DIY difficulty level for home renovations
January 28, 2017 5:33 AM   Subscribe

My family is looking at purchasing a home, and we're trying to scope out what kinds of projects are within our skill set vs. what would need a professional. What home renovations are feasible for someone that isn't afraid of power tools but is not very experienced?

There are specific kinds of projects that we see throughout homes that we've walked through:

* Replacing window fixtures
* Replacing ceiling fixtures
* Replacing kitchen cabinets and/or countertops
* Installing a dishwasher
* Replacing bathroom sink & vanity
* Removing or raising a drop ceiling

My technical skill is modest: straight saw cuts, drilling and screwing, caulking, etc. How difficult would any of these projects be for me to DIY? I'd also like to hear about other home renovation ideas that a first time homebuyer should be thinking about but might not.
posted by philosophygeek to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Replacing kitchen cabinets and countertops is generally straightforward if you have those skills. Replacing a bathroom sink and vanity is about the same. Removing a drop ceiling is ok, making it look good afterwards may require varying levels of skill (it depends what's behind it).

Installing a dishwasher depends on what the plumbing and electrics are like. I wouldn't touch electrics personally, but they are tightly regulated were I live.
posted by plonkee at 5:39 AM on January 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

It often depends on factors that are hard to judge. As an example, consider replacing (not installing) a dishwasher. For this, you'd expect that most of the hard work has been done already as part of the previous installation. However, when we replaced a 1990-vintage dishwasher here, it turns out that the unit had required totally nonstandard plumbing, including an inlet and discharge that went straight down through the floor, despite being right next to the kitchen sink. Ironically, had I purchased the appliance store's "installation service," they wouldn't have done the work necessary to remove the old unit and properly retire the old connections.

Many home improvement projects are straightforward, but are dependent on the previous work. Take some time to watch *several* quality YouTube videos to see the work and tools involved, and especially focus on where things went wrong - and why. This will help you identify possible issues and let you evaluate your own potential projects.

If you're going to try things like kitchen cabinets and countertops, start first with a smaller project such as a bathroom sink and vanity, which is a smaller scale version of similar problems.

Things like ceiling light fixtures can be among the easiest to do, as long as you're safe about the electricity and follow instructions. Basic fixtures are easier than things like chandeliers, which require some planning for the additional weight.

Try to avoid getting in over your head. Renovating a second bathroom or a half bath (and then finding out it's a quagmire of issues) is better than trying to tackle the only bathroom in a single bath house, discovering problems, and then getting all stressed out about how to resolve it.

Your technical skill and confidence may increase with time, so also remember that you can work your way towards certain more complex projects, picking up skills along the way. Take the money you save on professionals, and invest that in good quality tools.
posted by jgreco at 5:59 AM on January 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

I've lived in and extensively renovated three fixer-uppers. I have a lot of experience and confidence in my home-repair and renovation skills.

In any job that needs to be done, I consider not just whether I can do it, but whether I could do it well; the consequences if I don't do it well; how long it will take to get done if I do it myself, and whether/how long I can live in a state where it's undone.

Your mileage will certainly vary, but of the specific items you mention, here's how I would break it down.

Would absolutely do myself:

* Replacing window fixtures (by which I take you to mean, drapes/blinds).
* Replacing ceiling fixtures... presuming your inspector said that your overall electrical system looked OK and up to code. You can absolutely take of a fixture and find some noncompliant nightmare of wiring where there should be a tidy box--in that case punt and get an electrician.

I might do:

* Replacing bathroom sink & vanity, if it's really just putting something fresh in exactly the same place as something that needs to be replace. Otherwise would hire out.

I would absolutely hire expertise to do:

* Replacing kitchen cabinets and/or countertops. This is a central part of one of the most important rooms in your house and a very labor intensive and expensive job, no matter how you slice it. This is exactly the kind of situation where I do not want to live with the results of the mistakes I make while learning on the job.
* Installing a dishwasher. If it's really installing, rather than replacing. This will require both electrical and plumbing expertise and, again, can be an expensive and dangerous mess if done wrong.
* Removing or raising a drop ceiling. A huge, dirty job that will make the room and everything surrounding it unlivable while it's in progress. Get experts in to get the job done well and fast.

Again, your mileage my vary, but my decision process would be: Decide what you absolutely cannot live with, and what you can tolerate for at least a while, and could live with while it's changing. For instance, I'd get that ceiling done before you move in. Living at home during a kitchen remodel is excruciating but I don't think it's possible at all with a ceiling redo like that. The other items are much smaller potatoes, including costwise, and you can for sure inhabit the place while those changes are underway.

Good luck... and take lots of "before" pictures. You'll be enjoying them for years, after the work is done. ;)
posted by Sublimity at 6:30 AM on January 28, 2017 [12 favorites]

Another factor is time. I learned a lot from my fixer-upper but most jobs took a lot longer that I had expected, especially the bigger jobs like cabinets. A pro can be in and out, while you're still watching instructional YouTube videos and trawling DIY forums. Living in the mess of a half finished job is a drag and the time lost to family, friends and career counts for something as well.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:58 AM on January 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Time-if you're inexperienced there will be a lot of trial and error and everything will take a lot longer. If you're working full time you can only tackle these jobs after work/during the weekend. So what other time commitments do you have and how realistic is it that you'll find the time and energy to do these jobs. How much will ongoing projects affect the rest of the family.

Cost-if you plan to take on jobs that are new to you there is a good chance that you don't have the relevant kit and that you'll end up spending money on tools, not just the materials/fixtures you're trying to install.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:35 AM on January 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Both of the houses I've bought were fixer uppers, but my first was pretty far gone, to the point that it was practically going back to the land when I bought it. I never fully completed renovations, but I did get it habitable, mostly just working on it myself on weekends.

I had to refinish the floors, so I did that before I moved in. Not being able to walk on floors makes a house pretty uninhabitable, so get any floor work done before you move in, if at all possible. I also ended up having to replace all of the plumbing in the house after I'd moved in. I had to take some time off work and figure it out as I went along, but I ended up getting that done in a few days. Be smarter than me. Make sure your plumbing is all good before you move in too. It's dirty work, and you can't take a shower until it's done.

The one thing I did hire a pro for was electrical work, as it was clearly not to code and I didn't even know which wires were what. I only ended up needing to pay him for an hour, though, as it was pretty quick to sort out. I put all the fixtures in myself.

So I lean pretty heavily toward DIY. It's cheaper, and when you work on something yourself, you know how to fix it if you ever need to. And this might just be me, but I just like to be as familiar with my infrastructure as I can. I get nervous when I'm depending on something I don't understand. Also probably important is that I kind of enjoy that sort of thing. If you hate it, it would really really suck, and you should just hire people for most jobs. (Except putting up drapes and light fixtures. Those are both pretty quick and easy.)

Things I would not do:

Basic electrical work, if it's not up to code, or if I'm unsure. Bad electrical work can kill you and/or burn down your house.

I would not hang all new cabinets, as they need to be stable, even, and secure. I would and have replaced the doors, and I would probably replace a countertop myself if I could rope someone else in to help. Just not the cabinets themselves.

I probably wouldn't do the ceilings unless they were in a room I didn't use regularly. That's too messy even for a dirty slob like me.

I probably would not install a dishwasher if there wasn't one there before, although I wouldn't hesitate to replace one.
posted by ernielundquist at 8:42 AM on January 28, 2017

I'll second the recommendation to look at YouTube videos of projects you're planning to do. YouTube has become a truly invaluable resource for home improvement DIY, and I really wish it existed when we bought our first house. At this point, I look at videos for any new project I'm considering tackling, and it almost always gives me a good sense of whether it's something I can do myself or I don't want to handle. Obviously the quality varies widely, so you should look at a few before making a decision.
posted by primethyme at 8:48 AM on January 28, 2017

I'm relatively handy and love to learn to fix and install things (new toilet fixture, new flooring), but I struggle with anything that will take me more than 4 hours. For instance, painting and wallpapering is simple enough, but I get really frustrated with that because it's so time-consuming. That may or may not be a factor for you.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 10:22 AM on January 28, 2017

Every DIY job takes at least three times as much time & effort as you initially think. (This stops being true after 15 years.)

Be sure to include that time in your calculations.
posted by Jesse the K at 2:30 PM on January 28, 2017

(This stops being true after 15 years.)
Jesse the K speaks the truth. And it's only because you get used to planning for 3 times the time, not because you get faster. Being able to live with things not going as planned or being 1/2 done for a couple months (or years) until you can get back to it is an important consideration.

With that in mind here are my DIY rules:

1) Anything that can blow me up or kill me if I'm only 80% correct with what I do before I quit for the night gets a professional. That means gas lines, electrical breaker box, heavy chandeliers, etc I don't do myself.
2) Anything that needs a quality that professionals have that I can't replicate even if I go very slowly (or that I don't have the patience to go slowly enough). That means drywall, ceiling finishes, large paint jobs, major plumbing jobs (like installing a new dishwasher) - it's just not worth it.
3) Anything that really requires 2 people to do safely and/or without weird injury potential, or that requires tools that renting becomes cost prohibitive (at my speed). So, window replacement, sliding glass doors, building pergolas, large floor sanding and finishing, installing new tub, granite countertops.. maybe cabinets, but see below.

On the other hand---
4) I do all basic electrical, because I have common sense about shutting off the power and I can follow directions very well (I also buy the right parts for each job - don't wing it)
5) I have installed cabinets - upper and lower - by myself, because they were Ikea cabinets and again, I follow directions and used the rails and took my time (and they look great).
6) I do all my small repairs (window treatments and light fixtures) and again follow directions (and buy all the right parts, and have a good drill etc.)
7) I usually do all the demo myself (like for a drop ceiling) but *warning* getting rid of the mess can be a pain that might be worth outsourcing, but I wouldn't install a new ceiling myself (see above cost/time tradeoff, esp. with something over your head, ouch neck cramps).
8) I have installed a toilet, bath cabinet and sink and would do it again if I had to, but the toilet, maybe that's getting into outsource territory for me in the future.
9) Finally, I do my own tile work and floor laying, sortof as a point of pride because I like the "hand work", but it is hard on my knees and you have to like slight imperfections. I also take a lot of time on those jobs so I would outsource it if it needed to be done on a schedule.

I think that covers it. I love everything I have poured time into, so that makes me more DIY friendly than a lot of people. But there's no shame in giving a lot of weight to the value of your time if it's not going to be extra special at the end anyway (drywall, I'm looking at you).
posted by dness2 at 5:34 PM on January 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

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