Between You Tube videos and workshops at local home improvement stores, the highly motivated, budget-conscious homeowner can learn to tackle projects from repairing drywall to installing toilets. But which home improvement tasks are good do-it-yourself (DIY) projects for the hardly skilled? The super skilled? The willing learner? And which ones are best left to the professionals?
That’s a fine line. There are hundreds of things any DIY customers can do, such as flooring installations, simple kitchen and bath updates, landscaping or exterior improvements and painting. On the far extreme, some DIY homeowners act as general contractors on every construction project and home renovation, big or small.
Yet there are caveats. DIY customers must be aware of what building codes apply and be certain they are meeting code when doing home improvements. “The rules are strict and aggressively enforced, so be prepared,” warns Paul Ewing, founder and head of Ewing Building and Remodeling in Blacksburg. Though this can seem like an additional challenge, building officials help ensure that the project is done safely.
Do-it-yourselfers should do their homework and feel fully versed in the processes for success and avoid doing things that ultimately cause damage to their homes, like leaks from improperly installed bathroom vanities or showers. Ed Tuchler, owner and manager of Shelter Alternatives in Blacksburg, recommends Fine Homebuilding and Journal of Light Construction as two builder magazine sites that offer how-to videos. Ewing cautions that while online videos can be helpful, some leave out small but critical pieces of information. “One of the best sources of information is talking to skilled people, most of whom are more than happy to help,” he says.
The easiest projects for a do-it-yourselfer are likely to be cosmetic things,” says Tuchler. “Painting is an obvious starting point as it is pretty straight-forward, and you can get good advice at your local paint store. With any DIY project, it is good to know what the options are and painting is no exception, as products continue to evolve.”
Still, it may not be as easy as it looks. “Everyone believes they can paint. It’s true, but it requires knowledge and skill to do a really good job,” says Ewing. He, too, recommends getting advice from a professional. As with most DIY work, “the job has to be done correctly or you must live with the result or pay to have it redone.”
More complicated tasks may best be left to licensed professionals. “For systems integral to the safety and durability of a home, it is important to follow codes and best practices,” Tuchler explains. Structural changes, plumbing and electrical are main areas that require care. “Many homeowners should not attempt electrical repairs beyond changing a light bulb. If, however, you have a basic understanding of home electrical systems, it is safe to change light fixtures or vent fans,” states Ewing. As Tuchler cautions: “One wire that is a little bit loose can cause dangerous sparking.”
Many home improvement tasks are dependent on the skill level and interest of the individual. Local homeowner Wes Fenton has undertaken a number of DIY projects. He stresses that a do-it-yourselfer should enjoy the process. He likes to figure things out on his own by looking at diagrams online, and his handy father and uncle are available to assist, making them fun family endeavors.
Fenton added a pergola to his back porch for shade and an attractive enhancement to the house. He decided to plan and construct the pergola himself after pricing kits at $1,800, which blew his $800 budget. By studying photos online, Fenton drew his own blueprint. As a drafting and design professional, he had the advantage of using Auto-CAD (computer aided design) at work. He plugged in the dimensions and was able to determine the materials needed. In the end, the project took one weekend and cost $735.
The Fentons recently purchased a fixer-upper house built in 1897. In this case, Fenton will let the professionals handle most of the job. He does not feel qualified to do a full remodel, and a stipulation of their renovation loan is that a licensed contractor perform the work.
When deciding whether to do home improvements himself, Fenton considers several issues. First, he asks, is this something I’ve done before? The size of the job is also key. According to Tuchler: “Though one can usually save money by doing things themselves, the investment of time and tools may not be worth it.” There is also the time factor. A professional can typically come in and get the job done much more quickly, minimizing disruption in a home.
“Combine what you learn with some common sense, and it should work out,” says Ewing. Still, it is important to know when to ask for help. “In most cases, the better, faster job will be done by a professional. They do it every day, have the most knowledge, and make it look easy.”
Jennifer Poff Cooper is a Christiansburg freelance writer.
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