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In That Order

Questions to ask before tackling a DIY project

1) Is It Worth Your Time and Effort?
Going the DIY route can save you money, but it comes with a cost: Time (and sweat). Before you even consider whether you're capable of doing a project, think about how much time you have available to complete it and whether it's worth that time investment.

For example, if you want to replace all the cabinets and countertops in your kitchen but only have the weekends to do it, make sure you're comfortable having your kitchen an inaccessible mess for weeks or even months. Polishing wooden floors can also be a DIY project, but it's not only time-consuming, it's tricky and absolutely no fun (sand everywhere! Footprints and dust stuck in the finish!). On the other hand, many projects you can complete in a weekend or that can be more comfortably spread out over time are great for DIY. Examples are painting, landscaping, and finishing a basement.

Keep in mind also that while you might save on labor by doing a project yourself, the materials themselves could cost more than you think, especially since the pros tend to get better pricing. (Reuse centers, however, including architectural salvage stores, can help you save a ton on home improvement projects.)

Use Home Advisor to estimate the cost of a professionally done home improvement project and this calculator from LearnVest to calculate what an hour of your time is worth so you can decide from a financial standpoint whether you should hire a pro, even if you could do the project yourself.

2) How Risky Is It?

We can also rule out certain types of projects right away: Those that have the potential to seriously injure you or severely damage your home. These include anything involving main electrical lines or natural gas pipes. Because, obviously, you don't want to burn your house down or cause an explosion.

Depending on the project, you might also want to avoid plumbing work. Lifehacker reader Kyle Phillips says he's comfortable doing electrical work, but (wisely) knows his limits when it comes to plumbing:

Electrical (to me) is pretty straight forward. You just have to know which place to hook up the two wires, and avoid getting shocked. :) Plumbing on the other hand requires (IMO) more knowledge, and definitely more tools than electrical work. For example, it's not difficult to fix a toilet or put in a new faucet, but anything more than that is beyond my ability.

HowStuffWorks lists more reasons you should proceed with caution when it comes to plumbing and electrical work, as well as three other projects to skip: asbestos removal, roofing repairs, and gas appliance repairs.

Some projects also present greater risks to your home itself. For example, knocking down a wall sounds pretty simple, but if it's a load-bearing one or you don't know there's electrical wiring or plumbing behind it, you're in serious trouble. (Ask the Builder says these structurally important walls can be as dangerous as a stealth bomber.) Beware of any projects that could affect the structural integrity of your home, such as tearing down walls and converting roof space.

One warning sign a project may be over your head is if your town has building codes for it, mandated for safety purposes. You might be required to get a permit to do the work, and that might mean you have no choice but to hire a professional. Definitely find out the local rulings on what you can and cannot do yourself.

Do You Have the Knowledge, Skills, and Equipment Needed to Do It Right?

Lifehacker reader Megan Powers, who's done everything from re-grading landscape to a minor bath remodel, offers this rule of thumb that covers the first two concerns:

I hire pros when the consequences of messing up are severe (e.g. non-obvious plumbing issues) or when the cost of my time would be too high, like a kitchen remodel. Otherwise, I like to do the work myself or with my husband.

The last element is you. Do enjoy doing DIY projects? Are you capable of doing them well? Make a list of the projects you would like to do or have done around your home. For each of them consider:

  • Do you know all the steps it will take to do the job?
  • Do you have all the necessary tools or can you borrow them or rent them?
  • How much skill or expertise is needed to do this project properly—and do you have it?
  • What are your recourses if the project turns into a DIY disaster? (Many pros charge more to redo work or refuse to do it at all.)

Try to be realistic about DIY improvements. (Don't be fooled by all those HGTV shows and This Old House articles which make these all look so easy). Some tasks, such as tiling a shower wall, look simpler than they are and require an artisan to do correctly. Others, like changing cabinet pulls or installing a dishwasher can be done with a little research and just carefully following directions.

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