Home improvement: Contractor vs. do-it-yourself


Think through all the pros and cons before deciding to tackle a project yourself.


Should you do it yourself, or hire a contractor? This might not even have been a question a generation or two ago. In our grandparents’ time, most families had a skilled tradesperson such as a carpenter, plumber, electrician or bricklayer to turn to for assistance. The small neighborhood hardware store had few options, and the suppliers who carried fixtures and materials catered primarily to skilled contractors.

But the increase in large home improvement retail centers allows today’s homeowner easy access to materials and product options to update your home and increase its value. Don’t know how to lay tile or replace a fixture? No problem! The internet and many TV home improvement shows provide instructions and ideas that may give you the confidence you need to do a project yourself.

But remember that the simple act of putting a fastener into a wall can have unexpected and sometimes disastrous consequences.

How much risk do you want to assume? This should be your first question when deciding whether to attempt a project yourself or hire a contractor. Fires, water damage, leaks and other post-completion problems may be covered by the contractor’s insurance when you hire a professional. Problems resulting from work done by the homeowner may have only the homeowner’s insurance policy as a remedy.


If you decide to hire the work done, here are some steps to take:

  • Hire a reputable contractor. Get several estimates, and be certain the contractor is insured and bonded.
  • Ask for references. Ask to see examples of the contractor’s finished work.
  • Be specific. Describe exactly what you want done and when you want it completed.
  • Be wary. Think twice if the contractor requests large deposits, cash payments and payment prior to completion of work or specific project phases.
  • Obtain a written contract. List the full scope of work.
  • Take precautions. Inventory and secure all valuables if a contractor is working inside your home, especially if no one will be home while the work is being performed.
  • Beware of scams. Sites such as the Better Business Bureau www.bbb.org can help find local licensed contractors and warn of area scams. Each area bureau has widely ranging information relevant to your region. Several commercial websites also allow you to establish an account and receive ratings and reviews of local artisans from other users. Read the site’s terms and conditions before signing up.

If you decide to do it yourself, remember these items:

  • Research and read. Information is available from manufacturers, home improvement store pros, books and on the web. Consult more than one to get the most reliable information. The more you know and understand, the better prepared you will be to decide if you want to tackle the project yourself.
  • Determine your requirements. Decks, patios, finished basements and other seemingly simple to moderate projects often require permits. Contact the local zoning or building inspector to determine what permits and requirements exist in your area. Plumbing, electrical and heating/cooling are skilled trades that require licensure in most jurisdictions. Calculate material, tools and personal protective equipment needs before starting any project.
  • Start simple and secluded. There is a learning curve with everything, and you will get better as you progress. But be sure to read and understand ALL instructions before starting. Do simple tasks first. Finished work such as painting, wood trim or refinishing a hardwood floor is best begun in a closet, low traffic or other inconspicuous area of a room not frequently occupied. Don’t attempt projects beyond your skill level or comfort zone unless you have skilled help.
  • Prepare the surface. Paints, sealers, adhesives, caulks, etc. need a clean and dry surface to bond and cure properly.
  • Avoid elevated or hazardous tasks when no one is around. Work with a helper whenever possible. Keep a phone handy for emergencies or to call manufacturer help lines with any questions. Read and follow the precautions for health and fire hazards associated with any chemicals or products.
  • Analyze the hidden hazards. Know what is behind the walls, under the floors, in the ceiling and below the ground.
    • Although cables, pipes, conduit and wires should be at predictable locations and depths, avoid damage by using location services (call811.com) and locator devices and refer to plans and blueprints. Look for signs of cables, pipes, wires, etc. as well as ground and wall entries/exits. Use stud finders with electric sensors. Pipe and wiring in your home is typically centered through a stud, joist or truss member, but that is not always the case. Even a 2-inch fastener could pierce or contact pipe, wiring and cable.
    • Newer homes may have nail guards; older homes likely will not.
    • Dig slowly and carefully. Some types of probes may help you find utilities. Newer homes often have warning ribbons buried a few inches below the soil to indicate a deeper utility.
    • Use tools with nonconductive handles.
    • Use the shortest permissible fastener or the fastener recommended by the manufacturer. It should carry the load and adequately hold the material or item. Some materials such as treated wood, areas prone to dampness and exterior applications will require noncorrosive or coated fasteners.
  • Turn off the water supply and verify that there is no more flow. Keep rags and buckets/pans handy to contain water if you replace a plumbing fixture. Always check for leaks/drips following any plumbing work by you or a contractor. Do this for one week at a minimum. Be sure family members know the locations of and how to operate the main water shutoff and all secondary water shutoffs. Avoid sweating pipe due to the fire potential. Leave that to skilled plumbers.
  • Disable electric power at the panel by switching off the breaker(s) before replacing an electric fixture or device. Use cordsets or outlets equipped with ground fault circuit interruption (GFCI). Don’t assume that a fixture has no power if the switch or breaker is in the “off” position. Use a test device – inexpensive and available at home improvement stores – to be sure there is no power. Check instructions before restoring power and test again. DO NOT work inside the electrical panel. Leave that to a licensed, insured and bonded contractor.
  • Pay attention to basic conditions. Many projects will need to have some aspect of level, plumb, compaction or drainage factors. Patios and landscaping should be sloped slightly away from your home to assure proper drainage.
  • Remember that a deck may not be a simple project. Decks in areas with snowfall can be oriented below the threshold of doors to help prevent water intrusion when snow melts. Decks need to be properly designed and planned with the right sized posts, beams, joists, railings and balusters. Any deck anchored to your home must be attached with proper hardware, flashing and moisture barrier.

Doing it yourself may help save you money and can result in much satisfaction. Whether you do a home improvement project yourself or hire a contractor, proper planning and information may help a project go more smoothly and without incident.

This loss control information is advisory only. The author assumes no responsibility for management or control of loss control activities. Not all exposures are identified in this article. Your local, independent insurance agent can advise you on liability coverages and additional loss control measures.

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