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DIY or hire some help?

By Peter Fabris

Doing home improvements yourself can save money, but some projects require a professional’s expertise. A botched do-it-yourself (DIY) project may end up costing more in the long run. And some tasks are downright dangerous for a novice to attempt.

DIY enthusiasts can accomplish a lot, but they have to honestly assess their capabilities. TV shows, websites, and books provide good information to help a DIYer get the job done right, but they can also inspire people to try things that stretch their capabilities beyond the point of good judgment.

Electrical and plumbing work can be particularly troublesome for the novice. Professionals point out that building codes are constantly changing and becoming more rigorous. So, a project that looks OK but is not up to code may become an issue when the home is for sale and an inspector finds flaws. Worse, if done incorrectly, a wiring project, for instance, can cause a shock or fire.

When it’s best to hire a pro

“I would hire a professional to do anything that has to do with utilities,” says James F. Basnett Jr., president of Basnett Design Build Remodel of Littleton, Massachusetts.

Projects such as installing plumbing for a new shower stall or wiring a garage require permits and must be up to code. Few DIYers know these regulations, and Basnett himself says he always relies on the expertise of licensed plumbers and electricians for those types of tasks.

“Be careful with anything having to do with drainage,” Basnett adds. “That can really cause big problems.” Energy efficiency is another tricky area, as new technologies are continually being introduced that change best practice building techniques.

“Anything to do with insulation and wind stoppage — many builders don’t know how to do that right,” Basnett says. “So I guarantee that most homeowners don’t know how to do it.” Improper installation of moisture barriers, for example, can contribute to serious problems such as interior mold or ice dams on the roof.

Watch for dangers

Other projects may be worth taking on as long as the DIYer adheres to correct techniques and uses appropriate materials. For example, constructing a backyard deck is within the ability of many homeowners, but incorrect construction can be hazardous, warns Daniel Cormier, who runs Handy for Hire handyman services based in Maynard, Massachusetts.

“I actually saw a deck that had passed inspection — I don’t know how — with the railing leaning out,” he says. “It wasn’t fastened correctly. If three or four people leaned on it, it would have toppled over.”

Safer projects for most DIYers

Basnett says simple electrical and plumbing projects with less risk are more appropriate for the DIYer. These include:

  • Installing a new sink
  • Replacing an overhead lamp fixture
  • Replacing a faucet

Cosmetic updates often worth a try

Projects that don’t impact utilities or structural aspects of a house are less risky for the average homeowner. Installing flooring or new countertops, for instance, won’t typically impact other items or systems if done incorrectly. These projects are often worth a try if you’ve got the time and find a reliable source of know-how. And, above all, for any project be realistic about your abilities.