Home improvement: which projects to DIY, which to hire out

July 13, 2018 - 5 min read

In this article:

If you’re handy, you may be able to save money by doing some home improvement work yourself. But not every project is a good candidate for DIY.

  • Some projects require a high level of skill — don’t waste time on a project that’s likely to fail
  • Other renovations are dangerous for anyone but a licensed pro
  • If your county or city has a building code for your renovation, you may have to hire it out

The projects you can safely and efficiently take on depend on your skills and the time you can devote to the project.

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Home improvement can be expensive

If you’re a new homeowner, or about to become one, prepare to summon your “inner handyman.” In addition to your home’s purchase price, you should expect to pay at least $1 per square foot per year for routine maintenance and repairs.

And that estimate does not cover major remodeling — like the kitchen makeover you and your spouse talked about at the open house.

Related: Which home renovation projects deliver the highest return on investment (ROI)?

Even “tiny” repair projects can put a big dent in your wallet — if only because the list of “tiny things that need fixing” never ends.

Got a bad toilet valve? According to houselogic.com, you’ll pay $61 to $223 to fix it. Repairing a leaky faucet will cost you $97 to $330, a new ceiling fan $104 to $1,200, and aligning the front door $35 to $355.

And those prices are peanuts compared to what you’ll pay for major renovations.

According to the 2018 Cost vs. Value Report, the average cost of a new roof is $20,939. A major kitchen remodel costs $63,829, and a new backyard patio is $54,130.

Because professional labor is usually the biggest line item in a renovation budget, many homeowners have discovered they can save a bundle if they do much of the work themselves.

But there’s a catch.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, a do-it-yourself (DIY) project can cost you far more than hiring a contractor. If you’re not careful, a botched DIY could even put you on a bullet train to the afterlife.

Projects you should leave to the pros

How do you figure out which home improvement projects you can tackle yourself, and which need a professional’s know-how?

If you encounter any of these “red lights,” STOP and seriously consider hiring a pro:

You could get killed or seriously injured. For example, roofing and major electrical projects should usually be left to the professionals. Hop-scotching around a rooftop like Spiderman or playing “which color wire is the right one” could land you in a hospital ... or a cemetery.

Even among professional roofers, falls are a major cause of workplace fatalities, according to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

You could damage the home or reduce its value. You may not care that you left a few wrinkles in the wallpaper, but prospective buyers of your home will — and they might penalize you with lower bids.

And a bad DIY plumbing repair could do more than reduce your home’s value. It could produce water damage to the floors, ceilings and walls — damage that might go unnoticed until it reaches catastrophic levels.

The work requires a permit. Your city or town may require permits for certain repair and renovation jobs. For example, many localities require a permit for major electrical and structural projects. Some cities won’t even issue a permit unless a licensed contractor does the work.

Even if your municipality lets you DIY, think twice. The need for a permit may be a sign that the work is too risky for amateurs.

Easy projects that most people can do

What are the best repair and renovation jobs to handle yourself?

In general, they are projects for which the answer to “what’s the worst that can happen?” is “not much.”

Even if you’re as handy as two left thumbs, you should be able to manage small jobs with help from “how-to” books, articles, YouTube videos and other online resources. Painting your home’s interior walls or staining a backyard deck is a good place to start. Other (relatively) easy jobs include repairing or replacing leaky faucets and installing shelves.

Related: Best home improvement loan (How to find it and pay less for it)

Once you chalk up a few wins and your skills improve, you may want to tackle more ambitious projects such as installing bathroom tiles or new toilets.

As long as the project doesn’t scare you shirtless, and messing up is unlikely to cause major damage to the property (or you), go for it. Just keep in mind that DIY results may not measure up to those of a seasoned contractor.

On the other hand, you might surprise yourself and decide to take a deeper dive into the cost-saving benefits of DIY home improvement.

Projects for serious DIYers

Not everyone enjoys home repairs. But maybe you’re a DIY Zen Master, you can easily save thousands of dollars in professional labor costs.

The good news, for the rest of us, is that even when you hire a plumber, a roofer or an electrician for a big-ticket job, you can still reap substantial savings. How? By subcontracting the less technical parts of the project to yourself.

Related: Don't move when you can improve

For example, some homeowners save money by doing their own demolition work. After all, it doesn’t take an expert to knock down walls with a sledgehammer. (That said, it may take an expert to know which walls to demolish and which to leave standing.)

At the end of some projects, you could also save money by doing the cleanup yourself.

Even if you hire professionals to paint your house, you could cut costs by arranging to do the spackling before the workmen arrive, and then touching up the walls after they leave.

Just because you can DIY doesn’t mean you should

Just because you have the skills to DIY doesn’t mean you should.

There’s also the matter of time. Consider how much longer it will take you to do the work than a professional, and what else you could be doing with those hours - e.g., taking a vacation.

Related: Home repairs and upgrades (Choose your projects and financing wisely)

To determine whether a home improvement project is worth your time, start by getting quotes from local contractors. Then, add up the costs of doing the job yourself, including materials, tools and permits. Subtract this last figure from the quotes to learn how much you could save.

Next, estimate the hours it would take you to do the work, and then divide the savings by your hours estimate. This will give you an estimate for how much you’ll save per hour.

Ultimately, only you can decide whether the DIY savings outweigh the potential risks. But in general, major home improvements and/or those with the highest ROI at resale time are the ones you might want to leave to the experts.

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Pete Gerardo
Authored By: Pete Gerardo
The Mortgage Reports contributor
Pete Gerardo is a business writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times and numerous trade magazines.