In the age of endless how-to Youtube videos and Do-It-Yourselfers on HGTV, it’s easy to think that you can tackle almost any home project as long as you study hard enough.
Every renovation project you choose to take on yourself can save money — if done right. But some mistakes can cause problems you’ll have to pay for down the road.
So how do you decide: DIY or hire a pro? We spoke with professionals to find out.
What’s Safe for You to DIY
It all starts with how much knowledge and experience you have. Do you have a basic skill set from past projects? Took a shop class in high school? You may be able to put more on your plate and do it yourself.
Whatever your level of expertise, it’s important to assess that before beginning a task. In construction projects, especially those involving electrical fixes, things can go wrong quickly.
St. Petersburg electrician Steve Alexander suggests that homeowners buy a receptacle tester, which they can plug into an outlet to see if it has any wiring issues. He also suggests purchasing a voltage detector, which will make a sound if voltage is found in a wire. This is helpful in a situation where the homeowner wants to make sure the electricity is off before starting work.
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Start with small DIY projects to ease your way into working with electrical wires. Alexander says a homeowner can change any light fixture in their house as long as the switch is turned off and the circuitry is working. It’s best to shut off the breaker before working on the fixture, he says.
Changing out a bad outlet is also a task any homeowner can take on, as long as they have basic knowledge of wiring. Take a picture of the wiring to be safe, and make sure the breaker is turned off for the area where you’re working. But otherwise, Alexander says it’s “pretty easy.”
When it comes to general maintenance around the house, St. Petersburg contractor Chuck Sicilia suggests trying to “isolate the problem.” If you know what the problem is, it becomes a lot easier to fix yourself.
For example, if you suspect that a window in your house is not water-tight, Sicilia uses the hose test. Put someone on the inside of the window and run a hose slowly along the outside of the window until you find the leak.
Alexander agrees. If you have a power outage, think about how you spent the last couple of days. Did you hang a picture and put a nail through the wall? Were there heavy rains that affected your outdoor outlets? Those could all have an impact on your electricity and could be helpful information for an electrician, if you choose to call one.
It all comes down to your comfort level. If it’s a matter of caulking an area and fixing it, a homeowner can often do that themselves, Sicilia says.
“If you’re comfortable with doing it,” he said, “why spend the money if you don’t have to?”
What You Probably Shouldn’t Touch
How do you decide it’s best to hire a professional? What are the things a homeowner absolutely shouldn’t do themselves?
Sicilia doesn’t think that way. There’s nothing a homeowner can’t do — if they’re comfortable with making a few mistakes.
Take a bathroom remodel. In an older home, that tile might have been in the house for 75 years. It doesn’t come off easily, and if a homeowner starts hitting it with a sledge hammer, they risk damaging the wall, flexing the studs and cracking the plaster.
When retiling a shower or bathtub, it’s important to seal off and waterproof everything. Sicilia has had to go behind projects where the tile hadn’t been sealed correctly, causing water to build up behind the shower. The grout eventually cracked and tile started falling off the wall. That’s a problem no homeowner wants.
When taking down walls, it’s important to know whether they are load-bearing. If you’re unsure, Sicilia says you can always ask a contractor to look at the wall. It’s never a bad idea to get a second opinion before doing something that could damage your house.
When it comes to electrical fixes, the stakes are just as high. Alexander says not to fix anything in the electrical panel.
“Too much can happen,” he says. “You can be pulling a screw out and it can be touching a wire and blow up.”
He also recommends that a homeowner stay away from any 220 circuits — that means the circuitry for your oven range, dryer, air conditioning and water heater. Too much can go wrong.
Finally, remember this cardinal rule: Stay away from the wiring under your house and in the attic unless everything is turned off. And even then, be careful. There could be old wiring in the dirt or frayed wires from rats.
Ultimately, when it comes to home improvements, knowledge is your best friend. With some research of the problem and its solution, there’s a lot you can do yourself. But when in doubt, it’s never a bad idea to ask the experts.
Elizabeth Djinis is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder.
This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, a personal finance website that empowers millions of readers nationwide to make smart decisions with their money through actionable and inspirational advice, and resources about how to make, save and manage money.