Can I Do It Myself?

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
• Your Time. Take your time into consideration. Even spare time has a valueóand 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. Donít try to take on work that you wonít 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 donít already own the tools, you probably donít 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.

Do-It-Yourself Renovation
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 do yourself.

Jobs 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 rooms 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 else.

     • 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, 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 that requires scaffolding higher than one storey. Working from scaffolding is time-consuming, requires the experience to organized 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 installing 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 forget the Iron Rule of safety: If you come across anything you don't understand, stopsign and get help before you go any further.

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 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, your will need to work at our pace to stay ahead of us ó 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:

     • They are necessary to figure the costs of the project,

     • They tell you and you what work needs to be performed so nothing gets overlooked or omitted and

     • 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 plans include 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 were are the pipes? Will they interfere with cabinet installation?

Further, the people who create these plans typically have no actual design training or experience. They are "cabinet placers", not designers; and getting a design in which cabinet doors conflict with each other and drawers do not have room to open is fairly common.
"A real problem with pre-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")
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 option is the Internet. Most major cabinet and closet organizer companies offer planning assistance on line, 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.

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 counter top 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" counter top. 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: Adapting a Kitchen to Human Dimensions and Movement for an illustrated case history.)

Blueprints and Working Plans
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.

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:

     • The library. Read all you can find about the kind of work you are planning to do. The library usually has scads of self-help books on every conceivable home remodeling challenge. Do not limit yourself to just one book. You need to distill the experience of several experts — no single book has all the answers no matter what the flyleaf says.

     • Your Home Center. All major home centers offer classes on subjects like laying ceramic tile, how to install plumbing, replacing door and windows, and so on. You take a chance on how qualified the instructor is, and the short classes usually just cover the basics, but as a supplement to your reading, they are a good idea. Plus, some classes offer hands-on instruction that get you using the tools and techniques before you try them on your own house.

     • The Internet. There are many web sites offering do it yourself help, from the general DIYer sites like DIYOnline to web sites for each specific product. These often not only have general information, but specific instruction on how to install the product — so if it is your product of choice, learn all do's and don'ts from the manufacturer's site before you try to install 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 have the time, skills and tools to do it, by all means do it.

     • If you don't have the skills, but would like to try it anyway, research it thoroughly before you start. Learn what tools and techniques are required and what the building code requirements are. Read the books, check out the web sites, attend home store demonstrations, ask questions. A good place to start is our list of articles. Get comfortable with it before you start. If you never do get comfortable with it, don't do it, get in touch with us instead.

     • If it is more than a minor renovation, develop a concept design and a set of working plans before you start. We can help you develop a professional plan.

     • Comply with all building permit requirements. Building inspectors are your friends. They help keep you out of trouble. Follow good work-site safety rules, wear hearing protection, and absolutely wear safety goggles — nothing is more important than eye protection. If you are making structural changes, wear a hard hat (besides, nothing makes you look more like a pro than a hard hat).

     • Don't attempt jobs that are inherently dangerous, can cause a fire or structural failure, or that would require a lot of money to fix if they do go wrong. Leave those to us.

     •  Use tools safely. Read and follow all of the manufacturer's instructions and safety precautions. If you are not comfortable with a power tool, don't use it until you are. Practice on something you can't hurt. If you never feel comfortable with the took, don't use it. Never use a tool new to you on a ladder or scaffold.

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

Need to learn more about design, planning and "How to..."? Try these articles:
  • Building by Design: The Design-Builder Concept
    A design-builder is a modern form of an ancient approach to building structures — that of the master builder. A master builder of old was a combination architect, engineer and builder, responsible for every phase of building a structure from initial concept to completion. Design-building firms such as StarCraft Custom Builders continue this oldest of building traditions.

  • The Construction Process
    Once your blueprints are completed, the real work begins. Your project manager works with you to develop a construction process that minimizes disruption to your household while work is in progress.

  • The Design Process
    If your plans include substantial changes to your kitchen or bath, or another room, or you are contemplating an addition; then a construction plan is required. Learn how your ideas are turned into a concept plan and then a construction blueprint in a three-step process using computer-assisted design.

  • How to Fix Loose Plaster
    Step-by-step instructions for restoring loose plaster on lath and plaster walls. Avoid the mess of tearing down and replacing loose plaster. Just fix it for a lot less money, and in a lot less time.

  • How to Measure Your Closet
    Closet design and planning requires careful measurement throughout the process, beginning with the exact dimensions of your closet space. Learn to measure a closet like a pro.

  • How to Measure Your Kitchen
    All the steps required to measure a kitchen explained and illustrated. Learn to measure your kitchen like a pro.

  • Instant Trivets Guaranteed to Match your Decor (Tips and Tricks)
    Turn your leftover tile into decor-matched trivets for your house plants, as hot pads, and as a cheese board for your next bridge game. See how.

  • Insulating Your Old House
    Is your old house drafty in winter, swampy in summer? Almost impossible to heat and cool? That's because when your house was built a half-century or more ago, no one thought insulation was necessary — or, better said, experts believed that the 4" of dead air space inside the stud cavities of your walls was adequate insulation. Now we know better, and in an age of declining energy resources, adequate insulation in your old house has become a critical requirement. Learn how insulation works, and when and wear you should insulate your old house.

  • Kitchen Remodeling on the Cheap: Simple, Practical Ideas for Creating Your Dream Kitchen on a Budget
    If you feel you cannot afford a great kitchen, think again. A terrific kitchen does not have to break the bank. You may have to get creative and even make a few compromises in your original grand design, but you will end up with a wonderful kitchen that will look good and serve your needs for years to come. Here are a few practical ways of reducing the cost of your new kitchen.

  • New and Traditional Countertop Choices
    Exciting changes are happening in the world of countertop materials. Options that simply did not exist 10 years ago are in every home store today. Is solid surfacing, laminate, stone or tile your best choice? Or maybe something more exotic. Take a look at the incredible selection of modern counter top materials.

  • Off the Wall Kitchens: Living Without Wall Cabinets
    Wall cabinets are unquestionably useful storage, but with drawbacks. A major disadvantage is that wall cabinets make a kitchen seem smaller by closing in the space at eye level ó which is where we subconsciously judge how large the space around us is - and limit the number and size of windows in the kitchen. Can your new kitchen do away with wall cabinets? Probably. Find out how.

  • An Office in Your Home
    If you have a computer in your home, you probably have a home office. It may be very basic: a computer and printer on a folding table, some old grocery cartons for filing. But if your needs are a little more demanding, then you might consider upgrading your existing arrangement. Find out how to design and build a home office.

  • Planning Your Addition
    Here are the basic rules for designing an addition that is as functional as it is beautiful.

  • The Rules of Bathroom Design
    The Kitchen and Bath Association has published guidelines for designing a safe and functional bathroom. Created and maintained by a panel of expert designers, these recommendations should be closely followed in any kitchen plan.

  • The Rules of Kitchen Design
    In 1944 the University of Illinois conducted a study of kitchen design and developed fundamental design principals that have been modified periodically from time to time, but are still very much in use today. Here are the 31 rules for designing great kitchens.

  • Selecting Bath Fixtures
    The choices of bathroom fixtures are a little overwhelming. Tubs, showers, sinks, faucets and toilets come in so many shapes, sizes, colors and with such a great variety of features that choosing the right fixtures can be a challenge. Here are some guidelines and suggestions.

  • Solving Corner Cabinet Woes (Sidebar)
    Corner base cabinets are notorious as dark, difficult-to-reach storage space. Useful corner storage requires some pretty fancy hardware to make the space work. There are a variety of solutions, some better than others. But is is possible to make a corner cabinet effective storage with just a little prior planning.

  • Sources of Supply: Faucets
    Thinking about buying a faucet? Before your do, see our list of major faucet manufacturers with ratings and guidelines on what to look for and how to select a good, lifetime faucet.

  • Structural Insulated Panel Construction
    Structural insulated panel systems are the leading edge technology for building air-tight, super-insulated, extremely strong walls and roofs at less than the cost of conventional construction. Find out about this Energy-Star rated construction system that is sweeping the country.

  • This Old Garage
    By far the most common outbuilding we build is a garage. We replace a lot of garages that are falling down now because they were originally built without a foundation ó just a slab on the ground. The result is predictable. The weight of the garage walls eventually cracks the slab. The walls start to sag, them the roof. Finally the door jams and stops working. Learn to avoid old garage woes by building your garage correctly.

  • Using Toe-Kick Space (Tips and Tricks)
    The toe-kick space under your cabinets can be effectively used for extra storage, to store kitchen and bathroom accessories and for truly dramatic lighting.

  • The Well-Organized Closet
    If your closets look like the aftermath of the perfect storm, you need a little organization. See how you can do it yourself, or call us so we can do it for you.

  • Whole Wall Insulation (Sidebar)
    The R-12 insulation in your walls may be providing only R-8 thermal protection. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory has come up with a new technique for measuring actual R-value that is a lot more accurate than the current methods. Which materials are winners and which are losers in the R-value rating game? Find out.

  • Your Old Windows
    If the fine craftsmanship and charm of your old windows is quickly being eroded by cold drafts and frost on the panes, it may be time to consider doing something about them. Can your old windows be saved? If they are saved, can they be made as energy efficient as modern windows? The answer is "yes" and "yes". Most heritage windows can be restored and upgraded to rival the performance of a standard replacement window, and usually at a fraction of the cost.