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Home Repair: When NOT to Do It Yourself

Before you take on a DIY project, ask yourself these three questions

By Laura Vanderkam

In tough economic times like these, people look to save money any way they can. One increasingly popular strategy: Going the do-it-yourself route instead of paying a professional for home maintenance and repair projects.

An April 2012 Merrill Edge survey of "mass affluent" Americans (defined as people with $50,000 to $250,000 of investible assets) found that in the past year 70 percent of folks in their 50s and 60s had taken on a DIY project that they normally would've paid a professional to tackle. Of that number, 42 percent said they're handling little repairs around the house, like fixing leaky faucets; 36 percent are doing their own yard work; and 18 percent have started major remodeling projects.

Many respondents reported that DIY fixes result in a real sense of accomplishment. After a stressful day at the office, weeding the yard or painting a room can inspire a Zen frame of mind.

But is going the DIY route actually a smart money-saving move?

Not necessarily, say Katie and Gene Hamilton, the Maryland-based owners of and authors of Fix It and Flip It.

It's true that home-improvement products have become "much more user-friendly,” Gene Hamilton says. “The amount of material and instructions available on the Web and the helpful seminars given by big box stores have changed things.”

But even though a DIY project may be easier than in the past, it could still wind up costing you more money and aggravation.

So before you get out a tool kit and put on your work jeans, make sure you ask yourself these three questions:

Do I know what I’m doing?

Be honest. If you botch a DIY project, you might wind up paying big bucks to hire a pro to fix the damage you’ve done. Even if all goes well, the cost of buying or renting equipment could gobble up any of the money saved on labor costs.

Case in point: Joe Corkery, who lives near Boston and decided one Sunday to replace an external water spigot in his condo. Thinking it was a simple job, he turned off the water and removed the old spigot. “Unfortunately," he says, "it was one of those cold-weather types that connect about one foot inside the wall.”

Corkery soon realized he had the wrong replacement spigot — and he couldn’t re-attach the old one because he couldn’t see inside the wall. To avoid spending a night without water, Corkery called a plumber and paid the Sunday double-time fee just to reconnect the old spigot. Then he had to hire another plumber to replace it at a later date.

The total cost of Corkery's DIY goof: around $500. “Had I just scheduled a plumber to begin with, it would have only been around $150,” he says.

Indeed, mangling a home-improvement job can become an aggravating, time-consuming horror story. Jo Tuite of Muncie, Ind., needed to replace her living-room ceiling after the roof leaked. Tuite’s husband and father-in-law said they'd take care of the problem, so Tuite left the house to go out with friends. When she returned several hours later, “less than a quarter of the new tiles were in place," she says, and some of them had already fallen to the floor.

The couple had to start from scratch. Tuite estimates that hiring a handyman would have cost them only about $100 more than what they ultimately spent — and that doesn't include the value of the time they wasted on the doomed project. It's impossible, she says, to put a pricetag on the embarrassment of hosting a Christmas party with a ceiling that “looked like raw chocolate chip cookies.”

Could I hurt myself (or my house)?

Mental anguish and embarrasment are bad enough. But a DIY accident can also result in a serious injury and rack up medical bills that far exceed the expense of hiring a professional. Homeowners who don't know what they're doing can also cause damage that's difficult — and costly — to repair.


(MORE: Tips to Keep the Heating and Cooling Bill Low)

Experts say there are three types of projects you should avoid:

Removing large amounts of lead paint. Legal requirements and  health concerns make this job unsuitable for weekend warriors. “It requires special equipment, so it’s best left to a professional,” Fix It's Katie Hamilton says. Lead, of course, has been linked to all kinds of health woes, from kidney damage and anemia to behavioral problems, especially in children.

Altering or adjusting electrical and plumbing lines. If you're not well-versed in those skills and local building code requirements, your gaffes could get you entangled in bureaucratic red tape — and extreme danger. Shoddy electrical work is a common cause of fire. Also keep in mind that any mistakes or shortcuts will have to be remedied before you attempt to sell your house, when an inspection will require everything to be brought up to code.

Two-story ladder or scaffolding work. Whether you're clearing gutters or replacing shingles, the risk of a fall is simply too great to justify saving a few bucks.

What Is My Time Worth?

That transitions nicely to a good rule of thumb: Don’t jump into a DIY project just because it won't cost you as much as hiring a pro to do the job. “You have to look at your time as well as your money," Katie Hamilton says, "especially if you’re making a healthy income and don’t have a whole lot of free time.”

For example: if it would take you 10 hours to complete a task that a pro would do for $250, you're valuing your time at $25 an hour. If your salary is more like $100 an hour, the DIY approach isn't worthwhile.

Another way to answer the question “To DIY or Not to DIY?” is to ask yourself whether this is the best way to spend your free time. If the answer is no — and you have disposable income — it’s probably smart to outsource any projects you won’t enjoy.

Remind yourself: Life is the ultimate DIY project.

Do you have a question about personal finances or the economy? Email it to Next Avenue. PBS NewsHour economics and business reporter Paul Solman will answer some of the questions we receive on Next Avenue and on the site.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of All the Money in the World and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Reader's Digest. Read More
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