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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