grasp of exactly what they can handle, but novices can overestimate their abilities. Be honest with yourself about what you can handle and what you can't. For instance, almost anyone can wield a paintbrush with excellent ability, but it takes someone with experience to cut through drywall.

Once you have accurately gauged your abilities, get to work improving them. Take advantage of the free classes offered by many home improvement stores. When you do have a contractor come in to handle something, watch everything they do and learn as they work. Don't hesitate to ask questions! Browse through the tools at the hardware store and figure out how they work. Get even more experience by tackling the smaller projects that you know you can handle, and work your way up to bigger ones.

Projects you can do on your own

There are a few projects that homeowners can tackle on their own without need to call in the professionals. Like the aforementioned painting, these do-it-yourself jobs are usually done in a weekend and require only a bit of know-how, elbow-grease, or reading the directions. Here are a few other examples:

  • Install new lighting. Replacing most light fixtures simply means attaching a few wires, using a few screws and nails, and you're done! If you're in the mood for a challenge, you can even replace that old overhead light with a new ceiling fan. Installing dimmers and other types of switches can be easy.
  • Fence repairs. If a wooden fence is damaged, repair can be as easy as a few new slats and pickets, a pack of sturdy nails, and a good hammer. Fences that are made of composite materials or metal might be a tougher sell, but you can still get it done with the proper tools and patience.
  • Laying simple flooring. This seems like a big project but in fact, you can handle it on your own. Vinyl flooring, easy-to-use tiles, and some hardwood floors can be laid by homeowners. Just make sure that you follow the directions exactly, and do plenty of research for tips and tricks before you start the process.
  • Kitchen backsplash. This simple kitchen-brightener can be done in an afternoon, and really does change the whole feel of your kitchen. A backsplash might be as simple as a panel you attach to the wall, or as complicated as tiny tiles that require mortar and patience.
  • Landscaping. Planting new shrubs and trees, tackling that overgrown flower garden or laying pavers to create a new walkway are all jobs that you can handle. Expect lots of hot, sweaty, and dusty work, and sore muscles at the end of a job well done.
  • Kitchen cabinet upgrades. Depending upon your level of expertise, you might choose to replace the hardware on your cabinets, or go so far as to reface them with new laminate or paint. You might even be handy enough to install sliding shelves in the bottom cabinets.

When it's time to call in a contractor

Most big jobs require a contractor, and shouldn't be tackled by a homeowner who doesn't have serious training in construction. A good rule of thumb: If you have the slightest question of your ability to handle the project, you probably shouldn't take it on. Another good point to ponder is the cost. A home improvement project that has a large price tag attached to it probably means that it takes a great deal of skill to complete -- skills you might not have.

Even so, you might aspire to handling it all on your own. If you do decide to take the plunge, good research is absolutely essential. Don't buy a single bit of material until you have researched exactly what you need. Don't purchase any tools until you have determined which ones are best for your needs. Think you have researched enough? Research some more. And when you begin, start slow, allowing for plenty of mistakes along the way.

If you have attempted to handle a big project yourself and are now in way over your head, it's time to throw in the towel and call the professionals. Don't feel ashamed about giving up! A good contractor has seen it all, and can undo the mistakes you might have made. Sure, it's going to cost more than what you had planned at the beginning, but it's best to be safe rather than sorry -- and it's good to get the work done quickly, so you can leave this particular DIY fail behind you.

Photo credit to Nam Phan

About the Author

Shannon Lee is a journalist and occasional novelist with a serious weakness for real estate. When she's not writing, she and her husband are taking road trips to explore covered bridges, little wineries and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns in their beloved Pennsylvania.