To DIY or Not to DIY?

With all of the television shows available for viewing on HGTV and other home improvement based channels it’s no wonder that the DIY itch attracts so many consumers to attempt renovations on their homes.  As a whole, I think it’s great for people to gain a better understanding of how their homes are put together.  In addition, the invaluable knowledge of how to troubleshoot and solve basic problems is something everyone should have.  But what happens when these shows make it all look so “easy”?  Anyone can do it, right?  It isn’t rocket science after all!   Well..sometimes that’s true and other times it is best left to the pro’s.

In all of the years that we have been performing residential and commercial renovation work, I have seen my fair share of DIY projects.  Some are really well done.  Others, not so much!  I cannot say there is a definitive set of rules to follow as to when a homeowner should attempt a project vs. when they should not.  However, as a general rule if the project involves structural changes to your home, a high degree of finish carpentry work, significant demolition, or calls for working with electricity or plumbing beyond simply swapping out end use fixtures you should probably call in a pro.  Building is a hazardous job and without proper education and tooling even the best of intentions can have undesirable consequences.  Here are some things to think about:

  1. If you are performing demolition, do you know exactly what is in those materials you are disrupting?  Does that paint on the walls contain hazardous lead?  What is that old batt insulation in the walls/ceilings made up of?  Or how about that blown in insulation that may or may not be contaminated with Asbestos?  Do you have properly rated masks, suits, and high volume HEPA filtration to get rid of the dust and hazards from the air?  Do you own proper tooling and materials to keep dust out of the rest of the home and your heating system?
  2. Do you know what building materials can be used in conjunction with others for a quality result?  Even though certain items are designated for use with others, it does not always mean there is compatibility with your existing conditions in your home.  For example, if you are installing ceramic tile on your floor (a very common DIY project) do you know if the thinset adhesive you are using will properly adhere to your subfloor?  Or, will it delaminate it and fail in a very short time ruining your job.
  3. Are you fully aware of the ramifications of modifying the framing in your walls or ceilings?  Are you causing a potentially dangerous structural condition by cutting away or changing wood members?
  4. Are the materials you are purchasing really the best solutions for your personal living style?  What are their wear properties and how well will they hold up to your usage patterns?
  5. Are your skills up to the challenge of producing the finished product you desire?  This is by far the most bittersweet issue with DIY’ers.  Try as they may, it is a tough pill to swallow if the job does not come out as they saw it in their minds eye.  A good way to look at this is to ask yourself the following question:  If you hired a professional from the start, and they produced the project to the exact finish quality that you did, would it be acceptable to you?  In my experience, the answer is usually “No.  I hired a pro and I expect a professional quality result”.  I happen to agree with that philosophy, but my point is that if you are not capable of producing that result because of lack of knowledge, training and experience then why spend your hard earned money on products that will not look or perform the way they were intended?
  6. If you install a product yourself, will the full manufacturer’s warranty be intact?  Certain manufacturers provide better or extended warranties if a certified contractor installs their product (roofing and Trex decking are just a couple of examples of this).  Many vendors and manufacturers these days have had to deny warranty requests because of the influx of claims from consumers who have incorrectly installed products.  The result is an improperly functioning product or a product failure and a very irate consumer.  When this happens, and it is not covered under a manufacturers or builders warranty, you are on the hook for  the repair.  This could range from a minor inconvenience to a major ordeal.  Using the previous example of installing ceramic tile – let’s say you installed tile in your kitchen as part of a full renovation.  The tile has suddenly begun to pop loose or grout lines keep cracking/crumbling out and it becomes clear that the adhesive you used is not bonding correctly to the subfloor below.  Since you installed your cabinets on top of your newly finished floor, all cabinetry, counters, appliances, attached plumbing fixtures (dishwasher, etc.) have to be removed and you need to demolish your new tile floor to start over.  Furthermore, you splurged a little for those new Quartz counters and now you have to call back the counter top manufacturer to come and carefully remove everything and be able to reuse it once you finally have your kitchen back together.  If we (or another reputable company) had installed this kitchen and the above failure occurred it would still be an inconvenience but at least the expense of all of the work would be fully covered as well as any materials we had provided.  It is our job to know how to properly install products and make sure of product compatibility.  If a client insists that we use a product that we are not confident will produce the desired results, we fully explain the consequences and make sure we are all in agreement on a protocol in case of a problem.

There are many other points that could be discussed, but I want to address the number one reason that people turn to DIY projects – cost.  Without a doubt, the “big box” stores and the television shows all proclaim that you can save tremendous amounts of money by doing these projects yourself.  For some projects this is 100% true and in fact I routinely advise clients to take on certain items themselves because it is not worth paying us to do such a simple task for them.  Sometimes they embrace the challenge and other times they still want us to do it for them – but in either case the honesty on our part is very much appreciated.

Let’s look at what is probably the number one DIY project today – kitchen renovations.  Everyone wants a beautiful new kitchen.  It is in fact one of the best improvements you can make in your home and one of the best sources of both monetary recoupment and flat out enjoyment.  There are many, many reasons to hire a professional to do this work.  Some of them include speed, quality of the finished product, etc.  Others are not as evident but certainly are every bit as important such as the ability to visualize and explain what the finished project will be like, a proper design for functionality as well as aesthetics, advice on material choices, suggestions on things that you would not have thought to consider, etc.  All of these items combine to provide a truly enjoyable kitchen.  For now though, let me get back to the issue of price on a project like this:

When we commit to taking on a project, we provide a fixed cost estimate of what the project will run including every component involved.   There are certain exceptions that can cause cost overruns (such as finding an active water leak in a wall that has caused rotted wood and/or mold damage) but in general we stick to our contract and you as a consumer have a solid understanding of what you will be spending.  Our contracts are also very detailed so that you can read through it and immediately know what we are providing, what you are responsible for, and when payments are due during the project.  A typical kitchen usually involves the following:

  • Demolition and disposal of the old flooring, cabinets, counters, appliances and any other items to be changed.
  • Modification of walls or door openings.
  • New + updated electrical installations such as recessed lighting, pendants over and island, a new vent fan or microwave, and new circuits for stoves, ovens or refrigerators.
  • Plumbing modifications to accommodate a new sink and faucet, dishwasher, garbage disposal and refrigerator water line.
  • Patching drywall + painting the walls and ceiling of the room.
  • Installing new flooring
  • Installation of new cabinetry, counters, appliances, and trim.
  • Dust control, flooring protection and waste disposal.

When we build kitchens, we are very efficient and have the expertise to make sure all stages of the job are aligned and flowing smoothly.  This allows us to complete a normal kitchen in about a week.  The only item typically left is to return to hook up the sink and dishwasher after the counters have been fabricated and installed by the vendor.  This is usually a fairly quick process and once they are done we have only a partial day to complete our work. Not too bad, right?  A week is a period of time most people can live with and deal with the inconvenience of not having a kitchen.  Bear in mind that this is typically for 2 of our skilled carpenters, an electrician, a plumber, and a counter fabricator.  All of these tradesmen have the skill, tools, and knowledge to perform their work quickly and efficiently with outstanding results.  As a homeowner (and weekend warrior!) you are unlikely to have the arsenal of tools that we show up with to make the job go quicker and easier.   In addition, we have done literally hundreds of these types of projects and know what to anticipate with rare exception. We also have a ton of experience (and a very reliable + skilled team) in managing the flow of the project to minimize down time.  So the same project that will take us a week to complete will very likely take a month or more for you to accomplish while working around family schedules, work, coordinating materials and other trades, etc.  For the sake of comparison, let’s use a month as a timeline to look at real costs:

Assuming you have a family income of around $70,000 a  year.  For some this may be lower or higher, but I am trying to use a realistic number that would apply to couples or a family of 4 with a stay at home Mom.  And just for the record, the value of Moms income is basically priceless and certainly beyond my ability to put a number on!  Now that we have established that, let’s look at what this kitchen really costs in a DIY scenario:

  1. Labor cost – many will argue that this is where the money is saved because you are not paying a company to do the work, right?  Well let’s take a closer look at that theory..    If this project takes a month and you are working on it during evenings and weekends (as most would), how do you perceive the value of your time?  If you worked on it for 4 weekends and 2 nights a week for the same 4 weeks (let’s assume 4 hours each night) you would have 12 working days of total time invested per person.  That is 96 hours of labor time for whomever is the main person doing the work.  There will also be times when you simply cannot do certain tasks alone (such as lifting heavier objects or holding long pieces of trim) and you will employ the help of your spouse or friends.  Let’s conservatively say that adds up to another 10 hours of help time.  So we now have a total of 106 hours of time to complete your project.  Considering it takes us, as a pro crew, about 80 hours (2 crew members at 40 hours a week) + a little time for the electrician and plumber I would say that 106 hours is extremely conservative and it would likely take you longer.  But, for the sake of this discussion we will go with 106 total hours.At a salary of $70,000 per year, the average dollar per hour rate for a 40 hour work week is approximately $33.65.  Now consider the fact that all of the work you are doing is above and beyond your typical 40 hour work week.  In most companies working on weekends and evenings would mean an increased pay rate – usually 1 1/2x your usual rate.  For those of you on a salary this probably does not apply so let’s compromise and use a rate of 1 1/4x the normal rate of pay per hour.  This will fairly represent both those that are not getting paid any overtime and those that are.  So if we do the math:

    106 hours x $42.06 per hours (33.65 x 1.25) = $4458.36 of total labor cost.

    Everyone’s time has value and if you had worked extra hours at your normal job instead of working on your home this is the amount of money you would have made in addition to your normal pay.

  2. Tools and tool rentals – As I mentioned before, unless you are a serious woodworker or a collector of tools it is unlikely you have access to many of the items we use on a daily basis.  We are always looking to innovate and improve which has led to an extensive collection of the best tools we can get our hands on.  So let’s assume you have to purchase at least the basics – a compound miter saw, a cordless drill kit, some basic tile installation tools, and a table saw.  This is easily a $500 expense for just basic inexpensive tools.  If you by pro quality tools, you will spend at least $1100.  You will also have to rent other things that you don’t want to buy – such as a wet saw for cutting ceramic tile.  Plan on at least $200 in rental fees at a minimum.  For a total tool budget you have approximately $700.
  3. Dump fees and a truck rental – All of the debris you are taking out of your home will need to be transported and dumped at the local landfill.  If you are fortunate enough to have a buddy that will allow you to borrow a truck or trailer then you can avoid the truck rental fee, but disposal fees will still apply.  Very conservatively, let’s use $100 as a number for the dump estimate.
  4. Fuel and excess time – Without a doubt you will be doing multiple runs to the local Home Depot to pick up things you either forgot or did not anticipate.  These trips add up in both time and in fuel costs depending on how close you live to the stores.  There is also the consideration that you likely don’t own large trucks or trailers to transport items in one shot so you either have to make multiple trips to pick things up or pay for delivery services to get them to your home.  Let’s assume you pay for one delivery (probably the cabinetry) at a rate of $100.  All of the other trips back and forth, at an average of 1 hour each in drive time and shopping (this is probably too low knowing how long it takes to get through the usual H.D. trip) add up to 15 trips- and believe me you will make every bit of 15 trips!  This gives us an additional 15 hours x $42.06 = $630.90.   Also, let’s take into account that you live 15 minutes from a Home Depot or Lowes and you use 2 gallons of gas on each trip.  That adds up to 30 gallons x $3.65 per gallon for a total fuel cost of $109.   For this category you have a total cost of $739.90.
    1. You will get very tired, VERY QUICKLY, of washing dishes in your bathtub or bathroom sink.
    2. You will be eating dinner out almost every night of the week.Meals – If you take a month to complete your kitchen renovation I can all but guarantee 2 things:

    Typically, breakfasts and lunches can be dealt with because the family is either at work or school.  Or, leftovers can be warmed up in the microwave or sandwiches can be eaten.  To be fair and represent both a family of 4 and a couple without kids, let’s use dinner costs for 3 people for 30 days.  At an average of $18 per person for a moderate restaurant (includes tip) that adds up to $54 each evening x 30 days.  This gives us a total of $1620 in dinner costs.  For some this may be low or high depending on your tastes but it is average for our Capital Region area.

  5. Unforeseen expenses  –  As with any project you are unfamiliar with, you will certainly either make mistakes or need additional materials because you lack the experience to know how to perform the task efficiently.  This is true with any profession.  I often tell my clients that if I had to perform their jobs I would likely either cost their company a fortune in time and mistakes or simply give up in frustration.  The point is we are all good at certain things but not necessarily at others.  It is hard to put a number on this, but I would say conservatively you will spend an additional $300 in unnecessary expenses providing you do not damage anything costly during the project.
  6. Specialized trades –  It would be very common for  a DIY’er to have to call in at least one specialized tradesperson (an electrician for example) to perform tasks that they either were not confident in attempting or simply did not want to do.  In some cases we also use the services of other tradesmen so this is not necessarily a big variance between costs.  However, we do provide consistent work for our tradesmen so the rate at which we pay for services is likely to be a bit less.  For comparison sake we will say that it would have been a minimum of $300 less for us to hire a specialized trade vs. a homeowner.
  7. General material costs – Much like you are an expert at your job, we strive to be the same.  We have searched for the best vendors not only for service and product quality, but also for pricing.  In addition, we do tend to receive at least some discount level for the sheer volume of merchandise we purchase throughout the year.  It is not nearly as much as most would think, and the truth is that at the box stores we pay the same prices you pay as general consumers.  But, in the course of a kitchen renovation we likely could have shaved $500 or more off your material costs.  The rest of the savings help us to keep our labor rates competitive.

To review, the eight items above add up as follows:

  1. Labor Cost  –  $4458.36
  2. Tools and Tool Rentals  –  $700
  3. Dump Fees  –  $100
  4. Fuel and Excess Time  –  $739.90
  5. Meals  –  $1620
  6. Unforeseen Expenses  –  $300
  7. Specialized Trades  –  $300
  8. Material Costs  –  $800
    TOTAL  $9018.26

This number may surprise you, but it is a very realistic view of the actual cost of performing your own kitchen renovation.  By comparison, we very routinely meet or beat this kind of labor number to complete a normal to moderate kitchen renovation.  So not only is it actually costing you about the same amount of money to do the project, you are working hard instead of enjoying time with your family or going out and having fun!  It seems impossible, but I assure you the numbers don’t lie.  And, for other types of projects – particularly larger ones – the numbers simply don’t make any sense for a homeowner to do it themselves.  DIY projects, in my experience, are best suited to smaller opportunities where a business like mine cannot justify the time and expense to send out employees for any less than a minimum daily fee.  My company carries full insurances including Liability, Workers Compensation, Disability, Business Umbrella, and Commercial Vehicle policies.  These, added up with payroll expenses and other overhead expenses create a situation where taking on very small projects (like changing out a light fixture or repairing a rotted trim board on a home) are not feasible for a cost that is acceptable to a client.  This is where DIY is the way to go from a cost perspective as well as building knowledge and experience. Just remember to do a little research with reputable online sources or quality instructional videos or books before you begin.  The more you know about repairing your home the better off you will be.  There is nothing like the confidence and sense of accomplishment you achieve from properly repairing that broken hand rail or fixing that dripping faucet that irritates you every time you see it.  After all, that is how all of us got started at one time or another!  Good luck with your DIY adventures, and don’t forget to give us a shout when your project calls for a reliable, professional company.  Have fun!

John Markowski


Dream Builders & Remodeling