Tough Choices

By Valerie Lemke

January 2, 2009 5 min read


Should you do it yourself or call in a contractor?

Valerie Lemke

Creators News Service

In terms of both the challenge and saving money, home improvement projects can be a temptation to many a homeowner. But when should the do-it-yourselfer call the professional?

With 35 years of experience under his tool belt, Ed Del Grande expert and author of " Ed Del Grande's House Call: Tricks of the Trade from a Master Contractor" ($16, Viking Studio), cited several situations in which even the most talented amateur should throw in the sponge.

"If the job requires working on the roof and you're not comfortable on the roof, do not go on the roof," he said. "The same goes for ladders. If you're not comfortable, don't do it.

"And don't put your house in danger by opening up walls. You don't know what might be behind them. There could be pipes, electricity, vents, or it might be a bearing wall." Working with electricity and wiring are absolutely off-limits, too.

But if you have free time and are reasonably handy around the house, there is much a do-it-yourselfer can accomplish, he added.

"Read up on it and you can tackle most plumbing projects if they don't involve pipes in the walls," he said. "Things like changing faucets are fairly simple, too, as long as the shut-off valves work. And even if you mess up, the worst that happens is you get wet and may have to call the plumber."

Homeowners can also handle preventive maintenance tasks such as routinely changing filters on forced air systems and keeping the basement drainage system and sump pump in good working order. These are chores which, if neglected, could cost thousands of dollars in repairs.

Be on the lookout for new products that are easy to put in your home. "One cool do-it-yourself project is laminate flooring," Del Grande said. "It just snaps into place without any glue. A couple can get the job done in no time."

Gregg Cantor, a licensed contractor and president of Murray Lampert Construction, a San Diego building firm that focuses on room and second story additions, kitchen remodels and complete home renovations, said he councils his clients to call for a professional when electricity or walls are involved.

"A handy person might be able to do tile floors, a minor bathroom remodel, crown moldings, painting and more," said Cantor. "But if the project is structural or electrical you need a licensed contractor."

Other issues that may affect a homeowner's ability to do a job include equipment and time, Cantor said.

From saws, nail guns and power tools to cement mixers, backhoes and scaffolding, "anyone can rent anything," he said. "But do you know how to use it? The percentage of homeowners who do is not very high."

Bathroom remodels present specific problems, too. People working on bathrooms are often unaware of water, moisture and mold issues, Cantor said. "If you don't do the job right, you'll have severe problems."

There are also other factors to consider when wanting to do it yourself. "Sometimes our clients want to do some of the phases on their own, like finish work, for example," he said. "But do they have the time? Most people work ... do they have the ability to finish the job, or will it just be left hanging?

"If you're considering doing the job yourself, you have to have the time as well as the know-how. It takes both to be sure work is done properly."

If the decision is made to seek professional help, how should the homeowner select a contractor?

Cantor advises potential clients to look for companies with a track record of doing good work for a long time. Then ask for current and past references and follow up with these clients.

Finally, ask yourself, "Do we need to do this right now?"

"I am a professional contractor, but especially in times like this when money doesn't go very far, I know people have to be wise and do things on their own where they can. But is now the time?" he asked.

"If there's a serious need it should be handled of course, but if it's cosmetic it might be wise for you to wait."

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