DIY Do's And Don'ts

Home Improvement: Do It Yourself or Hire a Contractor?

close-up of a boy about to hammer a nail into wood
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Knowing whether or not tackle a home improvement yourself can seem simple: Match the project's degree of difficulty to your own skill level and make a decision, right? Although that line of thinking is a solid jumping-off point, you need to consider other factors before deciding whether you're better off picking up a hammer or the telephone. Here are some guidelines to help you figure out when it pays to do it yourself, and when your ambition can do damage to your property, your pocketbook, or -- even worse -- your person.
Three Reasons to Consider Hiring a Contractor
  • You could make the problem worse. Research your specific project and try to identify the worst-case scenario. Failed DIY endeavors can end up costing several thousand extra dollars. The risk may be too high to justify doing it yourself.
  • It looks easy in a book. Many people convince themselves a DIY project is within their skill set based on a DIY video or step-by-step written tutorial. These aids tend to delineate the steps of a "textbook" project. But throw in the inevitable real-life wrinkle, and your knowledge and skill set may not be sufficient.
Projects Most Likely to Get DIYers Into Trouble
  • Drywall repair: This one is too often billed as anybody-can-do-it when that's simply not the case. Spreading joint compound requires a surprising amount of finesse. Most people don't appreciate how much drywall dust will infiltrate the house. Plus, water-related drywall damage can lead DIYers to neglect larger, underlying problems. (Find highly rated drywall professionals in your area.)
  • Fence installation: People get so focused on mustering the pluck and labor necessary to dig and set the fence posts that they neglect subtle but critical components of fence installation. Not sinking the posts deep enough, making assumptions about property lines, and using the wrong or inadequate fasteners can shorten the life of the fence and even lead to lawsuits from your neighbors. (Find highly rated professional fence installers in your area.)
  • Tile re-grouting: The step-by-step manuals make it sound simple, but regrouting tile takes a lot of patience and precision. For instance, you have to completely remove the existing grout, mix the new grout properly (without too much or too little moisture), apply the grout and carefully squeegee the tiles clean of "grout haze," then reapply in places where grout shrank during the drying process. If you're not confident in your ability to execute all the steps, this may not be a DIY job for you. (Find highly rated professional tile contractors in your area.)


Commonly Missed DIY Opportunities
  • Door installation: The key here is to make sure your doorframe isn't warped and out of square. As long as your doorframe is in decent condition, you can buy a prefinished, preassembled door that requires only the most elementary carpentry skills to install.
  • Caulking: Learning the basics of caulking isn't terribly hard, and it can pay off in multiple areas of the home. You can seal your windows, eliminating energy-sapping drafts. You can protect your bathtub, toilet, and sink from water infiltration. That said, you do need to be careful; you don't want to trap water behind a caulked seal.
  • Hot water tank insulation: There are other ways to reduce your water heating bill than just turning down the temperature. Water tank insulation kits can make installing an insulating blanket a one- or two-hour project that can reduce your water heating costs by about 10%.

Final Thoughts If you're worried about getting price-gouged or aboutshoddy workmanship, often the answer isn't DIY so much as taking the time to interview several prospective contractors for the job. Many contractors are honest, skilled, and willing to go the extra mile. Others are actively trying to scam homeowners or simply have no idea what they're doing. With a little research, you should be able to identify one type of contractor from the other and discover your own home improvement limits.

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