Home renovations are a significant investment, and it can be tempting to try to reduce costs by performing them yourself rather than engaging the services of a professional home renovation contractor. But savings can be elusive for the DIY’er. And in many cases, the costs you’ll pay – in dollars, time, frustration, and the risk of problems down the road – can more than erase whatever benefits you realized by going it alone.
As a professional contractor, I’m often asked by prospective DIY home remodelers to give my advice on this issue. My response is always the same: It depends.
How to know if you need professional home renovation
It depends on the nature of the project, the homeowner’s skill level, access to tools and labor, and several other factors. Generally speaking, if you’re considering a project where the greatest consequence is disappointment in the aesthetic outcome, it might be fine to go it alone. But if you’re doing anything that can affect the structural integrity or safety of your home, that’s when it’s time to remind yourself that your enthusiasm for DIY is no substitute for actual skill.
Maybe the project simply involves the removal of some drywall and the installation of new paneling or some basic cabinets. A reasonably capable homeowner can handle projects like these because there’s not that much that can go wrong. Or say your bathroom remodel involves the installation of a new vanity and some simple tiling. You might do great on your own. The biggest consideration is how good it looks afterward.
But what if the project entails moving your plumbing around, rerouting electrical, or demolishing a load-bearing wall? If I were you, I wouldn’t risk doing it by myself.
In our northern Wisconsin areas, many building codes didn’t go into effect until fairly recently. Consequently, we see a good number of homes that were remodeled by DIYers who lacked proper guidance. Some of those homes are fine. A lot of them are disasters waiting to happen. We’re talking floors framed with a 2 x 6 with a span several feet greater than they have a capacity for. We see doors and windows without headers. Recently, I talked with someone renovating a kitchen where framing had been set on a wood lath strip which, when pulled off, caused the whole wall to collapse.
Here’s a common trouble spot for DIYers: backyard decks. Four years ago, Wisconsin massively updated codes for decks because of catastrophic failures. I attended an educational forum where an inspector presented photographic documentation of the kinds of risks DIYers run. The family who built it thought, well, there are only four of us. Why does it have to be structurally designed to code? Then they had a party where the weight of several dozen guests enjoying the outdoors caused the deck to collapse which resulted in multiple injuries.
Who knew what the homeowner’s insurance covered? Odds are, it fell far short of all the medical bills that resulted from the collapse.
And speaking of injuries: Don’t discount the risk of hurting yourself in the course of your remodeling project. Every day, homeowners cut themselves with tools, hit themselves with hammers, and trip over materials. I mean, there’s a reason March has been established as National Ladder Safety Month!
If you’re not going to hire a pro to do the work, at least take advantage of a pro’s guidance. That can be as simple as buying a kit with really good instructions, and then following them to the letter. When all the steps are clearly defined, the chances of a bad outcome diminish significantly. It’s the more open-ended, ill-defined projects that tend to end badly.
Oh, and if you do get outside advice, make sure the person you’re talking to is a real expert. Here’s my anecdotal observation: Many DIYers think that when they go to the lumberyard, staff will know to provide accurate information. A lot of times, that’s not true at all. They’re great at selling materials, but they don’t necessarily know how to install projects or why one material might be better than another. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been at the lumberyard when a worker will recognize me and say, “Isac, can you talk to this customer about his remodel? He’s asking me something I can’t answer.”
One of the big benefits of going with a professional home renovation contractor is that they’ll see the big picture in a way that DIYers – and many of the subcontractors they hire – cannot. Recently, we worked on a DIY project that involved the use of several subs, all of them managed by the homeowner. He shied away from using a capable GC because he was tight on money. But bad decisions – big and small – cost him tens of thousands of dollars.
As I said at the outset, there’s no hard-and-fast rule for when a DIY’er should hand over a project to a professional, but here are a few things to keep in mind when deciding.
- Work on load-bearing walls. Stripping drywall isn’t a high-risk activity. Risking a roof cave-in mostly definitely is.
- Significant plumbing projects. Sure, go ahead and replace your shower head or plunge your toilet. But for bigger issues, remember that tiny mistakes can cause leaks that result in mold and rot. Moreover, mistakes and delays can force water shutoffs that become unendurable. Lots of DIYers have a habit of watching YouTube tutorials and thinking, I can do that! But believe me, every home improvement project has unique qualities.
- Electrical work. This is not a medium for amateurs. Mistakes can be deadly and even if you avoid injury from a resulting fire, your insurance might withhold coverage if the work wasn’t performed to code. Here again, streaming tutorials can generate false confidence. You may be a quick learner, but there’s no substitute for the skill and experience a professional brings to electrical work.
- Mold or asbestos removal. Mold can return if it’s not properly managed, and asbestos is fraught with risk. Plus, it has to be disposed of properly, or it can cause terrible damage to the environment and those handling it. Yes, mold and asbestos remediation is expensive, but in my opinion, going it alone just isn’t worth it.
- Window replacement. Anything beyond window washing and maybe sill replacement should be left to a professional. After all, improperly installed windows can add significantly to your heating costs, and the moisture they let into your home can cause mold and rot.
- Lost time. Even relatively simple remodeling projects have a lot of moving parts, and disruption with one of them can cause a cascade of delays. Part of what a good GC brings to the table is their ability to manage your project in a way that makes it far more likely to be completed according to the timeline. If you’re doing the work yourself, or managing others who are doing it for you, the risk of delays heightens significantly. You have to ask yourself: Am I prepared for delays that might make my kitchen, bathroom, or other parts of the home unusable for weeks or months?
- Quality of work. Let’s say you want to tile a bathroom, but you’ve never learned how to do that. Do you really want your home to be the classroom for your education? Before you answer that question, ask yourself another: How extensive or ambitious is this work? The more complex it is, the greater your chances of running into functional problems with the tile, not just aesthetic ones.
- Codes and permits. Most municipalities require permits for structural work, electrical, plumbing, HVAC, and even water heaters. The permitting ensures that the work is performed to code. DIY’ers are often not aware of the latest codes or don’t fully understand why they’re important. Professional contractors, subcontractors, designers, and architects are professionally bound to perform code-compliant work. BTW, if you perform work that isn’t up to code, be prepared for an inspector to discover it when you try to sell your home.
- Hiring subcontractors. Finding qualified subcontractors can be challenging. Coordinating them for a complex project can eat up even more time. A good contractor, on the other hand, will have ready access to trusted subs and know how to manage them.
- Expenses that tend to be forgotten. What happens if your project doesn’t clear inspection and needs to be done over until it’s right? That’s going to cost you. What if you need to purchase tools that will only be used once? A wet tile saw, drywall tools, paint sprayers, and the like can be expensive. Also, keep in mind the liabilities you open yourself up to by avoiding licensed professionals.
It’s important to see the big picture. I’ve laid out some of the costs and risks of DIY work, but it’s also worth noting some of the benefits. Perform the work on your own and you’ll save on the labor costs of professional contractors. You’ll be able to work on your own timeline. You may even learn a new skill, and upon completion of the project, you’ll have a special sense of pride in what you’ve achieved. Are those benefits worth the risks? Only you can decide.
Finally, let me just speak from experience: I’m a professional contractor, and even I don’t like to undertake substantial DIY home improvement projects. That wasn’t always the case – until I got tired of a home bathroom that wasn’t configured to my preferences. Nine months after starting this project, I’m still in the middle of it. Had I hired a professional, it would have been done in three weeks!
After learning more about the realities of DIY vs. professional home renovation, are you ready to hand over your project to the pros? Reach out to our team to see how we can help.