What to do yourself vs. leave to the general contractor during a renovation
Whether for budgetary reasons or because you’d like to contribute some sweat equity to your new home, you might be tempted to take on a portion of the renovation yourself. Depending on how you rank on the handiness scale, you may be able to contribute, and you should first discuss with your general contractor what is safe for you to do. Sweeten, a free service matching homeowners with vetted general contractors, surveyed some of its GCs to get their take on the do’s and don’ts of homeowner helpfulness.
What to DIY
- Sourcing materials
- Updating hardware (ie. knobs, pulls)
- Assembling modular cabinetry or closet systems
- Hanging small fixtures (ie. towel racks, swapping out a light fixture)
- Installing wallpaper
DO: Source materials
One of the initial tasks of a renovation is to source materials. “If you’re excited about the renovation and want to participate, a major task you can help with is to select materials, fixtures, and finishes as soon as possible,” says Sweeten founder and CEO Jean Brownhill. “Collaborate with your contractor to confirm the materials you need, including the measurements and the sequence in which they should be ordered and delivered. Getting this completed is a bigger deal than it sounds, and paves the way for a successful renovation.”
Sweeten general contractor Walter tells us that he often works with clients who like to find their own materials. “This saves time if the client already knows what they want, he says. “They can make the list and I will look it over.” In some scenarios, the clients are working with a designer, who also helps with the sourcing.
(Above) These Sweeten homeowners DIY’d some parts of their reno, but left parts that required licenses, trade skills, and safety to the professionals. Check out what Arthur, Bellamy, Susan, and Barbra did to their homes.
DO: Easy refreshes
Sweeten general contractor Matt explains that good DIY projects should be inexpensive upgrades and only “require minimal tools.” “Some simple DIY projects that homeowners can do is to freshen up the room with a coat of paint, update kitchen/bathroom hardware, install wallpaper, or spruce up the front entry with greenery,” he says.
Generally, DIY painting is a great cost-saving measure because of the large disparity between the cost of professional painting and a DIY job. This is because painting is mainly about labor—and it does require skill if your walls need a lot of prep work. Sweeten general contractor Phil says that this job is a good candidate for a DIY because it’s “confined, not noisy, and relatively easy. Prep work is the hard part, so a homeowner could outsource that part and just do the painting.” Importantly, “it’s at the end of the project, you don’t hold anything up.”
DO: Work that requires minimal tools
If you’re a patient person with attention to detail, you can also assemble your own modular kitchen cabinets and closet systems, while outsourcing the installation to a general contractor. Many modular projects, such as those from IKEA, are geared toward homeowner assembly, so they require minimal skills and tools. You can now find wallpaper that is installation-friendly. In general, though, you may need a second set of hands to help with this detailed-oriented task.
What to Leave for the Pros
- Plumbing or electrical work
- Any kind of structural work
- Skim coating
Often, it may not be advisable for a homeowner to take on renovation projects, even if they feel capable. In many urban apartment buildings, for example, you are governed by co-op, condo, and city regulations that require a professional to undertake any contracting work. Your building will require your contractor to provide a license and insurance information to hold the firm accountable for the work being done in your home. If you do the work yourself, you could get yourself and your general contractor into trouble.
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DON’T: Take on demolition, plumbing, or electrical
Rules and regulations aside, there is also the matter of safety. Sweeten general contractor Phil told us that he’s had clients ask to do their own demolition in the past. “It may seem easy, but actually, there’s a lot to consider,” he says. “You create a lot of garbage; how do you get it out? What if you damage something that you have to preserve? What if you get hurt in the process?” These considerations also guide our recommendation that anything structural, or involving plumbing or electricity, is best left to the professionals.
DON’T: Consider skim coating
Skim coating is a process that hand-applies a layer of mud used in construction over the surface of your walls and ceilings and is then smoothed by hand. General contractor Walter strongly advises against a homeowner from taking on this task. “Spackling takes a lot of skill and practice that should be left to a professional,” he says. “If done incorrectly it would ruin the finished product of the job.” Jean talks about skim coating here.
DON’T: Install flooring or tiles
Flooring and tile work are other areas that homeowners often consider DIYing. Depending on the level of difficulty and your own experience with this type of work, you may attempt to take it on. But if you’ve never done it before, you may not be able to execute it properly. Any mistakes will have to be fixed by the contractor, which delays the project and costs everyone time and your money.
DON’T: Take on projects that may cause delay
The final consideration that Sweeten contractors point out is timing. If a DIY project is something that must happen in the middle of the project and be finished before the rest of the work can continue, homeowners must complete the DIY project when they say they will. Otherwise, the entire project falls behind.
General contractors are responsible for scheduling their workers, as well as any subcontractors for electrical or plumbing work, to make sure everyone’s job is completed in a timely fashion. If you, as the homeowner, have not finished assembling the kitchen cabinets, they can’t be mounted, the countertops cannot go in, the backsplash cannot be installed. (You get the picture.) These delays can be very costly. For this reason, the best DIY projects tend to be those that happen at the end of a renovation (like painting!).
With these do’s and don’ts in mind, go ahead and take on the tasks that give the professionals the space they need to keep your renovation moving along on schedule. You’ll soon be enjoying your new space with a touch of your own handiwork.
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Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, and scope, helping until project completion. Follow the blog for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.