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By Tara-Nicholle Nelson | Broker in San Francisco, CA

7 Steps for Avoiding a DIY Disaster

Some of us figure out our talents early in life; others take longer. But for the majority of us, those talents have nothing whatsoever to do with the construction sciences, so to speak. Nonetheless, tight budgets and hours of home improvement television watching, shelter magazine perusing and Pinterest board-fixating have stirred up the jones to do-it-yourself in many a homeowner.The widespread perceptions that contractors charge exorbitant amounts and are difficult to manage have only increased the sense that doing home improvement projects ourselves seem like the way to go.

The fact is, there are many home project that are fun and smart for a home owner to try their hand at. But DIY project veterans (myself included) can attest: DIY is by no means the no-brainer way to get every type of home project checked off your to-do list. In fact, a bad project can turn your experience of your home from an exciting project to a mortifying money-pit in the blink of an eye. Fortunately, whether your home improvement project goes swimmingly or scarily is well within your control from the very beginning - and hinges largely on making the right decision for a given project about whether to hire a contractor or go it on your own.

Here are seven questions to ask yourself as part of that decision-making process, in order to avoid a DIY disaster:

1.  What's the project?  Define the project, in writing, as completely as possible. This will equip you from the very start to outsource some or all of a project that is beyond your skill set, rather than running to a contractor in a panic in the middle of a project (when you’d certainly be charged a panic premium price). Depending on your aptitude level and the time you have, what seems at first glance to be a highly DIY-able room refresh with paint and new wood floors can snowball beyond the realm of reasonable DIY-dom if you add in a lighting or plumbing project.

To do this, sit with your project, your magazines or your Pinboards for a few days, weeks or even months, keeping a running list of the things you want included in your project as you live in your house and your desired post-project lifestyle changes come to mind.

2.  Does it require permits?  Generally speaking, electrical, plumbing, major renovations, erecting new walls and structures and adding square footage are all projects highly likely to require permits. Hint: if you use the word “gut” when describing what you’re planning to your friends and relatives, chances are good you’ll need a permit. If you’re not sure, a quick website visit or phone call to your City’s Building Services or Building Permits Division should clear things up.

Building code requirements can be exceedingly arcane, and the process of applying for and obtaining permits if you’re not well versed in them can be tedious, stressful and time-consuming. It can also be full of unsuspected pitfalls, like doing one home improvement that triggers a City requirement to add a slew of new outlets or a new sewer line.

Call the city and/or talk to a couple of licensed contractors as soon as you’ve fully defined your project - but before you’ve started any work - and get a good sense for whether it will require permits to stay in good graces with the City.

Cities are required to grant permits to homeowners, but the more complicated the permitting process gets for a given project, the more sensible it becomes to have a professional contractor or at least a professional permit expediter involved to avoid running afoul of the city, incurring penalties for unpermitted work and to maximize your
ability to get an increased resale value for your home as a result of the upgrades.

3.  Are there health and safety issues?  I’m a big believer that high decks (i.e., decks, balconies and similar structures that are tall enough that a collapse would cause injuries to those standing on it), additions and gas/electrical work are things home owners should rarely do on their own. Now, I’m not saying you can’t install track lights or change a light switch to a dimmer. Rather, I’m cautioning that that if you’re doing work in these categories beyond that level, calling a contractor can avoid a disastrous outcome.

4.  What are the relative hard costs? “ANYONE can paint a room,” I’ve heard time and time again. I’ve done it, so I know this to be true. But I also know that from the first time I got actual paint bids from my trusty neighborhood handyman, I have never painted a room since! In my humble opinion, the money I’ve spent was well worth the time and other resources I saved (see #5, below), and I’m certain they’ve done a better job than I could or would have. Just because you can do a project DIY, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the smart thing to do. It also doesn't mean that the hard, financial costs of doing it yourself are necessarily much cheaper than hiring a professional.

Don’t automatically assume that doing a job yourself is the cheap route to go, or that it will save you scads of cash. Until you’ve actually gotten 3 bids from reputable contractors or vendors, based on the full scope of the job, and have compared that with the cash you’d spend to DIY, you cannot know for certain which is the less expensive way to go. They might qualify for bulk discounts on materials that you can’t get, and you might have to rent a truck, equipment or tools that they already own. In any event, calling contractors out can be educational in terms of understanding every element of the job and troubleshooting things you might not otherwise have anticipated.  

So, unless you’re uber-handy and just love to do projects, or know for certain the project will be uber-cheap for you to do, I’d strongly urge you to get a few pros to come out and give you real bids for what it would cost (including supplies, labor, any subcontracting, permits - soup-to-nuts), and compare that to your own DIY cost estimate.  (Hint: I’d also encourage you to add a little buffer on the top of all the estimates - theirs and yours - for unforeseen costs that might arise.)

5.  What are the relative soft costs? Cash is just the beginning of the resources required to get a home improvement project done. They also take time - which some might see as opportunity costs. Ask yourself the question: what could I do with the time I’ll have to spend on this project?  

There are also the energetic and emotional resources involved.  Some people simply have sharp mechanical and logistical aptitudes, have the spare time and love to use it bettering their homes and have infinite patience for figuring out workarounds when the project doesn’t go as planned.  And then there are people like me! So, if you’re like me, you should definitely account for that when you’re deciding whether to do-it-yourself or whether to hire your home improvement projects out.

6.  Is it really DIY-able? Remember, the ‘Y’ in DIY stands for YOURself.  The decision whether to DIY or call a contractor in for a job is not based on whether your Dad, your neighbor down the street or Bob Vila made a similar project look simple. Rather, it needs to be made based on your own, personal:
  • skill and experience level
  • aptitude for whatever sort of work you’re completing
  • patience level
  • frustrate-ability
  • spare time available for the job, etc.

If you're not excited about the prospect of doing the project, and you can afford to have someone else do it, don't let the wanna-be handypeople in your life talk you into biting off more than you can chew. 

7. What could go wrong?  If your project is uber-simple, like replacing a toilet or painting a wall, there are a limited number of worst-case scenarios which might be annoying and inconvenient, but are far from the end of the world. The kitty-cat wallpaper might be harder to get off than you thought - that sort of thing. But as the project grows larger in scope or more complex, the more potentially disastrous your worst-case scenarios are - and the more costly calling someone in to fix a DIY-gone-wrong will be.

Generally speaking, I’m not one to advocate worst-case scenario thinking. But when it comes to home improvement projects, the many moving pieces and relative inexperience of the average home owner suggest that an abundance of caution is just plain old smart. If your project’s DIY worst-case scenarios conjure up visions of bodily harm to your family members, buckets catching the rain or virtually anything caving in think long and hard before you take it on yourself, versus calling in a pro.

ALL:  I'd love to hear your DIY stories - from fantastic to disastrous.  What projects have you found yourself well able to do?  What projects did you take on that you ended up wishing you'd called a pro out to handle?

P.S. - You should follow
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By David S. Fuhrman,  Thu Jul 19 2012, 11:00
I was on the Brooklyn Bridge on 911 i lost my best friend last year, He was the 855th person to die from Mesothioma @ ground zero
By pdarcy,  Thu Jul 19 2012, 11:08
was your best friend near ground zero immediately after? or on Bridge with you?
By Caliaquagirl,  Thu Jul 19 2012, 11:16
Sorry. I fail to see what that has to do with the DIY article.
By Fred Strickroot,  Thu Jul 19 2012, 11:31
Wow! Great article Tara. Certainly provides a lot of information for anybody in is pondering a DIY project which many times take longer and cost more than budgeted. Well worth the read and I will definitely be sharing with our customers.


Fred Strickroot, Realtor®, MBA, CDPE
Florida Lic. Real Estate Brokerage
2154 Seven Springs Blvd, Suite 103
Trinity, FL 34655
By Helen Oliveri,  Thu Jul 19 2012, 11:33
Great tips
By mekragness,  Thu Jul 19 2012, 12:28
I find the main difference between hiring a contractor/craftsperson and DIY is time. Otherwise, if the home owner prepares her/himself, gets the right tools and advice, and takes care, many home improvement tasks can be done oneself and with considerable pride of accomplishment. A key is being knowledgeable and taking the time to do it well. This goes for volunteer helpers, too. This said, some jobs are better left to someone else (interest and time as well as ability figure here).
By Bob Packard,  Thu Jul 19 2012, 12:32
I built a 10 x 18 wooden deck behind the house as a DIY. Bought all of the lumber and concrete stanchions, installed them, and the deck has been great for many years. Did have to get a permit, but that wasn't a problem.
By Andrea Kowalski,  Thu Jul 19 2012, 12:42
This is another excellent article, with a message that I know all too well myself! In the midst of a window replacement project on my 92-year-old bungalow, I finally took my own advice - and yours -to my friends and clients and called in a trusted handy-person with whom I work regularly on my listings and recent sales. What a difference!... .and compared to the time and frustration I incurred in my attempt to do this myself....well-worth hiring an expert!

Thank you again for your valuable advice!


Andrea Kowalski, Realtor®
Golden West Realty
San Pedro, CA 90731
By Dave W,  Thu Jul 19 2012, 12:46
One thing I've learned from speaking with multiple contractors is that some have valuable advice, and some just plain don't know what they're doing. Also, some have advised approaches that are just plain wrong. If you want to do a project, either DIY or with a professional, google it and find out what the code actually is and what things to avoid. And when you get quotes from pros, don't just settle for a number. find out exactly what they propose to do, and how long they estimate it will take. Trust in God, all others double check.
By Abc,  Thu Jul 19 2012, 13:00
Just make sure to get the all the permits you can. If you don't get a permit then you won't be giving money to your local building inspector for NOTHING. You will also not have some moron questioning everything you do. Lastly, without a permit, you will not be waiting for someone else to approve one step before you can proceed to the next. Obviously, I am being sarcastic. If you're a complete idiot or overly cautious or worried about being fined etc. etc., then get a permit. If you're the least bit capable of doing the job yourself, avoiding a permit will be the single best step that you can take to reduce the time, cost and complexity of your project.
By Leslie L Chaillou,  Thu Jul 19 2012, 13:56
Another thing to consider is a reality check on your " now" ability. My husband and I have done several DIY projects from building a deck to creating and finishing a basement. However at age 65 what the mind remembers as easy to do, the body is not so quick to agree to. Saving money is great, creating even more fun, but health and peace of mind outweighs them both.
By William Williams,  Thu Jul 19 2012, 14:01
...thanx abc....if the project can be seen from the outside then get a permit....
By Carmel,  Thu Jul 19 2012, 14:48
I am in the midst of a large renovation project. A few years ago, the roof started leaking. We couldn't find a quote under $10k, so it had to wait. (I subsequently found a great handyman who did the entire roof for $2k plus materials and installed 2 skylights as a bonus. Sadly, he moved away or he would be doing a lot of the work I am doing now.)

My husband, a friend and I have been working since December on repairing the water damage from the leaking roof, including repairing/replacing walls, floor joists, sub-floor, insulation, drywall, etc. in our dining/family room. People cannot believe it when I show them the pictures of what it looked like before. I also added a laundry room in the space and love it.

We have also torn down and replaced the damaged ceiling in the spare room, slapped on a new coat of paint and it looks like new again.

We have gutted the kitchen and are now in the process of replacing the cabinets (which we built ourselves) after having replaced/repaired part of the ceiling and one wall and built a new false wall as the original wall (cement block) was too far out of square to hang cabinets on. We have added/moved outlets and ceiling light fixtures and changed a lot of the wiring (75% of the house was on one circuit...I have changed that over to several circuits and removed the wall switch that had ALL those circuits hooked to it.

Having only weekends and holidays to work on things has slowed us down, but the fact that I was able to find really great bargains on building materials has made it all worthwhile. Once the kitchen is done and dining room/family room painted, I will be moving on to fixing up the bathroom (not a lot needed there as it was gutted and re-done a few years ago).

When we're done, the "For Sale" sign will be going up.
By Michael Capsalis,  Thu Jul 19 2012, 16:04
I am a licensed professional plumbing contractor for over 35 years. The single most important thing you can do is PLAN! Over the years, I have been called out because of people whom decided to cut thru a wall to make a larger opening, well you can guess the results. Cut wiring, hydronic heating piping, waste and vent piping. The water damage alone cost more than if a pro had done the job in the first place. The homeowners did not even know how to shut off the water. As others have posted, we have the tools and expertise to get the job done right the first time. I HIGHLY recommend a professional for all but the most mundane plumbing work, even a seemingly easy project like replacing a faucet can turn into a nightmare when the stop snaps off inside the wall, behind a cabinet!. Plan, prepare and ask questions. It even pays to pay for a service call to get some how to advice before you proceed. At $75.00 an hour this is well worth the cost. My 2 cents.
By Bunny,  Thu Jul 19 2012, 17:05
was your best friend near ground zero immediately after? or on Bridge with you?
By Thomas Bates,  Thu Jul 19 2012, 18:56
Small repaisr need a permit sometime. HIRE a Liscensed Contractor with references.
Additions or structural mondifications: Check with Building and safety as to the size of the work if it is under 50% of the sq footage of the house you are held to a looser standard and may beable to qualify for the work with the existing geological, septic(Sewer) reports on hand.. If not then you will have to update the existing permits to todays standard which are different from 5 years ago.Get a Architect have him draw pland and submit for a permit. Once plans are approved then get the Builder with a good set of references. Use a builders control.. That means he get his next amount of money when he has completed a portion of the work and the Architect has approved the work.
Don't forget insurance and a code upgrad rider on your homeowners policy.
REMEMBER THIS DURING THE BUILDING PROCESS nothing is every done on time-It always costs more. Don't make changes! At some point you will want to kill your contractor (his subs are never on time) and he will want to kill you. If you are planning to live in the home while this is going on DONT! Not if you want to save your marriage.. MOST OF ALL GOOD LUCK!
I have been in Real Estate for 35 years in the California Coastal Commission Zone its beeen helll but GOOD LUCK!!
Tom Bates Malibu Realty Inc
By Chris Phillips,  Thu Jul 19 2012, 19:36
I sorry but I am a PROFESSIONAL General Contractor. It really frost my onions when the homeowner attemps to try things besides painting & small fixes around the home them selves.
You don't see me trying to be a brain surgeon, mechanic, or something else that I'm not on the weekend.
Stick to what you do for a living & call a PROFESSIONAL, you'll be alot happier in the long run.
By Stephane,  Thu Jul 19 2012, 20:54
Here is my sad story about DIY. This happened in Europe in 2006. I bought a 1400 sq ft wooden house in kit, ground floor and one story. An experienced team came from the factory and mounted the house in a month. Ot rather, mounted the walls, the roof and the partitions. Then, all the rest was to be done: floors inside, windows, doors, electricity, plumbing, bathrooms, a staircase to go to the first floor, kitchen, etc.
My father who was rather stubborn decided he will take care of everything, as he was retired and was excited about the project. That cost him his life, I am pretty sure. He worked months in the house with a temperature below zero - was totally stressed, driving back and forth as there was always something missing, a special screw, a tool, etc and finally passed away only a few weeks after the house was officially declared "finished" from a heart attack. Apart from that, the result was not so good, and it cost me probably more than if a company did it... A disaster. By that time I did not want to see the house anymore and sold it to the first offer.
By Russell Faroni,  Thu Jul 19 2012, 21:55
I am also a Professional General Contractor, and like Chris who posted above, I highly recommend that people who are considering doing any type of major home renovations on their own think twice, or three times for that matter. Not only are there the myriad of challenges that and unforeseen complications which will undoubtedly come up, but there is the time issue to consider as well, how much time can you as the homeowner commit to finishing your project? How long can you handle having part of your home unable to be lived in, both logistically and in terms of your mental well being (not to mention your marriage!), before you and your spouse both lose it? Regardless of how long you think your project may take, it will take longer, sometimes much longer than you ever imagined. Why? Because you may think you have X number of hours per day or week to dedicate to your project, you will have less, life has the uncanny ability to get in the way of your well laid plans.

Not to be overly morbid, but one must also consider that they may create an unsafe living environment for their families if they take on a project beyond painting and small repairs. I've heard horror stories of drywall panels falling from ceilings and injuring children, deck collapses during family reunions, etc... Using a professional also comes with the added benefit of the work being warranted for at least 1 year, and many times for much longer. Lastly, and most importantly, they will be insured and held liable for personal injury, code compliance and inspections, or violations of your contract, just to name a few. Any way you look at it, you should at least get a few prices and consider using a pro before you jump in feet first.

Russell Faroni, Jr.
Verdant Solutions, LLC
By Luis,  Fri Jul 20 2012, 04:23
HIRE A PROFESSIONAL! I usually have a problem with articles like this, because they perpetuate the notion that anyone can tackle a home renovation. If you treasure un any way the value of your home, you should hire a qualified and experienced professional to assist you in planning ahead in a competent manner. This WILL save you money and headaches in the end. Every time I see a DIY program where a homeowner decides to renovate a kitchen (for example), and right of the bat proceeds to sledgehammer the old cabinets away...so misleading! I am an Architect, and i have painted rooms myself, but have also seen professional painters do the same and let me tell you, there is a big difference. At the very least, do your legwork and talk to a qualified professional before going for the sledgehammer!
By Rose,  Fri Jul 20 2012, 13:45
AS someone who could only afford a fixer-upper, and unfortunately located in corrupt Rhode Island where contractors take the money and run, I found them to be extremely expensive and did NOT get the work done. I had to learn to do a lot myself. I asked questions, went to those Home Depot "you can do it, we can help" workshops, I have done demolition, framing, new walls, tiling, grouting, plastering, painting, new kitchens, including hanging cabinets, setting bathroom fixtures and installing new lighting, I have mixed mortar and parged basements until they no longer have water penetration and I am a small, 5' tall female.
I have licensed plumbers do any and all new rough plumbing, heating and cooling, and licensed electricians do all new wiring including any snaking of wires. I have a floor refinisher I use, and a roofer and window guy as well. The rest I do myself - it comes out faster, better, and just the way I want it. I don't have to wait for some sub contractor to show, I don't have to yell at a GC who takes the money and doesn't finish the job, or does the job he wants, not the one I hired him for...
You can do way more yourself than these guys want you to believe.
It actually changed my career path, and now I renovate and manage properties for myself all because contractors ripped me off. I have gorgeous luxury places, and make each new one better than the last, my places get above average rents and are in demand, all because there are not enough consumer protection laws to stop us regular people from getting robbed by these guys who think they know it all.
By Vin,  Fri Jul 20 2012, 22:05
rose is 'cool'- am impressed. the 'real estate' people that use forum had not much to share, (other than advertising... and the (licensed contracters same.... . I've other forums w/info I can actually use to visit this evening- g'bye
By Brett Roll,  Sat Jul 21 2012, 16:18
Great advice, another thing which people should calculate is the cost of the correct tools required. If none of your hobbies revolve around tinkering, crafts or the like, chances are you are going to spend the same amount of money if not more on just buying/renting the tools needed in compared to hiring a pro.

I recently had a DIY experience which was great and I am enjoying the fruits of my labor everytime I walk through the door. I did the following projects on my own home which I recently purchased:

Installed new 6 panels doors throughout
New 5" baseboards and complimenting door moldings
Installed all new appliances
Raised kitched cabinets (there was a gap between the top of the capinets and the cieling before) Painted throughout
Installed new bathroom flooring
Installed new Toilets
Installed new glass shower door
Installed new window blinds

If you are willing or have the time to invest, open to taking advice from others more experienced and have a friend or family member to lend a hand you will have a successful experience and have a home that looks brandnew.

Brett Roll
DRE Lic#01896764
By Frank Willy,  Sun Jul 22 2012, 15:21
When somebody hires a contractor they assume professional resulults. NOT TRUE There are tens of thousands of horror stories of incompetent work being done by amatuers or con-men
I would say that an amatuers attempt to do a DIY would be safer than hiring an unknow contractor.
Do your homework and get several referances and maybe you will be satisfied with the results
By Kuhinje Zortan,  Thu Jul 26 2012, 09:39
Get as many info as possible before deciding how you'll approach things - costs, contractors, requirements ... Take care of all the permits and think things through.
By John S. Leyba,  Thu Jul 26 2012, 16:18
We bought a foreclosed property three years ago with two houses on the lot. We rent one out and live in the other. The place was a dump when we moved in. Both look great now.

One of the hardest challenges we have had with contractors is getting their quality up to snuff as we have cleaned up and upgraded different elements. Every single one cut corners and did sloppy work, and while some of it could be remedied, and was at our insistence, even after patching, some aspects were about as good as they were going to get. I'm referring to trim pieces, electrical outlet finishing, texture, etc. A lot of it we caught but much of it we did not notice until later. That chapped my hide even more!

So it pays to do the things we can do ourselves because we know we will take our time and make that corner PERFECT or trim that edge "just so."

Now that both houses look decent inside and out, I expect to get better workmanship for our next few projects later this summer.

I do think that for some projects you are not just hiring the contractor, you are hiring their equipment and their ability to put multiple people on the job. My dad and I have limits to what we can get done, even when we know what we are doing, and we do a lot.

The most important thing is to figure out who can do the job right and will do it well. Focus on long term value.
By Joanne Bernardini,  Fri Jul 27 2012, 12:31
AS usual GREAT Advice! Sometimes it just isn't worth the risk of your health and safety to save a few bucks!
By Elaine Ryckman,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 11:16
I agree with the above comments about planning and using professionals. Professional Interior Designers can help you plan your renovation, find materials and resources, suggest options the homeowners may not have considered, and recommend experienced contractors with a solid track record. Well-designed homes, with nice materials (tile cabinets etc), a lovely color palette and suitable furnishings provide enjoyment for owners and fast re-sales.

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