Should you DIY your home reno or hire a pro? Ask yourself these 5 questions first

If your skills are more Home Improvement than HGTV, ask yourself these simple questions before you DIY that project.
Image: Tile placed over mastic in home renovation.
When the cost savings is so tempting, but the potential for things to go awry is so great, how do you know when to call a pro and when it's worth the gamble to go it alone?Getty Images
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By Dana McMahan

Watch many home improvement shows and you'd be forgiven for believing all you need to turn your house into a Pinterest dream is a YouTube video, a tool-belt, and a weekend. But DIYers sometimes learn the hard way that what's between the before and after shot — and for that matter what's edited out of that after shot — is not at all what they expected.

Many of us experience DIY regret

A new survey from home improvement site ImproveNet breaks down the downside of DIY, with some cold, hard truths about tackling projects yourself. Of the 2,000 Americans surveyed, nearly two out of three — 63 percent — said they regretted doing at least one of their home improvement projects, and one in three reported they had to call in a pro to redo the job. The biggest disappointment — at 55 percent — among DIYers was that it didn't look good.

“I think when people make the decision [to DIY], they think, can I do this?,' and they don't walk it down to 'can I do it well enough that I will love the way this looks?,'” Andy Kerns, a creative director and researcher on the project, told NBC News BETTER.

As a serial renovator myself, I've gone both routes — hiring a pro, and doing it myself or along with my husband. And while, to be fair, I've also regretted hiring the wrong professional, as a DIYer I've experienced many of the same regrets the survey found. Fifty-five percent of respondents said the project took longer than they expected — on average, 22 hours longer. Half said the jobs were physically harder than expected, and 48 percent said they were technically harder. Seventeen percent said it cost more than they expected, on average twice as much as they thought.

It's just math

As someone who frequently renovates on a budget, I get the temptation to cut costs DIY. But, tough as it is, you have to be real with yourself about your abilities, and what it will cost you in your time away from your real (paying!) job. If you can take emotion out of it (easier said than done, I know), strip it down to math. Robyn Davis Sekula, who owns an old home near Louisville, Kentucky, has wised up to the numbers. “I can make more consulting than I need to pay someone to do work,” she told NBC News BETTER. “So in the end if I spend that time actually working on what I know how to do, I come out ahead. Plus, I do think the people I hire have much more knowledge and skill in the work. The end product is better looking and just better all the way around.”

Deb Reese, another old-house lover, agrees, and has a rule of thumb for making the call. “I love to be hands on for things I can do well, and relatively quickly,” she said. “But definitely also do the economic evaluation in my head and pass off to professionals when I determine 'that will take me eight hours to learn about and do, but the professional who knows what they are doing takes one hour.'”

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Another consideration I've learned is whether you have the tools for the job. Pros have access to heavy duty (and expensive!) tools that many homeowners just don't. By the time you buy or even rent a professional grade tool, could you just have paid the pro to do it?

Maybe watch more Home Improvement reruns and less HGTV

They also underestimate other risks. Eight percent of people said their work caused damage to their home, and six percent were injured. (Been there, done that, have the ER bill to show for it.) Nearly a quarter said the fruits of their labor didn't function well, and more than 20 percent said it didn't hold up over time.

If there are so many perils, why the enthusiasm behind DIY? For more than half of people, the primary reason to go it alone was to save money, hoping on average to save 60 percent over hiring a pro. “It's so tempting, when you look at that price tag for labors and material, to [want to] knock that labor out of it,” Kerns said.

Jacqueline Smith, who owns Old Louisville Hardwood Floors with her husband, encounters that tendency frequently. People will ask for a bid, then decide to refinish their floors themselves when they see the price, she said. “Months later they call us [to redo it],” she said. Now, “not only are you out [the cost of] renting the machine and your time, if you've jacked it up, and I have to spend more time fixing it, I may have to charge you more.”

When the cost savings is so tempting, but the potential for things to go awry is so great, how do you know when to call a pro and when it's worth the gamble to go it alone? We've just launched the latest of our own reno projects, redoing an 1890 carriage house, and can't afford to hire a pro every step of the way so I'm right there with you on that question.

“I wish there was some formula, you could just plug in some variable and it pop out an answer whether you go pro or not,” Kerns said. “Realistically the way people can use this data is [generate] self awareness and critical thinking about what a DIY project means. People will see stuff on Instagram, they'll see stuff on HGTV and it will feel good, like the thing to do. There's just all this other stuff to consider.”

Questions to ask to avoid DIY regret

  • Are you up for it physically? Construction and renovation can take a toll on a body, especially one not used to physical labor. “[Know that] 'I'm going to be worn down, what does that mean for my regular job, time with the kids, if this is a slog?'” Kerns said. (As a test drive, try working with a tool like a drill overhead for a few minutes. Can you hang in?)
  • How important is it to you that the job looks like it was professionally done? If it comes out looking like, well, an amateur did it, can you live with that? Pros make their jobs look easy because they're pros. Watching a few YouTubes doesn't automatically transfer the skill to you.
  • Can you undo it if it's done wrong? While you can always repaint something, take a hardwood floor for example, particularly an antique, Smith said. “There's only so many sandings you can do.”
  • Does your project land high or low on the list of those most regretted in the survey? Anything to do with floors is much more regretted than projects like lighting, and adding trees and shrubs. The lower your tolerance for risk, the better off you may be calling a pro for those top-regretted jobs.
  • Is the project on the list of those most likely to have serious issues like injury or damage? Think ceilings, roofs, foundation, and fireplace. A wise person might opt to leave those jobs to the pros.

And if you regret your choice? Well, a creative filter will still probably make your "after" shot look good, and keep this cycle of overly ambitious undertakings going. This survey, by the way, has a follow-up slated. Next up, Kerns said, “we're going to look at social media stuff and how people portray their home improvement projects.”

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