How a Data Nerd Approaches DIY Home Improvement Projects

Elizabeth Renter
By Elizabeth Renter 
Edited by Kathy Hinson

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I started 2021 by buying an 1885 hulk of a home, sight unseen, with visions of restoring its earlier grandeur. In almost two years, I’ve restored three of many rooms and tackled multiple smaller projects, by myself. 

Do-it-yourself home improvements can save a lot of money, but that’s hardly the only reason to dive in. One in 4 homeowners took on DIY home improvement projects over the past two years because they like doing that kind of work themselves, according to the recent NerdWallet Home Improvement Report. I count myself among them. The joy of this work was instilled in me at a young age by my dad, a former industrial arts (shop class) teacher turned school administrator, and hobbyist carpenter. I joke that I’m the only kid I’ve ever known who built her own Barbie house. It was a blue one-bedroom ranch.

Between my current house and the one I previously lived in (also about 100 years old), the only jobs I paid professionals for were the urgent ones and the massive ones: a new roof, demolition of outbuildings, a new heating and cooling system, and the time the oak floor outside my bedroom buckled enough to open into the dirt crawl space (a virtual nightmare). The list of DIY projects, on the other hand, is extensive and has included jobs like removing wallpaper, carpet and popcorn ceiling; skim coating walls and ceilings; refinishing floors; restoring and replacing trim work; rewiring push-button light switches and original light fixtures; and stripping and restoring an original mantle.

In most cases, I take as much time to plan these projects as I do to execute them, and the first step is deciding whether doing it myself makes sense. I lean toward “yes, of course it does,” every time. But choosing to do it yourself when a professional would’ve been smarter can cost you peace of mind, loads of time and far more money than you could have possibly saved on labor. 

A note: It’s tempting to compare the estimated costs of a DIY kitchen renovation with a professional one using an online tool. It’s fine to use these tools to get a general idea, but not as an indication of exactly how much you'll actually spend, or save. The typical project costs gathered by various surveys, including surveys from the U.S. Census Bureau, don’t control for project specifications. Yes, DIYers are saving money, but it’s also possible they’re choosing cheaper materials and doing less extensive projects overall. Plus, these estimates are rarely specific to a geographic location, and costs vary widely across the country. 

Consider these three variables carefully before donning your safety glasses and getting to work.

Ability 

Whether I have the ability or skills to take on a project has as much to do with what I already know as what I’m able to learn. Yes, you can learn just about anything on YouTube these days, but what you’re really looking for is what you can learn to do well, with minimal chance of messing it up. 

Talk with someone who has undertaken this kind of work before. If you don’t have a friend with a DIY resume, have a contractor or two come out to provide estimates and use these visits as an intel-gathering opportunity. Ask them how the project would unfold, what permits might be needed, what could go wrong and how many people will be involved. This visit can serve multiple purposes — helping you understand the skill level of the project, as well as determining how long a professional would take and what their costs would be.

Don’t rely solely on internet strangers and polished websites for this information, unless you have no alternative. And if that’s the case, gather numerous sources to seek a consensus. Even if a website conveys a level of difficulty as 3 hammers out of 4, those step-by-step instructions and well-edited photos won't convey the amount of cursing and mess that could go into the finished product, not to mention the cost of fixing any errors.

Time 

It may take longer for a contractor to begin a project, but there’s little doubt you will take longer than them to do the actual work. It can be difficult to estimate precisely how much longer you’ll take. Instead of a deadline, go in with a target date range to save yourself some disappointment. Home improvement projects often — well, typically — take longer than you’d like. Trying to rush it can result in sloppy work. 

Break the project into manageable steps, and be generous when estimating the time to complete each one. 

Now is also a good time to think about how this time will affect daily life. The inconvenience of a four- to six-week project in your only bathroom, for example, is likely justification to pay a professional for an accelerated timeline.

I live alone in a large house, so the time spent restoring an extra bedroom didn’t affect my day-to-day life much. If my nephew had a baseball tournament, I could take the weekend off without sweating my timeline. However, when I took on the restoration of my home office, I didn’t have as much flexibility: I wanted to be back at my desk rather than the dining table for Zoom meetings as soon as possible. 

In a few years, I’m planning a full kitchen renovation — I’ll be hiring professionals for that, precisely because of the time constraints. I’ll pay a premium to limit how long I’m cooking dinner in a laundry room microwave.

Costs 

The potential for saving on labor costs can entice people to DIY — 15% of homeowners who took on DIY projects over the past two years said they did so because they couldn’t afford to hire a professional, according to the Home Improvement Report survey. But failing to properly weigh the previous two factors — ability and time — could ultimately make your DIY project more expensive than hiring skilled labor in the first place. And doing it yourself only because it’ll be cheaper could make it loathsome. 

Figure out base project costs 

Here we’re talking about materials and tools. Make a list and gather prices. Depending on the project's scope, your tools may be as simple as a few paintbrushes and rollers, but if you’re delving into more than just painting, the equipment costs can rise quickly. (And even paint isn’t cheap these days.) 

If you need a tool you don’t already own, consider borrowing it. While I have a pretty extensive collection, there are still times I find myself in need of something I don’t have. If it’s a tool I’ll use again and again, I may buy it outright. However, if it’s something very specialized, I’ll borrow it from a family member or rent it from a hardware store. Yes, you can rent pretty much any power tool you need from a big-box hardware store.

Because I knew I had an entire house of work ahead of me, I spent a hefty chunk of money on power tools during my first year in this home, purchasing them as needed. But now that the tools are mine, project costs are largely just materials and I’m seeing significant savings over hiring a professional.  

Add a budget buffer

There’s a good chance your costs will go above that original estimate — you forget something, prices go up or you accidentally put a hole in the wall behind you while wielding a sledgehammer during aggressive demolition. Give yourself a buffer; I suggest 20%.

Outline your funding plans

If your project is a small one, you can likely pay for it with cash. Of homeowners who took on home repair and improvement projects over the past two years, 42% were easily able to pay for the majority of them without tapping savings, going into debt or making other sacrifices, according to the NerdWallet survey. But if your project is pricier, carefully consider your home improvement financing options and their costs. 

Let the estimated project total and time you’ll need to pay it off be your guide: 

  • Using an existing credit card can be a good option if you need the total funding upfront. It's wise to pay the balance down quickly, to save on interest and protect your credit score from the negative impact of high utilization. 

  • Opening a new credit card with an introductory interest-free period can give you additional time to pay, at little additional cost.

  • A personal loan can often provide fast funding and extended payoff terms. 

  • Tapping your home equity for credit in the form of a loan or HELOC may have lower interest rates but take longer to fund. So, it's better for larger projects and balances you’ll want some time to pay off. 

Devise an 'oh crud' plan 

If you’ve carefully selected your project based in part on what you’re capable of, the likelihood you’ll need to pay someone to fix your screw-ups is pretty slim, but it can happen. Having a plan in place will allow you to move quickly if the crud hits the fan. Have some idea of who to call and how you’ll pay if things go south.

I’m currently doing a mini makeover on my main floor bathroom, including paint, new fixtures and a ceiling upgrade. When I took out the 1980s light fixture to replace it with something more appropriate, I uncovered some issues that I knew would require cutting into the drywall and possibly doing some wiring updates. These tasks would increase the oh-crud risk factor on a pretty high-stakes project, at a time when holiday guests are right around the corner. Could I watch enough YouTube to figure it out? Probably. But I'd rather pay for a few hours of someone else's skilled labor on this one.

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