Financial Resource Center


Home Improvement Projects: It's Not About Being "Handy"

by Maureen Flietner / October 7th, 2010

If you have a home improvement project, should you do it yourself (DIY) or hire a pro? Maybe you're handy with tools, have worked on similar projects, or you think you can save money. Consider these factors first.

Check the time

Determine the time needed to complete a project. It can be easy to misjudge. Take painting, for example. It may not take long. It's the rest—covering floors and furniture, correcting wall problems, taping trim, buying drop cloths and brushes, shopping for paint, and cleanup—that eats up hours. For larger projects, time becomes a bigger factor. "For most people, the only time they have is on weekends," says Ed Bourke, owner of Bourke Construction, Anaheim, Calif. "For projects such as a kitchen or bath remodel, that limited amount of time can have a homeowner spending months to complete a task that a contractor should finish in weeks." When you've come up with an estimate, decide if you have and want to take that much time away from work and family.

Assess other project requirements

Once you decide if you have the time to do a project yourself, consider these factors as well:
  • Remember the materials—If you do it yourself, you'll need exact measurements. Consider ordering all materials first. "This will save time and cut out unexpected delays as some materials, such as cabinets or tubs, can have a several-week lead time," says Bourke. Check materials to make sure they're undamaged and the items ordered. Do you have a vehicle to pick up materials and dump trash? Sometimes details are overlooked or forgotten, or plans change and you need to run to the local home-improvement store, says Bourke. Will 2x4s or full pieces of sheet rock fit in your vehicle?
    "Home remodeling is not a subject or skill that you can learn off a Web page."
  • Know your tools—You probably have a cordless screwdriver, pry bar, and hammer—but certain jobs require certain tools. What will you need? You may have to buy or rent tools. Are they available locally? Will you know how to use them effectively? Michael Hydeck, Telford, Pa., president-elect of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, Des Plaines, Ill., says rental shop employees may show you how to operate the tools but they don't provide information about how to do the job.
  • Assess your skills—Do you understand construction that relates to the task? You may know electrical, but how about drywall? You may be a good painter, but could you replace flooring? If not, sign up for a course at a local community college or, for simpler tasks, attend a class at a home-improvement center. "Home remodeling is not a subject or skill that you can learn off a Web page. It's a very hands-on skill set," says Bourke. "You have to know your limitations," says Hydeck. "If you are happy with the work you do, then take on the project. But don't tackle anything without talking to someone else who has done it." He suggests talking to a pro by paying for a few hours of time to pick his or her brain.
  • Plan to be safe—Doing projects at heights, using tools you aren't comfortable with, and doing unfamiliar work can be dangerous.
    Factor in the cost of your own time.
    Fasteners shot from nail guns can puncture building materials and body parts. If you work on a roof, there's always the risk of a fall. With ladders, people not only can fall from them, but the ladders themselves can fall if not properly secured or braced. Bringing in new materials and disturbing existing materials can present dust and toxic fume dangers. The Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C., reminds consumers that it's important to take steps to minimize pollution.
  • Consider the liabilities—Many communities require permits for projects. While a reputable contractor would handle getting the permits, a DIY homeowner must remember that task and understand the requirements. If you make it a DIY project but hire casual labor to help with parts of it, there are other considerations. Hiring someone may mean tax liabilities. If a worker gets hurt, you may get sued. If a worker causes a fire or major damage, it may invalidate your homeowners policy.
  • Expect surprises—Opening up a wall, a roof, or floor could reveal rot, mold, or outdated or defective wiring or plumbing. Could you handle the unexpected or would you end up hiring a pro after all?
  • Do the math—If you think you'll save money by doing it yourself, work out your calculations. Factor in the cost of your own time. What could you earn at work for the amount of time you'll spend on the project?
    Contact your credit union for the best financing option.
    If you're unfamiliar with certain tasks, such as cutting tile, add the cost of extra tiles or other materials to replace those ruined as you learn.

Be aware of resale

Do you plan to sell your home at some point? Greg Herb, regional vice president with the National Association of Realtors®, Chicago, and owner of Herb Real Estate Inc., near Philadelphia, says that while homeowners can improve the appearance of their homes by decluttering indoors or adding mulch to gardens, projects requiring permits are best left to professionals. "Most buyers today are getting home inspections and putting houses under the microscope," says Herb. Many states also have disclosure laws. Sellers have to inform potential buyers about improvements and disclose whether the seller obtained building permits. Even if a homeowner did a good job but one small part is off, it can build a poor image and make potential buyers anxious, says Herb. He suggests calling on a local real estate agent for a fresh set of eyes on improvements and to better understand which projects bring the best value in your area.

Finance your project

Contact your credit union for the best financing option. Typically, credit unions fund home improvement projects through either home equity loans or home equity lines of credit (HELOCs). A home equity loan is a standard loan based on the value of your home and your equity in it. You get all of the approved money at once and repay it though fixed-rate amortized payments. A HELOC is set up more like a credit card with a maximum amount you can borrow against as needed for a set period. Repayment is based on an adjustable rate.
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