The DIY Dilemma: Knowing When It’s Time to Call in the Pros

Every year during the first bright days of spring, I look up at the nearly 45-degree pitch of my roofline, see gutters and moss buildup that needs cleaning, and envision the myriad ways I could injure myself addressing these issues.

Sometimes the reward outweighs the risk, but other times my life seems too short to go chasing moss clumps on a second-story roof that would make a Victorian chimney sweep nervous. This leads to one of the key crises of homeownership: When do you do it yourself, and when do you call someone in?

When my wife and I first bought our home six years ago, we were convinced that we could handle much of the work ourselves and learn as we went. To a degree, that was true: I now know more about deck construction, cement flooring, lawn tractor maintenance, moss killing, gutter cleaning, shingle coursing, well-pump repair, and goat wrangling than I ever thought I would.

However, some of that knowledge sank in only after I’d called in a professional to fix a job I’d botched. As it turns out, you aren’t supposed to scrape off half of your roof shingles’ granules when attacking moss (fortunately, I learned that lesson on a garage). You also aren’t supposed to leave water in your well pump over the winter, even if you’ve “winterized” by shutting off the connections (a lesson learned one cracked pump later). Finally, I learned that no amount of effort on my part was going to fix a broken float on a dormant sump pump when the pump itself is already under a considerable amount of water (the three feet of water in the pump housing was still far worse than the inch of it in our basement).

All of the above were examples of yours truly blowing money by “saving” money. Just about any time you ask the question, “Should I call a contractor?” online, at least part of the answer is going to be, “How familiar are you with the job?” In each case, I knew absolutely nothing about the jobs I was attempting, or even the approach I was using: Resorting to YouTube videos in the best scenarios and poor guesswork in the worst.

As I learned later, just calling the folks who fixed my cracked well pump and asking them how to property winterize it would’ve given me all the answers I needed. David Bakke, who runs the MoneyCrashers blog, notes that consulting experts should be the bare minimum that an ignorant clod like myself does before taking on a project. Even stopping by a hardware store or home improvement center, asking for advice, and swallowing some pride by explaining how familiar (or unfamiliar) you are with the project can put you on the right track.

HGTV “House Counselor” Laurie March says one of the most important steps in choosing between a do-it-yourself project and a call to a contractor is your own threshold for calamity. Can you handle the task and, even if you can, are you okay with your house being in disarray during the time it takes to complete the job?

When my wife and I decided to remodel a bathroom, we opted to get to work and take up her father, an engineer, on his offer to lend a hand. We love the result, but also admit that contractors could have done in weeks what took us months to complete.

Also, don’t think that doing it yourself will automatically be a huge cost-cutting measure. The cost of labor is substantial, but if you’re doing a bathroom and have to buy all of the materials, rent or buy a wet saw for tile, rent or buy other items like a compressor and nail gun, or buy a second batch of drywall plaster when your work doesn’t quite pan out, those costs are still going to add up.

Finally, time and procrastination are going to be fine indicators of what you will and won’t do yourself. If each year, your well-manicured garden turns into more of a thicket, maybe it’s time to see what a one-off visit from a landscaper would cost. If your highest gutters seem to retain stubborn leaves or needles from years ago, perhaps it’s time to price out a cleaner and start from zero. If the dead branches on the trees surrounding your house are now just too high for your comfort, maybe give that tree service in town a call and get an estimate.

We aren’t going to pretend any of this is cheap. In one of my first encounters with a contractor, I called a plumber out to have a look at our well pump. He came out, told us he had no expertise with our well pump, recommended someone who did and charged us a flat rate of $80 for the visit. When the sump pump failed in our basement, it did so during off hours and required an emergency visit that cost roughly $150. When we opted to have a drywall company finish a guest room that the previous owners had torn back to studs, the resulting four-figure bill was more than it cost us to install a new staircase to our basement ourselves.

But there are jobs I will never be able to do myself, and I’ve accepted it. I may be able to clean a chimney, but I can’t put a liner down one, install a damper, or rebuild the top of one from scratch ($5,000 well spent). I may be able to sweat copper pipe and do some basic plumbing, but I cannot extend a gas line to the back of my house and hook it into a tankless water heater ($800 well spent).

I’ve learned a great deal about my own home and how to repair it during the last few years or so — but I’ve also learned my limitations. For that, my house and household are grateful.

There is a tremendous sense of satisfaction in completing household projects yourself and a sense of duty to take care of one’s own home. However, if your labor or inaction is doing your home more harm than good, or your body just isn’t up for climbing the ladders and hauling the equipment you could when you were slightly younger, it doesn’t hurt to at least give a contractor a call.

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Jason Notte

Contributor for The Simple Dollar

A former personal finance reporter at TheStreet and columnist for MarketWatch, Jason Notte’s work has appeared in many other outlets, including The Newark Star-Ledger, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and The Boston Globe. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S. and the layout editor for Boston Now, among other roles at various publications.