Home remodeling — when you can’t (or don’t want to) DIY

When my husband and I walked into our last home for the first time, we felt like we were walking right into the '70s. With disco-era fixtures and old smelly carpet, the four bedroom colonial was quite the sight. Oh, and let's not forget the orange laminate flooring that graced the kitchen and bathrooms. Except for the master bathroom, of course. It had shag carpet.

But, for every problem we saw, we also saw potential. Paint can work miracles, after all, and floors are fairly easy to replace. And the kitchen? It wasn't great, but we thought new appliances and flooring would make it workable. Plus, the bones of the house were in great shape. Built in the '70s, the brick exterior and interior of the home were in impeccable condition. The house also had beautiful dark woodwork all over the place, a feature that was currently overshadowed by all of the ugly going on.

Doing it Ourselves

After closing, we spent the next month scraping up laminate and tearing up carpet, painting, and cleaning. After that, we planned to have a professional install tile floors in the kitchen, sun room, and bathrooms, and then have carpet put in everywhere else. So we headed to the local home improvement store.

I'll never forget the day I found out how much it costs to have someone install tile.

“Excuse me. $5 per square foot for installation?” I wondered how that could be possible. “But the tile is only $1.49 per square foot.” Could that possibly be right?

After talking to a few people in the industry, I found out that tile installation is rather messy and labor intensive, which is why it was so dang expensive. And since we planned on putting in almost 800 square feet of tile, we decided to do it ourselves. How hard could it be?

Practice Doesn't Always Make Perfect

Since we had so much tile to install and no experience, we called in reinforcements. We hired a family friend to help us cut and lay the tile for $20 an hour. Together, we laid all of the tile over the course of three days. And when it was all said and done, I was pretty happy with the job.

Until I wasn't.

After we moved in, I spotted a few uneven and crooked tiles. Even worse was the fact that the grout kept coming up in several places, even after sealing it multiple times. No one else seemed to notice the imperfections, including my husband, so I chalked it up to the fact that I'm slightly OCD. But it still drove me crazy, and I was constantly touching up and adding grout all over the house during the six years we lived in the home. And it was a pain.

What I Learned

In the world of personal finance, it's often considered a weakness to pay someone to do something you can do yourself. And believe me, I get it. We're all trying to save money any way we can, right? In that respect, paying for labor doesn't seem all that smart.

One the other hand, my own lack of skills gave me reason to believe that it's not always a bad idea. Hell, I worked in a mortuary at the time. What did I know about tile floor installation? Unfortunately, nothing.

The fact is, some people aren't particularly handy or skilled in construction. Others might not have the time to devote to large projects. Or maybe home remodeling just isn't your forte, and that's okay too.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to save when you can't (or don't want to) do it yourself. Here's what I've learned:

  • Do the prep work yourself: Even if you need to hire skilled labor for your project, you can still do the prep work yourself and save some cash in the process. For instance, carpet companies, as well as the big box stores, can charge as much as 50 cents per square foot to tear up, and dispose of, your old carpet. Paying someone to tear up old tile can cost considerably more. Doing these chores yourself is a great way to save if you have the time and ability.
  • Determine your scope of ability: Unfortunately for us, I've learned that our skills are limited to painting and grunt work. But, your scope of ability might be different. Maybe you're skilled at carpentry or have some basic plumbing skills. Whatever it is, find ways to put those skills to work.
  • Shop around to save: If you have to pay someone to install cabinets, remodel a bathroom, or lay carpet or tile, it really does pay to shop around. Look for sales, coupons, or special discounts at competing stores. Also consider local contractors for the work, as they may be willing to meet or beat their competitor's prices.
  • Compare apples to apples: When comparing prices for your home remodel, it's important to compare apples to apples. A perfect example is when you're shopping for flooring. In addition to the price for the carpet or flooring itself, there are a whole host of other expenses to compare. These can include tear-up of old carpet, padding, installation, and stairs. Some companies even charge to move furniture.

Putting Those Lessons to the Test

This summer, my husband made a career change that didn't quite work out. So, after careful thought and consideration, we decided to sell our house and move to a different town where he could find work. And after living in a small, temporary home for a few months, we finally found a house we wanted to buy. And rather predictably, it's somewhat of a fixer-upper.

But this time, things are different. First of all, we now have kids, which means we can't spend every evening and weekend working on a large project. And since we've made peace with our limited home remodeling skills, we've chosen to leave most of the work to the professionals. Here are the updates we're working on, as well as where we saved:

  • Carpet: With so many variables, carpet shopping can become a tricky endeavor. After comparing pricing and quality at five different stores, we chose a 100 percent polyester carpet for all of the bedrooms. The store we chose offers free installation with any purchase over $1,500 and had the best quality padding available at 20 cents less than their competitors. When you're buying a lot of carpet, those small savings really add up!
  • Tile: We found acceptable porcelain tile at the local home improvement store for only 89 cents per square foot. And, since we failed miserably at tile installation last time, we chose to hire a contractor to install the subfloor and tile. Fortunately, he said he could do the installation less than what the big box stores are charging, which led to additional savings.
  • Paint: Since we're relatively skilled at painting, we chose to paint the entire interior of our new home ourselves.We're saving by doing all of the work ourselves, obviously, and by painting the majority of the home one color — a smooth, creamy water chestnut.
  • Kitchen: Our new home still has the original kitchen cabinets. And while they're holding up relatively well, they're not all that great either. But, instead of replacing them, we're currently in the process of cleaning them up and staining them a slightly darker color. In addition, we're getting new countertops to replace the cracked and mismatched counters currently in the home. And since we've never installed countertops before, we're hiring that part out.

Do you remodel your home yourself? Are there certain projects that you feel are beyond your scope of ability?

 
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FI Pilgrim
FI Pilgrim

After 10 years of DIY I’m finally figuring out when it’s worth my time to tackle it myself and when it’s worth calling in a pro. Makes evaluating property much easier once you figure that out!

Snarkfinance
Snarkfinance

My general rule of thumb: I suck at most things. That being said, when it comes to home related things that are not simple fixes (well, I don’t own my own home, but I own four apartments in Boston that I rent out) I pay someone. Firstly, I view it in context of running a business- I want to keep the customer happy. I also get to deduct the project as an expense which lowers my taxes, and pending the project increase the value (CAP rate) of the property. No reason to muck around.

Mrs. PoP
Mrs. PoP

We do most of it ourselves, especially on our own house since we can put up with a bit of chaos while the project is ongoing. (Cats deal with it better than toddlers…) Our “hire it out” line generally falls with 220V electricity, pruning or removing huge trees, and getting something urgent done on the rental property on the side of hiring it out. And pretty much everything else being on the line of DIY. We’re still deciding on cabinetry as we’ll probably redo those in 2015, but it looks like we’re going to try and buy unfinished cabinets custom… Read more »

Dave @ The New York Budget
Dave @ The New York Budget

I hope someday to gain some of the skills you are talking about by working on other projects and learning from people who know better than I do. Until then, though – you are right – I’d rather not screw up a project that I have to live with for years.

Really cool post! Thanks!

Matt Becker
Matt Becker

I think this is just as important of a lesson to learn as is figuring out that there are some things you CAN do on your own. I’ve been trying to DIY more often recently, but the fact of the matter is that there are some things where it’s actually more valuable to pay someone to do it for us. After all, we all have jobs right? Someone is paying us to do something for them? And doesn’t that provide more value to society as a whole?

KC in ATX
KC in ATX

Just like part of the trick is figuring out what you can and can’t do, part of it is figuring out what you can and can’t spare the time for. When we bought our first house, we spent hours and hours painting two rooms with help from multiple friends. We’re good at painting, and I’m good at edges, but it took a really, really long time to get it right. (It looks great, by the way.) When it came time to paint another room, we just didn’t have the time to invest ourselves. That happened to coincide with a $99… Read more »

Brian@ Debt Discipline
[email protected] Debt Discipline

We remodeled our basement a few years ago I did the demo of it all the clean up and then had a contractor. come in for the remodel. This save me about $1500.

Jane
Jane

I’m with you on the tile. Newbie, DIY tile jobs are usually obvious, especially with more tricky tile like hexagon. When we put a brand new bathroom on the back of our house, there was no way we were going to try to tackle such a complicated job ourselves. Why would I pay tens of thousands of dollars to put on an addition and then skimp on the obvious parts like tile? It was somewhat of a splurge, but now we have a bathroom that will last a long, long time. Certain people might have been able to accomplish this… Read more »

Grayson @ Debt Roundup
Grayson @ Debt Roundup

I am a DIY junkie, but I know my limits. Funny thing is that we just painted our room a water chestnut color. It turned out very nice. I have done electrical work, along with many other projects, but tile is not one of them. I would probably pay someone.

Becky @ RunFunDone
Becky @ RunFunDone

We’re definitely DIYers, but I appreciate your tips! It is true that if your work is not going to be of high quality, it’s better to hire out!

Betsy
Betsy

Thank you for recognizing the value of ‘Manual Labor’. My man is a Roofer and he gets dirty and smelly but we can look at the pictures of the beautiful shingle pattern on the roof and know that someone and their belongings are safe from the elements.

HKR
HKR

I agree! I am very glad to see a post that recognizes that the DIY is not always the way to go, based on your personal skill set. My hubby is a roofer too, and it drives me nuts to hear people say “anyone can put on a roof.” Well sure, but just because anyone can do your taxes too doesn’t mean you’d let them. For one thing, most people don’t realize that the warranties on shingles are only valid if the shingles were installed correctly; if they aren’t and they all blow off a month later, the manufacturer won’t… Read more »

Leah
Leah

Yes, this is always what worries me with DIY. I can paint, and I can put up basic things (built-in bookshelves, closet organizers, etc). I did learn to change out outlets so I can have white ones instead of cream. Cosmetic fixes are usually doable enough for the average person.

But big jobs that could damage your house? No way I’d do that myself. Moving plumbing, doing electrical, roofing, and framing out new walls are always when I would call someone.

Charlotte
Charlotte

Like Betsy, my man is a professional — he does everything from remodels to new construction, and specializes in log buildings, especially old ones. When in doubt, hire someone who knows what they’re doing. Ask around — my guy has never had to advertise — all his work comes word of mouth. He’s not a crook, he’s really good at his job, and frankly, I think he should charge more … knowing your limits is a good thing, and a worthwhile long-term investment.

Anne
Anne

I think you must be stealing my memories. We have DIYd through four homes, almost everything short of building a new fireplace.

Last year we saved a ton by installing the new stuff in the bathroom and tiling the floor ourselves. Except I hate the floor, two tiles are already cracked from being uneven and the grout looks hideous and dirty.

I’m not even sure how to fix it. No more tile floors for us.

Holly@ClubThrifty

Oh yes, one particular tile in my bathroom drove me nuts. And it was in the middle of the room, not even somewhere where I might be able to cover it with a rug. Never again.

stellamarina
stellamarina

Plus dishes and glassware just smash to smithereens when they fall on tile…..but will often not on other flooring. I would not use tile for floor or counter tops in kitchens because of that.

Charlie @ Our Journey To Zero Debt
Charlie @ Our Journey To Zero Debt

There are many DIY projects that I can do myself. For example, we need new floors and I can certainly install new laminate flooring myself. No need for nails since it’s click and lock.

The only thing stopping is me is that my wife thinks it’s much more work. Another reason why I’m not doing it now is because we have a toddler and another baby on the way. Perhaps when my children are older, they can help!

Troy
Troy

I’ve seen many “professional” jobs where tile is crooked in a couple places and grout isn’t quite perfect. Try taking a look around in department store bathrooms, other people’s houses, etc, and see if you can notice the imperfections, and then rethink whether it’s worth $5 per sq ft to have somebody else make some mistakes (albeit maybe a few less than you). That being said, it’s definitely important to know your limits or accept that you have to spend a lot of time preparing to do work that you’ve never done before. With tile especially, if you don’t prep… Read more »

Jane
Jane

Good point, Troy. My professionally done, hexagon floor does have some uneven bits. When a person is involved, nothing will be perfect, but I figure that adds to the charm, right? I think for me the crux of the issue was that I wanted the tiles to be structurally in place. I didn’t want tiles coming loose or other problems that a new DIYer would cause.

PawPrint
PawPrint

In 30 years of owning five homes, we’ve built fences and decks and fireplace surrounds, wallpapered (long ago–never again), stripped wallpaper, painted (interior and exterior), roofed, pulled up carpet, and done a lot of landscaping. The older I get, the fewer tasks I want to take on. They’re no longer fun, and I just want to have fun. When my husband retires and we return to where our retirement home (currently a rental) is located, we will have professionals do everything including painting.

Laura
Laura

Our DIY skills (and our time) are pretty limited, so while we’re trying to learn more, I’m also all for researching professionals on Angie’s List, BBB, and Google searches to find the best one for my needs. Hint: it’s rarely those sent out by a Big Box Store. I’ve heard they’re hired by the BBS at low wages and it shows; friends of mine who’ve used them have generally been unhappy with the quality of the work. Someone somewhere, possibly on GRS, said a great way to learn DIY skills is to volunteer with someplace like Habitat for Humanity. I’d… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo

I don’t know. I get it that if you want things done a certain way, with certain materials you can’t handle,l you might need or want to hire a professional. But I have two objections: 1) I’m not on board with the idea that you have to do things the way that everyone else does. But if you do, hiring a pro might work for you. 2) Even if you do what everyone else does, you can still learn to do a lot on your own. My former landlords were a retired couple who did almost everything themselves. Of course… Read more »

Holly@ClubThrifty

I think our shift in mindset happened when we had kids. Before we had kids, we could spend evenings and weekends working on projects. Now that we have kids, we no longer have any “spare time” like we used to and long projects are no longer feasible.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo

Right! I get that kids will eat all your “spare” time. My brother in law and his wife recently visited with their newborn, and they were busy busy busy.

edited to add:

I just found this. I know it doesn’t apply to working with toxic/dangerous materials, or very little kids, but it’s worth a look:

http://spiderspring.wordpress.com/2013/07/12/cobbing-with-children/

awesome or what?

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski

That quote is strange. Imagine how quickly you’d chalk it up to rampant consumerism if it was about a BMW sedan instead of an adobe cottage. That said, my view is that you can do almost anything yourself. Some things are easy. Other things are harder. You can do a passable job on 95% of things the third time you try them. That is to say, you’ll mess up the first two times. If it’s something you’re not going to ever need to do three times, then you might want to hire someone. If it’s something you’ll do at least… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo

Yeah it’s a strange quote I suppose, but to put it in the right context you’d have to look at the whole book to see where he’s coming from– and it’s a 400-page book. The guy is a formerly licensed architect from Britain who got tired of the usual way of building homes and moved to America to try out new things. Long story short, he’s been making cobb houses and teaching people how to make them since the early 90s. Doesn’t look too difficult actually, so that’s what I’m going to be trying out in the next couple of… Read more »

Marie
Marie

The first time I saw The Lord of the Rings, other people commented on the round doors of the Hobbit homes, and all I could think of was “I bet that would make moving so much easier!”

Ivy
Ivy

We’ve pretty much everything that could be done in a house, with the exception of roofing. Professionals also make mistakes, and sometimes big ones, we have some horror stores to share from us and friends. Also sometimes it’s difficult to get professionals to touch small or fussy jobs. We called multiple ones for a particularly “fun” job – installing foundation under an existing house – and in the end did it ourselves with friends over a long hot summer. But the kids do make a difference – everything takes much longer and is a way more effort to keep things… Read more »

Mrs Random
Mrs Random

We live in an old house that has suffered a lot of DYI in its time, but not much of it by us. We have found that DYI is damaging to our marriage, as well as not coming out quite as well as it might if the job was done by someone with skills. I love paying someone else to do a great job (and who will notice and fix the past screw ups too). It’s totally worth it.

nicoleandmaggie
nicoleandmaggie

Well, right now we have some stray kittens that are stripping our bathroom wallpaper for us… they’re kind of uneven though, so probably something a professional will have to do.

We have done decks and toilets and various odds and ends. DH has gotten really good at large appliance repair. Lots of landscaping and yard-work too.

But even though we can do painting and other big projects, with DH’s new job we’re going to be outsourcing them rather than doing them ourselves (or, more likely, putting them off).

phoenix1920
phoenix1920

We do most of our remodeling ourselves, but are slowing down because, while fulfilling, it can also be rather draining. We built a 900 square foot addition ourselves and learned a LOT! First, we read books and watched videos before doing anything. Second, we didn’t do anything ourselves that, if we messed up, would put us out of our budget for us to re-do. In other words, pouring concrete and installing plumbing under the concrete was for professionals because if we had to tear that up and re-pour it ourselves, it would be too expensive (2+ trucks of concrete). For… Read more »

Adam
Adam

I was not born able to walk, but I learned. I was not born able to ride a bike, but I learned.

I have never met someone who was born able to DIY the first time they picked up a tool and materials. It is a skill that must be learned – the more you do, the more you’re comfortable doing, and, in my case, the more I enjoy doing it. DIY is not a chore as a result; it is a life long enjoyment, and endless fountain of savings I have tapped.

SLCCOM
SLCCOM

Some of us have neurological problems that prevent us from doing things involving straight lines or seams. Or hammering only the nail. Or not dropping every other nail and/or screw. Just because you can do things does not necessarily mean that everyone has that ability.

Tracey H
Tracey H

Funny you mention tiling. My 20-something daughter helped my husband (who had only cut tiles once–when I retiled our ensuite shower) lay tile in my son’s house. They did a beautiful job. Then my daughter tiled “her” bathroom in our house (again, a beautiful job) and finally she tiled a backsplash in the kitchen–it’s flawless. She researched tiling floors, bought the right subfloor stuff, carefully applied the thin-set stuff (or whatever she was recommended) and was very neat on the tiling (she’s a bit of a perfectionist). She’s replaced all of our main floor baseboards and door trim, built wooden… Read more »

Jennifer Roberts
Jennifer Roberts

I have a degree (and work experience) in architecture and built many, many things in studio while I was studying, but there are few home improvement projects that I feel comfortable tackling myself. Hiring an experienced pro is a worthwhile investment–there is nothing worse than spending even more money to redo a job that wasn’t completed properly the first time.

Marie
Marie

We never do anything for the first time on our own house. When friends and family need help with DIY, we are always first in line to volunteer, with the understanding that we will trade unskilled labor for being taught the process.

Knowing yourself also helps. My husband is a big-picture guy, so he enjoys the planning and construction process. I’m an OCD nitpicker, so I’m in charge of detail work like painting trim.

Michael in Missouri
Michael in Missouri

Great article. I’m with Mrs Random on this. I can do a few things around the house, like painting, wallpaper removal, stripping wood stains, and other basic tasks. I’ve also patched plaster and hung drywall, which are trickier but still within my capabilities. In the end, I’d rather save money and hire someone who knows what they’re doing for the bigger jobs. Not only do I not have to labor through it, smash my fingers, sweat in the Missouri summer sun, etc, but I’m also giving my money to someone who possesses skilled labor. I feel good about rewarding people… Read more »

Brent
Brent

I love doing renovations, to save cost when working on rental properties. That being said, you need to make sure you can do it quick enough and good enough so that your time spent is worth it.

DC @ Young Adult Money
DC @ Young Adult Money

Ah, not happy to hear about your experiencing laying tile! This is something that I desperately want to do myself. Our bathroom needs new tile and the bath tub/shower itself needs to be re-tiled. I wish I could do it myself and I keep asking myself “If I don’t do it on my own home, when will I ever learn??” At the same time I am also a perfectionist, like you, and would notice all the tiny parts where I screwed up. I think I’ll just have to earn a bit more through my side hustles to help bankroll it.

diy bathroom renovations
diy bathroom renovations

I recently installed a steam shower unit,
greatest item we have invested in for some time, children and friends and family love it, cannot see everybody returning
to traditional showers ever again

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