How to Tackle DIY Home Projects

For small, simple projects, a do-it-yourself approach could work. For complicated, risky projects, call in a pro.
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Written by Taylor Getler
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Assistant assigning editor at large
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There’s something appealing about the idea of a do-it-yourself home-improvement project. By handling a job yourself, you can save money on labor costs and enjoy work that’s been done with your own hands.

But the reality is some projects are better left to the experts. Professional contractors can handle tasks that are complicated, time-consuming or downright unpleasant. Whether you plan to spruce up your entire home or just remodel part of one room, you’ll want to make a smart choice between doing it yourself or hiring and paying a pro.

When you could try DIY

The project is something you can learn to do yourself

It’s a good idea to take some time to research a home-improvement job before you start. If you want to paint your deck, for example, you may need to watch tutorial videos, read about paint choices and ask paint sellers for advice. If you’re willing to learn the steps, a do-it-yourself project could make sense.

You have patience to work through small mistakes

You may have to make extra trips to the store because you didn’t correctly measure the amount of wood you needed. Or you may discover your paint dried unevenly, and you’ll need to start over to get the look you want. Expect that your DIY project won’t be perfect on the first try.

The project is safe enough for a non-pro

No project that requires tools or physical labor is going to be entirely without risk, but some projects are more hazardous than others. Electrical work, for instance, can lead to fire or electrocution if done improperly and is better left to a licensed professional.

When it’s best to hire a home improvement contractor

A mistake would have serious or disastrous consequences

If an error would make your home unsafe, it’s not worth the risk of doing it yourself. Outsource projects that could affect your well-being or that would be expensive to correct if not done right. Reputable contractors will have insurance and offer a warranty for their work, which protects you as the homeowner. If they make a mistake or worse, damage your property, they’d pay to fix the problem.

The home renovation requires permits

Many localities require permits for electrical, structural and other major work. You’ll want to contact your city government and ask local contractors which remodel licenses are required in your area. These jobs generally require specialized knowledge, so it’s better to let a professional handle the work.

You’re planning to sell your home

When you get ready to sell your house, you want it to be in the best condition possible. An amateurish DIY job could be a turnoff for potential buyers. They may even wonder if the home has other problems.

If you do decide to hire a pro, you’ll need to do some legwork. Make sure you get estimates in writing and ask for references. You should also confirm that the contractor has the licenses and insurance needed for the job. You can learn more from the Federal Trade Commission about how to hire a reputable contractor.

In some cases, you might do some parts of a remodel or upgrade while also working with an expert. For example, you could decide to take on the role of general contractor for a major project, such as a bathroom remodel, and hire subcontractors for specialized work, including electrical, plumbing and cabinet installation.

Cost of home improvements

As you plan your projects and determine what you’ll handle yourself, NerdWallet’s home improvement cost calculator can help you set a budget.

How to pay for home improvements

As a homeowner, you have several options for financing your home-improvement project.

If it’s a relatively small and inexpensive job, you might consider a credit card with a 0% APR introductory period, provided that you can pay it off before this period ends. See NerdWallet’s list of the best home improvement credit cards.

Larger projects may be a fit for a home equity loan or home equity line of credit (HELOC), which are second mortgages that allow you to access some of the equity that you’ve built in your home in exchange for cash. You’ll typically need at least 20% equity in your home, as most lenders have a maximum borrowing limit of 80%. This means that your remaining mortgage balance can’t be more than 80% of the current value of your home.

If you know exactly how much you need to borrow, you may be a fit for a home equity loan, as these loans deliver a lump sum that is paid back at a fixed rate. See NerdWallet’s list of the best home equity loan lenders.

If you don’t know how much you’ll need or are working on a series of projects, a HELOC would provide the flexibility of a line of credit with a variable interest rate. You could borrow from the line as needed (up to a limit) for the first 10 years of the loan, during which time you’ll only be required to pay interest. After that, you enter the repayment period, when you can’t borrow any more and must pay both principal and interest. See NerdWallet’s list of the best HELOC lenders.

Both home equity loans and HELOCs carry risk because they rely on your home as collateral. If you can’t keep up with payments, you risk losing your home to foreclosure.

If you don’t want to take on this risk or don’t have enough equity in your home, a personal loan is another option. Personal loans typically have higher interest rates than home equity loans and HELOCs because they aren’t backed by an asset, which also means that they can’t lead to foreclosure. See NerdWallet’s list of the best home improvement personal loans.