This is a guest post from MLR at My Life ROI. If you like this post, check out his website or subscribe to his feed.

One thing I love about reading Get Rich Slowly is that J.D. is always willing to get his hands dirty and throw on a different hat. J.D. is a do-it-yourselfer. From writing monthly updates on his garden progress to giving instructions on how to make homemade pumpkin butter and muffins, J.D. does it all! One DIY post caught my eye in particular, though.

J.D. mentioned that the best way to save money on home repairs is regular maintenance. He mentions in the article that he met with a series of contractors to get quotes on things he did not want to do, like painting the house. The point was not that he met with a bunch of contractors — it was that there is a lot of value behind regular maintenance.

J.D. did a good job making that point, so I would like to emphasize the other half of the equation: the value of getting a lot of estimates.

My parents’ situation
Now, my parents are a lot older than J.D. and not as able-bodied. Maybe once upon a time they were, but they are not DIYers anymore. They recently decided they needed a lot of work done on their house. What did they need done?

  • Back deck — Our back deck was in slight disrepair. Back when I was in high school and college, I would do what I could to help keep the house up and running. I actually paid my way through college by running an exterior painting company. So with that skill set came the familial duty of power washing, scraping, sanding, caulking, glazing, priming, staining, sealing, and painting different parts of the house. One thing I never got really good at was wood replacement and wood repair. I normally subcontracted that kind of work out when I was running my company. A bunch of the slats and fencing were rotted on their deck. Underneath the deck, a few of the support beams were also starting to rot. Seems they had termites. On top of that they had a storage shed right next to the deck which was getting decrepit and was only storing old lawn chairs and Halloween decorations. Phew! Lots of work!
  • Carpeting (full house) — My parents moved into their current residence in 1988, a full 21 years ago. The wall-to-wall carpets have not been changed since then. They made do with what they had and would steam clean them to keep them looking nice enough. But now that the economy is tumbling, they decided they would be able to find some good quotes on carpet replacement. The catch? They didn’t want to move any of the furniture, so any quote would need to include moving the furniture from the room, and putting it back after replacement.
  • Kitchen Revamp — Similar to the carpets, the countertops and cabinets have been the same for the past 21 years. I stripped the wallpaper and painted the walls and cabinets about five or six years ago. The appliances have been replaced because of wear and tear. Other than that, nothing has really been changed in the kitchen. So my parents wanted a quote on completely tearing out and replacing the countertops and the back wall, repainting the walls, changing the cabinet hardware, repainting the cabinets, and tearing up and re-tiling the floor.

So there we have it: three huge jobs that my parents wanted done in the middle of an economic recession. Good thing they’ve saved money for opportunities like these.

A kitchen in need of a remodel — but not the kitchen in this article.

Getting the Estimates
My parents went through the normal routine in order to get estimates. They called people from the phonebook, they looked at the local classified advertisements for services, and they asked some neighbors for referrals. When all was said and done, how much were the estimates?

  • Back deck — The highest estimate they received for the back deck was about $10,000. They had a few other estimates ranging from $7,500 to $8,800. The highest estimate they received was also the first estimate they received. If this isn’t a testament to getting multiple estimates, I don’t know what is. But they did not sign with the contractor who gave a $7,500 estimate…it gets better!
  • Carpeting (full house) — Estimates for the full carpeting job were as high as $6,500 and stayed in the range of $5,500 through $6,500. Why? Each contractor stated that the estimate was a lot higher due to the request that they be responsible for moving the furniture. Understandable…that is a lot more work than they were probably expecting. But my parents did not sign with the $5,500 estimate.
  • Kitchen revamp — For the kitchen work my parents also got an estimate from a Home Depot-certified contractor on top of the other contractors that came in. The top estimate wound up being $3,800 and the lowest was $2,900. Surprisingly the Home Depot contractors were in the middle.

Once my parents got all of their estimates, they figured that the maximum they would spend would be about $20,300 by choosing all of the highest estimates. If they chose all of the lowest estimates they would spend about $15,900. Not too shabby…that is a $4,400 cost savings, or 21% off!

But Wait…ONE More Estimate
My parents were ready to go ahead and spearhead all three projects by going with the three lowest estimates. However, I would like to point out that they called the references for all of the lower estimates and all of them checked out as doing excellent work. I would never advocate just going with the lowest estimate to save money as you could wind up having to do a lot of “cleanup” work down the road. They asked me why there would be such a disparity, and in my experience from working in the industry, it is very whimsical.

Luckily for my parents, though, they decided to not squeeze the trigger yet. They knew the neighbor across the street was a big time DIYer. Over the years we have watched him build his front porch, repave his driveway, build an in-ground pool, build a two level deck in the backyard around the pool, cut down trees, plant trees, build a shed, repair his foundation, replace sections of his roof, etc. I said J.D. does a lot… but compared to our neighbor I would venture to guess J.D. is an amateur! [J.D.'s note: There's no question I'm an amateur. Very much so!] What line of work is our neighbor involved in? He is a high school teacher.

My parents decided to talk to him just to see if the prices were in line with the amount of work that was involved. They figured that he, of all people, would know how much time and equipment these three jobs would require. When they asked him they got a much better response than they imagined.

  • Back deck — For the back deck he offered to do the job for $1,200, materials included, as long as he could spread the work out over a few weekends. He would also put a few more support beams in to be safe. Potential savings = $8,800 off of the highest estimate and $6,300 off of the lowest estimate.
  • Carpeting (full house) — He didn’t offer to do this work. However, he did have a licensed contractor he has worked with before that came out and did an estimate. Their estimate? $3,800! After checking their references my parents found out they passed with flying colors. Potential savings = $2,700 off of the highest estimate and $1,700 off of the lowest estimate.
  • Kitchen revamp — The neighbor offered the same deal as on the back deck. He would do the job for $1,200, materials included, as long as he could do it over a long weekend, like a Friday to Monday. Potential savings = $2,600 off of the highest estimate and $1,700 off of the lowest estimate.

They weren’t expecting this at all so it came as a very pleasant surprise. It also goes to show you that you can save thousands in places where you would least expect to look.

By talking to this neighbor they wound up paying him $2,400 for two of the jobs and $3,800 to the contractor he recommended for a total of $6,200. They saved anywhere from between $9,700 (61% off of the lowest estimates which were already 21% off of the high estimates!) and $14,100 (69% off of the highest estimates).

Is this anecdote applicable in your own life? Absolutely! Do you ever see one of your neighbors doing a lot of DIY work? When you talk to them do they talk about all of the weekend projects they have lined up for themselves? If so, would it hurt to ask them if they would be willing to do some side work for extra cash? If not, do they know anyone who would be looking for work?

As long as you are willing to be flexible with the schedule (as my parents were in letting the neighbor do the back deck work over the course of a few weekends), you may find a few thousand dollars in your bank account when all the work has been completed.

If you can’t find a DIYer in your neighborhood at least make sure to ask around for references from your neighbors and get multiple estimates done. If you can’t save roughly $14,000 like my parents did you might be able to save the $4,400 (21%) they were about to “settle” for.

As the weather keeps getting nicer, good luck getting your home maintenance projects completed!

J.D.’s note: Kris and I have had a LOT of work done on our house over the past five years, and I want to echo some of the things MLR has mentioned. Namely, the lowest bid is not always the best option. It’s very important to take into account references and your rapport with the contractor.

We have friends that always take the lowest bid and are then angry that things go wrong. Kris and I sometimes take the lowest bid, but sometimes we take the highest. It all depends on how well we think the contractor understands our objectives and on our assessment of his work. But would we ever hire a DIYer from the neighborhood? I guess it depends on how good her work was on her own place.

Kitchen photo by Yew Tree House. Deck photo by DNA Michaud.

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