Do-it-yourself (DIY) home improvement projects can be fun, empowering, and cost-effective. When everything goes right, that is. But when things go wrong, a DIY improvement can turn into a B-I-G disaster.
That's why it may sometimes be wiser to hire a professional contractor, says Marie Leonard, owner of her own home improvement business and author of the DIY book "Marie's Home Improvement Guide."
She encourages people to ask themselves if they have the skills, tools, and attitude to deal with their proposed project. "If you answer yes to all of them, go for it," Leonard says.
If you answer "no" to any of the above, Leonard suggests hiring someone else to get the job done.
Not sure where you fall on that scale? Read on for some tips that could help you avoid a DIY disaster and clues that it might be time to call in the pros.
Tip #1 - Make Safety Your First Priority
Quick: How do you know if a contractor is good? Answer: He's got all his fingers. Yes, home construction projects can be dangerous, which is why the best contractor might be considered the one who has the fewest disasters. So if you do want to go the DIY route, follow their lead and put safety first.
Here are a few safety tips from Leonard to get you started:
"Get goggles if you don't have them, and wear them as a matter of course," Leonard advises. "I keep a pair of safety goggles with my tools in a protective case because they get scratched easily."
Wearing goggles when sanding or sawing wood can keep particles from getting into your eyes and temporarily blinding you - the last thing you want is to fall off your ladder while sanding a drywall patch on your ceiling.
Beyond this, Leonard urges people to understand how their power tools work. "Practice with scrap wood before you use your power tools on your project," she says. "That way, when you do the actual project, you'll have learned how to use them and use them safely."
Finally, if you are uncomfortable with any aspect of a project, consider calling in that nice pro with all his fingers.
Tip #2 - Understand Your House
Think about all the systems that make up a house: plumbing, electrical, heating, cooling, insulation...the list goes on and on. And often, a home improvement project can affect many of them - for better or worse. (And by worse, we mean disastrously worse.)
That's why, if you're planning to do a project yourself, it's good to be familiar with your home. But if you're not, hiring a contractor might be a better option. After all, they deal with the myriad systems of a home every day, all day.
Still, if you're dedicated to the DIY route, one way to educate yourself about your home is to do a walk-through with a home inspector, says Leonard.
"If you recently bought a house and got a home inspection, you got a wonderful gift," she says. Even if you've been in your home for years but have questions, Leonard encourages you to hire an inspector and walk through with them as they look over your house. "They can give you details about your house [that may be] hard to learn on your own," she says.
For example: inspectors can show you things like where the water shut-off valve is. If you're going to be doing any plumbing, this could save you from a minor - or major - flood. Hint: floods come under the heading "Disaster."
Once you know your way around your house, make sure to pay attention. "Know your house as you know your body," advises Leonard. "Look for things that are wrong. Rotted wood, missing shingles - try to catch issues in the early stages before they become a bigger problem."
And if you're not comfortable in your knowledge, remember that you always have the option of calling in the pros before you end up adding to the DIY disaster statistics.
Tip #3 - Don't Skimp Out on Solid and Sturdy Products
When you're tackling a DIY project, it can be tempting to try to minimize cost - but that old axiom "You get what you pay for" holds true when it comes to the tools and supplies you'll be working with.
This is why it might be wiser - and more cost efficient - to consider hiring a contractor who already has the best tools. This is especially good advice if you doubt you'll use the tools more than once.
But if you do decide to DIY, Leonard suggests buying only quality equipment.
"I generally recommend people buy the best tools they can afford in their budget," Leonard says. "Most homeowners will only have to buy them once, and there can be a huge difference in quality between the cheapest tool and a pricier item."
The same can be said for materials. One case in point: paint. "Cheap paint doesn't have the right stuff in it to do a good job," Leonard says. You might have to buy twice as much cheap paint to get the coverage you'd find with a good quality paint.
Considering the hassle of returning to the store for more supplies, you'd save yourself some aggravation - and possibly even some money - by just buying the good quality paint in the first place.
Tip #4 - Know Your DIY Limits and Hire a Contractor
Just because you know how to patch a hole in the wall doesn't mean you're ready to tackle replacing all the plumbing in your home. Some projects might be in your comfort zone, while others aren't. Leonard calls this range, "the red, green, and yellow light projects." She breaks them down like this:
Green Means Go for It: "Green light projects are projects where you know how to do the work, you have the tools and the know-how, and if it's not perfect you can redo it," she says. You'll likely know when you've got a green light project since you'll be very comfortable with it.
Yellow Means Stop and Consider: These are projects you're not sure about. So, if you're feeling a little uncertain about your DIY project, Leonard has some tips on how to proceed. "Talk to people who've done it," she says. "Create a relationship with the people at the hardware store. They might tell you that it might be too much, or yes, you can try this."
Red Means Stop and Drop: Red light projects are those projects that are clearly best left to the pros. That could include anything requiring building code or permits, or anything requiring extensive construction knowledge to be safe, says Leonard. "Red light projects include things like electrical projects, plumbing projects - basically any project you don't have the time or ability to learn how to tackle," she says.
Obviously, the projects you need to weigh carefully are the red and, sometimes, yellow light projects. These kinds of projects could be dangerous, and if done poorly could lead to massive damage to your property, like a flood or an electrical fire. Professional contractors are equipped to handle electrical and plumbing issues safely and - if there is a problem - they should have the insurance to cover any damage resulting from their work.
Tip #5 - Do All the Prep Work Before You Begin
If you watch the TV shows about home improvement, they often cut straight to the fun part - like painting. Sure, it's dramatic to see the change a new color can add to a room, but that's skipping an important step: the preparation. And often, that's where many DIY disasters can be avoided.
"Shows like that don't show the prep work, like the two days it can take to prep for painting," Leonard says. "Often, people aren't ready for the work it takes to prepare for the project, but you need to allot that as part of your overall project plan."
It might not be as exciting as painting, but if you prep beforehand - taping off your ceiling, covering your floors - that effort will pay off in the long run. You'll end up with cleaner lines, and you won't have to deal with the hassle of trying to clean paint out of your carpet.
Another example is refinishing your kitchen cabinets with a darker stain. If you don't sand and prepare the cabinets properly, your stain won't go on evenly, and you'll be left with an eyesore that you'll either have to restain or replace.
So it's best to factor in the prep and clean-up time, and then decide if doing it yourself makes practical and financial sense. If not, the best preparation may be to pick up the phone and call a contractor.