My wife and I have been homeowners for a little more than 10 months now, and one of the issues we’re constantly faced with is whether it makes better sense to hire a contractor to do home renovations or to save the money and do the work ourselves. It’s a problem complicated by the ever-growing abundance of DIY blogs and how-to websites that make seemingly any project look manageable, if not downright easy.
We’re fortunate in that we bought a house that doesn’t really need a lot of work. From the beginning, most of the projects on our to-do list were optional: add a second bathroom, replace the basement windows with glass block, redo the rusty old linoleum floor in the kitchen. But that only increases the pressure on us to do things ourselves. After all, if something isn’t essential, why not take your time, save the money and do it on your own?
It turns out there is a pretty compelling counter-argument. So far, we’ve taken on two “big” projects by ourselves: replacing the broken, non-functioning door to the storage space above our garage, and removing our drafty old basement windows (five in all) and installing custom-built glass block panels. Both projects yielded home upgrades that are fully functional, money-saving and — for the most part — good-looking. The trouble comes when you look closer at the workmanship: while not bad from a distance, it’s clearly lacking in the details. From the outside, our new door looks fine; from the inside, it looks like somebody handed a nail gun and a pack of wood shims to a 3-year-old. And our glass block windows, while pretty, aren’t 100 percent level. The mortar is also uneven in spots (something that we can perhaps correct later.)
The question is, how much do these details really matter? We saved more than $500 by putting in the new basement windows ourselves. Are the imperfections we left worth that much?
I’ve developed a rule of thumb: with proper tools and plenty of research, I can complete a project up to about 70–80 percent of the quality I’d expect from a contractor (in about three to four times the amount of time). When contemplating a home upgrade, the question then becomes: “Would I be satisfied with doing this in a way that’s 70–80 percent as good as I want it to be, in order to save X amount of dollars?”
Of course, there’s no guarantee a contractor would do any better. When we first moved in, we made the mistake of hiring a local “handyman” to install our dishwasher. He hooked it up okay, but he left behind some major problems with the drainpipe underneath the sink, and his electrician buddy installed an electrical switch for the garbage disposal directly beneath where the pipe was leaking. Oops.
After that experience, I bought a membership to Angie’s List, which lets you read and write reviews of contractors’ work. The $7.50-a-month price tag for a membership is a bit grating, but it’s worth it. You get discounts from a lot of contractors for being a member; more importantly, you get to see beforehand, from customer reviews, whether a contractor actually knows what they’re doing. Between a busted air conditioner, a smashed fender on my car, a new garage door and some major plumbing work, my membership to this site has already paid for itself a dozen times over.
Given that my odds of hiring a competent contractor are drastically higher now that I have access to that site, it’s tempting to avoid DIY projects altogether. Of course, I haven’t spoken yet of the sense of accomplishment you get from doing things yourself — but that’s mainly because I don’t get it. I’m a perfectionist; when I build something, all I tend to see are the flaws. My wife is much more satisfied with the outcome of our home renovations than I am. It’s also probably true, as she pointed out, that as we continue doing things ourselves, we’ll get better over time. Still, I can’t say I’m eager to try our hand at replacing the kitchen floor or installing that second bathroom alone. There are some things I don’t want to risk screwing up — especially, in the case of the bathroom, when plumbing and electricity are involved. Besides, contractors gotta eat too…