Can I Do It Myself? What Remodeling Can You Realistically Do Yourself?

Of course you can. Some of it, anyway. How much of it depends on the extent of the work to be done, how much knowledge you have of building techniques and such things as building code requirements; and the three "T"s: Time, Talent and Tools.

If your home needs only cosmetic or modest structural improvements to make it new again, chances are you can do the work yourself. The more extensive, skilled or dangerous the job, however, the more likely it is that you'll need professional help to see you through it.

Assess Yourself

Realistically access your abilities and the amount of time and endrgy you can spent on renovation. Construction is hard work, and while it's possible to do it after a long day at your regular job, it's not easy and it takes its toll on you and your family.

Your Time

Take your time into consideration. Even spare time has a value, and the value of yours is worth factoring into the equation. When you do it yourself you are essentially trading time for money. It will often take an awful lot of your time to do any but the simplest renovation. Let's face it, not only are you going to need time to do the work; you are also going to need time to research how to do the work before you even start. So you have to decide if your time is worth it.

Your Talents

Be realistic about your skills. Don't try to take on work that you won't be able to finish or that may end up looking, well, like you did it yourself. Avoid work that requires a high level of craftsmanship or a lot of experience to do well; unless of course, you do in fact have that level of ability and experience. For example, don't plan on installing ceramic tile unless you know a great deal about it. It's a lot trickier than it looks when they demonstrate it at Home Depot. You do not want to find yourself in a situation that would cost more money to fix than it would have cost to have a professional do in the first place.

Your Tools

You will need special tools for some kinds of work. You can rent tools, and you can frequently buy tools with what you will save on the cost of a professional but if you don't already own the tools, you probably don't have very much experience at using them. Once again, think twice before jumping in with both feet unless you have experience with the necessary tools and techniques.

Jobs You Can Almost Certainly Do Yourself

Even if your time is limited, your do-it-yourself talents are few, and you don't have a workshop full of tools, there are worthwhile renovations you can almost certainly do yourself.

If the space to be renovated is structurally sound, designed well and is adequate for your needs but is showing its age, a simple face-lift may do. This could entail a new floor, improved lighting, and refaced or refurbished cabinet fronts for your kitchen or bath.

Painting

Just about anyone can paint — even with no prior experience, and with a very few inexpensive tools: A brush, a roller, some masking tape, and a paint tray. You are unlikely to get the polished results of a professional who works at it every day and knows every trick. But you should be able to do an acceptable job with patience, preparation and practice. Wall painting is quick and easy with a roller (leave the spray-guns to the experts), and with a little practice, trim and woodwork are also well within reach. Painting requires careful attention to preparing the surface before you paint and a little practice. Always read and follow the paint manufacturer's instructions for the best result.

A little paint can do wonders for your cabinets, too. Many older homes have site-built custom cabinets, which were often made with solid pine or fir face-frame lumber and pine or birch plywood doors and drawer fronts, then painted to disguise the low-end lumber used in their construction. These cabinets are often better built than today's low- to mid-range modular units (Not always, though. There were bad cabinetmakers in the old days, too). Moreover, they often include customization and storage features unique to your kitchen. Painting these quality cabinets to refresh them rather than replacing them is often a good choice. Buy some new drawer and door pulls, even have new steel slide drawers made and installed, and you'll be surprised at the improvement.

Stripping and Restaining

If your woodwork is varnished rather than painted, stripping and refinishing can return them to new. But, despite new and greatly improved products, it is still tedious and messy work that can tie up a room for days — something to consider if redoing your kitchen or bath cabinets — and subject your family to unpleasant and even noxious chemical fumes. Still, if your woodwork is an attractive hardwood, stripping and refinishing can be a real money saver that dramatically improves the look of your home. Whatever you do, don't remove the varnish by sanding or grinding. If your house was built before 1978, you probably have lead paint on your woodwork, and lead particles in the air are toxic. The EPA considers them so dangerous that new, and stringent, rules for control of air-borne lead were put in place in 2009, and every remodeler that works on old houses has to be certified in lead-safe practices. Even if your house is newer, paint dust is not good for you. At very least wear goggles and a particle mask. Seal the doors and any return air registers with plastic and tape to keep the dust out of the rest of the house, and put a box fan in a window to draw the room air outside.

Refacing Your Cabinets

If your cabinetry is functional and structurally sound but too beat up, too dark or just too ugly, you might consider refacing it with hardwood veneers and replacing just the doors and drawer fronts. Replacement doors, drawer fronts and veneers are sold by home centers and lumber yards. If you are patient, you might do this work yourself, at a substantial savings and with few tools. The veneers come with heat-sensitive adhesive. Degloss the cabinet faces, cut the veneer strips to length and apply them with a household iron (or better, a veneer iron). Then trim, stain and seal the veneer and install the new doors and drawer fronts.

If this sounds easy, then you are an accomplished do-it-yourselfer. For the less experienced, professional help is in order.

Jobs You Probably Don't Want to Tackle Without Help

Unless you are a highly skilled do-it-yourselfer, avoid taking on jobs that may be dangerous, especially difficult, or where a mistake can be expensive to fix. Some jobs simply are not worth the risk. For instance, think twice before doing:

Electrical work

OK, the home stores constantly advise that there is simple electrical work you can do. Not true. Unless you know your way around electricity, bad electrical work can kill you. Plus, in any urban area, you will need a permit and an inspection. If you decide to do it yourself, at least get the permit. You will be required to demonstrate a rudimentary knowledge of electricity and a master electrician will inspect your work when you are done. If you do not know enough to get the permit, this is a good indication that you had best leave this work to someone who does.

Plumbing behind the walls or under the house

Under your sink and behind your toilet is a shut-off valve (if not, there should be). You can probably do any work required in front of the valve: replacing a sink or faucet, for example. Leave any work behind the valve to the pros unless you are quite experienced in plumbing work. If you insist on doing this yourself, get all the help you can find before you start, and remember, while you are working, no one is going to have water in your household.

Roofing on a steeply pitched or high roof

Another place you can easily get killed is on your roof. If the pitch is greater than 4:12 (4" of run for every 12" of rise), leave it alone. Even experienced roofers fall off these roofs. If you decide to do it anyway, wear a fall protection harness, available from any roofing supplier, and tie down that ladder.

Laborious work

Work such as chopping out and pouring a new concrete floor require heavy-duty tools and the skills to operate them. Even if you can rent them, you are not an experienced operator and could do harm to yourself and your house.

Siding or trim work

Siding or trim installation that requires scaffolding higher than one story should be left alone. Working from scaffolding is time-consuming, requires the experience to organize the job properly and needs a great deal of caution. If you are going to try it, be sure you read and follow all the safety rules for scaffolding, including fall rails.

Any work where there may be hidden mysteries in the walls

This includes just about any wall demolition. Pipes and wires lurk inside walls, and the wall that you think is not load-bearing may well be. It's best you leave this to the pros.

The Iron Rule of Do-It-Yourselfing

Never lose sight of the Iron Rule of safety: If you come across anything you don't understand, stopsign and get help before you go any further. There is no deadline worth a serious injury, or worse.

Beyond the Quick Fix

If improved efficiency, increased capacity and a dramatic change in appearance are what you're after, cosmetic changes simply won't do. In fact, many renovations require complete tear outs and may require mechanical, electrical and structural changes. Unless you are a very skilled do-it-yourselfer, these may not be challenges you want to take on without a lot of help.

Can You Be Your Own General Contractor?

Some homeowners plan and design their own major renovations, choose a target price and take bids on the work. You might act as your own general contractor, hiring and coordinating subcontractors, and perhaps doing some of the work yourself.

While some people are actually good at this, most don't have the time, patience, knowledge, or organizational skills needed to do it. And, you'd probably need time away from your job to make it work. Moreover, you alone would be responsible for quality control, code inspections, call-backs, completion certificates, lien releases; and arranging warranty work, not to mention the interim financing, insurance, bonding, and taxes. In the end, it's often better to stick to what you do best and pay someone like us to do the same.

Hire a Design-Build Contractor to Help

Even if you are planning to do some of the work yourself, the best approach may be to hire a design-build contracting firm like StarCraft Custom Builders that specializes in renovation to plan the project then handle the parts of the construction that you do not want to do, or can't do. This way you get the best of both worlds. The project is managed for you by a firm experienced in construction management, the work that requires more experience and skill than you possess is completed by experienced craftsmen, while you do the work you can do.

Demolition work usually can be tackled by homeowners who are not afraid of getting a little dirty. Painting is another good way to be involved in the project and save money. But be aware that, if you set up this type of arrangement with us or any other contractor, you will need to work at our pace to stay ahead of us - we cannot be slowed down by the need to wait for you to finish your part.

Do-It-Yourself Planning

No matter how much or how little you intend to do yourself, a major project still has to be planned. Getting into a major renovation without design and planning is very, very unwise. Plans have these three main purposes:

  1. They are necessary to figure the costs of the project,
  2. They tell you and you what work needs to be performed so nothing gets overlooked or omitted and
  3. You cannot get a building permit without them.

Whether you hire us to do the design and planning, or you do it yourself, there is a process to be gone through.

Gathering the Information

Start by looking at as many similar rooms and available products as you can. Keep a file and stuff it with magazine clippings, product literature, prices, and your own ideas, sketches and notes. Immerse yourself. Become your own expert. It will all pay off, whether you do the planning yourself or hire us to do it.

At some point, however, you are going to have to merge all of your ideas with the space you have available. Either you are going to have to develop a project plan or pay someone to do it for you.

Planning It Yourself

If you are going to try to design your project without professional help, there are some sources of planning help.

Home Store Plans: If your remodeling includes a new kitchen or bath, you might consider the free kitchen and bath design services offered by all large home centers and many cabinet stores. Take a simple drawing of your kitchen space, with critical dimensions noted, pick a cabinet type and have a cabinet specialist run the numbers for you. What you'll get is a plan and an elevation view of your kitchen with your choice of components spliced in, complete with a price list. Usually, there are no color perspectives available but some home center software will render simple line drawings.

The problem with home center designs is they generally rely on your measurements, which may not be exact (but see How to Measure Your Kitchen for an overview on how to measure correctly), and make assumptions about the physical space that may not be accurate. For example, just where are the pipes and ducts? Will they interfere with cabinet installation?

Further, the people who create these plans usually have no formal design training. They are what design professionals call "cabinet placers"; and getting a design in which cabinet doors conflict with each other and drawers do not have room to open is, unfortunately, not unusual.

"A real problem with manufactured cabinets is the question of how to get your kitchen designed properly. Retailers of these cabinets such as kitchen centers, home improvement stores, and larger hardware stores all use computer-aided design (CAD) systems that are impressive and efficient. You come in with your requirements and leave a half-hour or so later with a completed kitchen design and a price for the cabinets. But more times than not, that design will be faulty… Neither the CAD programs nor the training of the designers is directed toward the good kitchen design we are discussing here."
(Myron E. Ferguson, "Build It Right! What to Look for in Your New Home Salem, OR, Home User Press, 1997")

One thing you can easily do is take the plan and go back to your kitchen or bath and remeasure. Make sure the design really will fit in your space.

Internet Planning: Another planning resource is the Internet. Most major cabinet and closet organizer companies offer planning assistance online, some even offer floor plan assistance.

Planning Software:: Finally, consider buying planning software for your computer. Some home design applications are sold in computer stores and home centers. Almost all the rest are sold over the Internet. You can spend less than $100.00 for these applications. They can't draw blueprints or working plans for you but they can help you decide on a workable floor plan. The disadvantage is that the programs that are easy to learn don't do much. Those that do a lot, including color rendering (so you can see what your kitchen will look like with the materials you selected), typically have a very long learning curve. But if you are willing to invest the time, the better programs are excellent design and conceptualization tools.

Do-It-Yourself Help

If the renovation is something you have not done before, then before you try to do it yourself, learn as much about it as you can.

There seem to be virtually unlimited sources of do-it-yourself help. Here are a few:

Professional Design

If you decide to use professional design and planning services, contact us.

We will provide you with not only an organized and proven planning process but all the help you need to carefully design and document your project in the form required by building permit departments. You get not only floor plans but also elevations, and full-color perspectives so you can see what your project will look like when it is finished. The design process we use allows you to make adjustments before the final plan is decided and before you incur the expense of full builder plans. Learn about our three-step design process and how your project can benefit from professional design.

Our design services are tailored to your needs to take into account not only your stylistic preferences but also physical differences that may affect the usability of the renovated space. For example, the standard kitchen countertop is 36" high and 25" deep. But if you are shorter than average, you may want a 34" height. A tall person would be more comfortable with a 38" countertop. If one user of a bathroom is in a wheelchair, significant modifications will be needed.

Designing remodeled space to exactly fit you is an exercise in using non-standard features to adapt the room to your needs and preferences without over-stepping the budget. (See: Kitchen Ergonomics for more information.)

If structural changes, electrical work or plumbing is in your future, you are going to need more than a design concept and a floor plan, you are going to need a full set of working drawings to get a building permit. Here you are getting into an area where it is highly improbable that you can do it yourself even if you do remember all you learned in high school drafting class. This is where you should get help, not only because both the rules for drafting plans and the actual drawing are complex but because if the project is this major, you probably should not be doing it yourself.

Be Safe — Use Good Common Sense

In the end, whether you can tackle a renovation project yourself depends on your own good judgment.

If you decide that after all you rather not do it yourself, contact us. We'd be glad to help.

Rev. 11/02/18