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Home improvement projects you can DIY and ones to leave to the pros

You can save time and money doing simple jobs but avoid those requiring a license and permit for specialty work

As a rule of thumb, it’s best to avoid any specialty task that requires a license, especially plumbing and electrical work where you risk electrocution, or a project that involves handling toxic material. (The Washington Post illustration; iStock)

When Chip and Joanna Gaines knock down a wall or tear up a floor, it looks like a great way to relieve some stress, save money and end up with a revitalized home. While some projects can be easy for a self-taught homeowner, others that are far above their skill level can result in an expensive and sometimes dangerous debacle.

Yet many homeowners can save money and learn new skills with a DIY project such as installing a backsplash or cabinetry hardware or painting, says Michael Di Martino, Edison, N.J.-based senior vice president of installations for Power Home Remodeling, a national home improvement company.

“You just need to think about what you want to accomplish and understand that it’s okay to make mistakes as you learn,” says Di Martino. “If you have a friend or neighbor with experience, you can ask them to help. You can watch YouTube videos to learn some skills but just be aware that there are idiosyncrasies to every project.”

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Most homeowners do some type of DIY work on their homes, says Bailey Carson, a New York City-based home care expert for Angi, formerly Angie’s List and HomeAdvisor, primarily to save money.

“Some homeowners in the past year have had extra time on their hands because they were staying home and decided to try DIY for fun,” says Carson.

The prime reasons for choosing to DIY, says Rick Rudman, Potomac, Md.-based CEO of Curbio, a national home improvement company for home sellers, is for pleasure and to save money.

“If you enjoy working on your home and want to learn more about how to do it right, then a DIY project is fair game,” says Rudman.

Saving money may not always be the right reason to DIY instead of hiring a pro, says Rudman, because homeowners often find they need to make more trips to a home improvement store for extra tools and materials to redo things when they make mistakes.

“People are enthusiastic about DIY projects, but they can be more challenging, more time-consuming and more expensive than they think,” says Carson. “You need to be ready for things to go wrong.”

DIY projects for beginners

Di Martino recommends multiple projects for homeowners with little or no experience that can be cost-effective. For example, you can spend less than a few hundred dollars on interior painting and possibly increase your home value by thousands. He also recommends renting a pressure washer for your deck and driveway, and changing door and cabinet hardware.

“Things like landscaping, building a firepit and even building a simple outdoor farm table can be easy DIY projects, too,” Di Martino says. “You can even redo a basement or garage if you want to make it into a simple recreation room rather than something more elaborate.”

Seasonal home maintenance is one area where homeowners can do their own work on a regular basis, says Mitchell Parker, Palo Alto, Calif.-based senior editor for Houzz, a home improvement and interior design website. He suggests things like replacing filters and touching up paint.

“Some of the most successful projects for beginners are the simplest, such as painting, installing shelves, tiling a backsplash and hanging peel-and-stick wallpaper,” says Carson. “Limiting the scope of your projects, especially at first, helps build confidence and knowledge before you take on anything more complex.”

Another option homeowners can consider is to act as their own general contractor.

“You can be the project manager and coordinate the different tradespeople involved with a big project,” says Rudman. “You’ll save the payment to a general contractor and get experience by watching the tradespeople do their work.”

When to bring in the experts

Safety issues are a prime reason to hire professionals for some jobs.

“Homeowners often underestimate safety protocols,” says Rudman. “Not only do you put yourself at risk, but you also could create a safety issue for others and the house if something isn’t done the right way.”

For example, you need to install protective plates on wiring on stud walls to avoid the possibility of someone hammering a nail into a wire in the future, says Rudman.

“Overall, you need to consider your physical condition,” says Rudman. “A lot of DIY projects require heavy lifting, so you need to be careful. If you need to climb a high ladder, be sure you take extra precautions.”

Climbing a stepladder can be slightly risky but falling off an extension ladder can send you to the emergency room, says Di Martino.

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As a rule of thumb, it’s best to avoid any specialty task that requires a license, especially plumbing and electrical work where you risk electrocution, or a project that involves handling toxic material, says Carson.

Projects that require architectural plans, permits and to meet code requirements are best left to a professional, says Di Martino.

“You definitely need a contractor and an architect to build an addition,” says Di Martino. “And most kitchen remodels are too big for a DIY and involve plumbing and electrical work.”

If your motivation is only to save money, your risk is high that something will go wrong, especially if you try to do something complex, says Carson.

“We recommend avoiding DIY projects that could have significant repercussions to your home if performed incorrectly,” says Parker. “We’re heard from professionals in the Houzz community who have been called in to fix plumbing, electrical and even structural issues that could have been avoided by an expert.”

Refinishing floors looks relatively simple but the skills required can be tough to learn for amateurs, says Rudman. Plus, it can be easy to gouge and damage wood floors.

Other projects that are better left to a pro include roof and window replacements, foundation repairs and repointing bricks, suggests Di Martino.

Rules of thumb

Carson suggests that homeowners evaluate the “three Ts” to decide if they should DIY or hire a pro: time, tools and talent.

“Do you have the time to research, shop and execute a project?” says Carson. “Do you have the tools on hand or do you need to invest in them? Will you re-use the tools? Are you confident that you have the talent to complete the project?”

While doing it yourself theoretically can save time and money, sometimes the opposite is true, Parker says.

“A professional can complete the job in less time and provide access to discounts on products and materials that can offset their fee,” Parker says. “A general contractor can work with specialty contractors to coordinate the timing of each installation and make sure the project stays on schedule. Interior designers can provide insight on the price-to-quality ratio of each project and will have access to trade pricing.”

Depending on the project, tools can be readily available and relatively inexpensive, says Rudman. He says a wet saw for cutting tile can run $125, which can be worth it if you have several locations to install tile. Sometimes you can borrow tools from friends and family or rent them.

If you want to learn how to do repairs and renovations and can accept that you may not get something right the first time, Carson suggests a DIY project can be worthwhile. She especially encourages people to try if they want to have a bonding experience with family members around a DIY project.

A consultation with a contractor can help you estimate costs and decide if you can DIY a project, says Di Martino. Naturally, you don’t want to waste a contractor’s time asking detailed questions if you don’t intend to hire someone, but you can get a better idea of what’s involved by talking with one or two.

“The biggest problem with DIY projects is that you end up spending good money after bad,” says Di Martino. “You can invest in tools and materials, then mess up and have to hire someone to redo the work. Then you’ve lost time and money.”