Should You DIY or Hire a Pro for Home Improvements?

Before you pick up a hammer, ask yourself these 4 important questions. If you can’t answer “yes” to all of them, you probably need a pro.

by NEA Member Benefits

Key takeaways

  • The cost savings from DIY may be tempting, but improperly done work could be dangerous and costly to correct.
  • Hiring an experienced and qualified contractor gives homeowners peace of mind that the job was done right and complies with code, permit and inspection rules.

When you’re considering a home-improvement project, it’s important to know what jobs you can do yourself and what projects are best left to the professionals. Some jobs can be simple enough for an average homeowner to tackle successfully. Others clearly require expert skills. It’s the jobs between those two extremes that can be tricky. 

DIY’s cost savings may seem enticing, but if your skills aren’t up to snuff, the result won’t impress would-be buyers. Unsound or improperly done work could be dangerous and costly to correct.

“Nothing is a bigger turn-off for a buyer than seeing work that was not done professionally," says Jim Smith, broker/owner of Golden Real Estate in Golden, Colorado. Some things such as changing a light fixture, installing a GFCI outlet and replacing a sink faucet lend themselves to DIY because they aren’t big, obvious improvements. “Most people who can read and follow instructions, or have experience doing these tasks, can do them themselves,” Smith says. 

Before you strap on your tool belt or pick up the phone to call a contractor, consider these questions: 

1. Do you know what’s needed for the project? 

“The most important thing is to know what the scope is” of the job you’re considering, says Bill Jacques, president of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI). 

How much lumber will you need? How much wire? How many light switches? Where should outlets go? Is the material you love suitable for the application you plan? Start by talking with the staff at your local building supply store. They can help you get a sense of what will be involved, what you’ll need and what it’ll cost. 

2. Do you have the knowledge and tools you need? 

Longtime do-it-yourselfer Pat Curry is a landlord in Augusta, Georgia, and a writer-editor for remodeling and builder publications. With her husband, John, she has rehabbed and sold houses. They currently maintain three houses, two duplexes, a condo and 13 rental units. They’re also converting a 1930s-era cottage into a coffee bar for their Buona Caffe Artisan Roasted Coffee business.

Over the years, they’ve become very skilled at many DIY home improvements. They can handle tasks such as putting in a light fixture, ceiling fan or dishwasher, and some plumbing projects, but they also know when a job is beyond their abilities. That’s when they hire licensed contractors. 

If you’re not skilled and want to do some DIY, look for labor-intensive jobs you could handle, such as painting. Roughly 30% of the cost of painting is labor, Curry estimates. 

Because the Currys have the tools, the know-how and the experience, they’re doing all the interior painting on the cottage conversion job. But they’re hiring a pro to do the exterior painting, which requires ladders and lots of complex prep work. 

3. Do you have the time and stamina? 

Can you do it yourself and still manage your day job and/or your usual everyday activities for the duration of the project? 

“There are some things we’ve decided as we’ve gotten older that we’re not going to do anymore,” Curry says. Working on roofs is off limits because one mistake can result in serious injury. 

They’ll skip other jobs because they know how much work is involved, and they know “we just don’t have enough gas in the tank” to do the physical labor and their day jobs, too. 

4. Do you feel like dealing with any needed permits or licenses?

Minor home improvements may not need permits and inspection, but if you’re going to add a room, alter a load-bearing wall, install wiring, carpeting, flooring or tile, or make changes that could affect your home’s structural integrity and safety, err on the side of caution by checking with your local building or planning department. 

Jacques recalls a group that bought a building with the intention of converting it into a church. It had a flat ceiling and tall roof built with a truss system that used smaller pieces of lumber to support the weight of the roof. The new owners wanted to raise the ceiling height and didn’t get a permit because they planned to do the work themselves. It looked simple enough, but when they altered the support system, the roof caved in, Jacques says. 

“Know what the laws are in your community about what you can and can’t do and what things need inspections,” Curry cautions. “It’s not legal for homeowners to do some things … but rules vary by state, by county, and sometimes even by municipality within a county.” Check your local requirements first.

Hiring an experienced and qualified contractor gives homeowners peace of mind and confidence the job was done right and complies with code, permit and inspection rules, says Maggie Uravich, office manager for Brillo Home Improvements in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And, when you decide to sell, you’ll have written proof of code compliance and the amount you invested in improving your home.