Studying the yard of his Kingfield home, Ethan Trepp, 31, decided it was time to cut back the trees and growth that were overpowering his lot and blocking the sunlight. Trepp wasn’t a newcomer to homeownership — prior to owning in Kingfield he owned a house in
St. Louis, MO. — and was happy to tackle projects in his spare time. So up the ladder he went… and down came his power line.
“I was trimming a tree and one of the branches fell on the power line and pulled the masthead out of the side of the house,” explains Trepp. Xcel Energy responded immediately to provide a temporary connection, but told Trepp an electrician would be required for a permanent fix. “I still don’t know what the cost for tree trimmer would have been, but the electrician was $600.” That kind of bill brings up a question homeowners like Trepp encounter all the time: when should you tackle a project yourself, and when is it time to call in the professionals?
Don’t be afraid to ask
“While I encourage people to work on their own homes — I think they can learn a ton about the home they live in by doing that — I try and steer people toward things that they will have success with,” says Carol Anderson, master electrician and owner of Minneapolis-based True Blue Electric. “In this economy it seems like people are more likely to try pretty hard before calling in a professional.”
Anderson regularly hears from residents working with the dated knob and tube wiring (instead of the modern three-wire grounded circuits) that is standard in many of the older homes in Southwest. Such wiring doesn’t have the box that most people are familiar with, and the connections haven’t been contained. Instead of charging ahead, Anderson advises homeowners pick up the phone and call an electrician, even if it’s just to ask questions. “Don’t be afraid to call an electrician and say, ‘I’m trying to change out a fixture and I’ve run into this, can you give me some tips?’ Most would be ok answering those questions,” explains Anderson.
Often that kind of phone call can be the difference between a functioning fixture and footing a larger bill. “About half the time it will have cost them more at the end because we’re fixing mistakes than if they had called us in the first place,” says Anderson. “It’s more affordable if you have a scheduled appointment than if we come out on an emergency.”
Know your limits
Caleb Rick, owner of North Coast Construction, LLC in Minneapolis has been called in when DIY jobs go bad. “I’ve gotten some projects where it was obvious that the person who was working before you didn’t know what they were doing,” he says, adding diplomatically, “A lot of times it’s not the person who called you that was responsible for the situation; people buy a home and don’t know who did these things to their house. It happens on a regular basis.”
Rick says many Southwest homeowners find outdated features that haven’t been replaced since the home was built. That means projects like redoing floors, updating finishes and putting in new fixtures fall to those itching to put some love (and maybe a low-flow showerhead) into their homes. In those situations Rick advises stepping back and assessing whether you have the skills to complete the job — and he doesn’t mind admitting that even he calls in professionals from time to time. “It comes down to your own personal level of experience,” he explains. “Some homeowners know a lot about electrical and plumbing, but I sub out that kind of work because I can’t do it myself. So if you’re at all concerned about your own ability to do something you shouldn’t do it.”
As for Trepp, his $600 lesson hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for home projects, though he does have a rule of thumb about what he’s willing to tackle. “Skilled labor kinds of things I’m not going to do myself,” he says. “But moving light bulbs around, I feel like I know what I’m doing.”
4 things to consider before you DIY
1. Does this project require permits?
Many home improvement projects require permits from the city — a cursory stroll through Minneapolis’ permits site shows that everything from building a deck to replacing a garage door is on the list — and that means projects have to comply with specified standards. If as a DIYer you doubt your ability to meet them, hire out the job.
2. How much money will you really save?
Certain projects require specialized tools you might not own, and often professionals can get materials at better prices than DIYers. Many contractors offer free estimates, so it’s a good idea to get one in order to understand the difference in price when you DIY versus hiring it out — it might not be as big as you think.
3. Do you have any applicable experience?
Did you spend a summer painting houses in college? Work for dad’s roofing business in between jobs? Or are you still trying to figure out what a level is for? Be realistic about what skills are in your wheelhouse.
4. Will you enjoy the project, potential frustrations and all?
There’s a great sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with completing a project yourself. Of course, there’s also a lot of manual labor and a wider margin of error. Can you roll with the punches (and potential setbacks) that come with the average home improvement project?