How a Data Nerd Approaches DIY Home Improvement Projects

I started 2021 by buying a house from 1885, unseen, with visions of restoration to its former greatness. In nearly two years, I have restored three of the many rooms and undertaken several small projects, all on my own.

Do-it-yourself home renovations can save a lot of money, but that’s not the only reason to dive in. One in 4 homeowners have taken on home improvement projects in the past two years because they enjoy doing this kind of work themselves, according to the recent NerdWallet Home Improvement Report. I count myself among them. The joy of this work was instilled in me at a young age by my father, a former industrial arts teacher (shop class) turned school administrator and hobby carpenter. I joke that I’m the only kid I know who’s built their own Barbie house. It was a one bedroom blue ranch.

Between my current house and the one I used to live in (also around 100 years old), the only jobs I paid professionals for were the most urgent and massive: a new roof, the demolition of outbuildings , a new heating and cooling system, and the moment the oak flooring outside my bedroom warped enough to open up into the dirt crawl space (a virtual nightmare). The list of DIY projects, on the other hand, is long and includes jobs like removing wallpaper, rugs, and popcorn ceiling; plaster the walls and ceilings with the plaster; floor finishing; restore and replace upholstery; rewiring of original push-button switches and light fixtures; and stripping and restoring an original coat.

In most cases, I take as much time planning these projects as I do executing them, and the first step is to decide if doing it myself makes sense. I lean towards “yes, of course it does”, every time. But choosing to do it yourself when a professional would have been smarter can cost you peace of mind, a lot of time, and a lot more money than you could have saved on labor.

Note: It is tempting to compare the estimated costs of a DIY kitchen renovation with that of a professional using an online tool. It’s fine to use these tools to get a general idea, but not to indicate exactly how much you’ll actually spend or save. Typical project costs collected by various surveys, including US Census Bureau surveys, do not control project specifications. Yes, do-it-yourselfers save money, but it’s also possible that they’ll choose cheaper materials and complete smaller projects overall. Additionally, these estimates are rarely specific to a geographic location, and costs vary widely across the country.

Consider these three variables carefully before putting on your safety glasses and heading to work.


Whether I have the ability or skills to take on a project depends as much on what I already know as what I am capable of learning. Yes, you can learn just about anything on YouTube these days, but what you’re really looking for is what you can learn to do well., with minimal chance of messing it up.

Talk to someone who has done this kind of work before. If you don’t have a friend with a DIY resume, bring in a contractor or two to provide estimates and use those visits as an information-gathering opportunity. Ask them how the project would go, what permits might be needed, what might go wrong, and how many people will be involved. This visit can have several purposes – to help you understand the skill level of the project, as well as to determine how long a professional would take and what their costs would be.

Don’t rely solely on internet strangers and fancy websites for this information, unless you have no other alternative. And if so, gather many sources to seek consensus. Even if a website conveys a difficulty level of 3 out of 4 hammers, these step-by-step instructions and well-edited photos won’t convey the amount of curses and damage that could go into the finished product, let alone the cost of the correction of any errors.


It may take a contractor longer to start a project, but there is no doubt that you will take longer than them to do the actual work. It can be difficult to accurately estimate how long you will take. Instead of a deadline, choose a target date range to save yourself some disappointment. Home improvement projects often – well, usually – take longer than you’d like. Trying to rush can result in shoddy work.

Break the project down into manageable steps and be generous when estimating how long it will take to complete each one.

It is also a good time to reflect on how this period will affect daily life. The inconvenience of a four to six week project in your one bathroom, for example, probably justifies paying a professional for an expedited turnaround.

I live alone in a big house, so the time spent restoring an extra bedroom hasn’t affected my daily life much. If my nephew had a baseball tournament, I could take the weekend off without sweating my schedule. However, when I set out to restore my home office, I didn’t have as much flexibility: I wanted to be back at my desk rather than at the dining table for Zoom meetings as soon as possible.

In a few years, I’m planning a complete kitchen renovation — I’ll call in the professionals for that, precisely because of time constraints. I will pay a premium to limit the cooking time of dinner in the microwave in the laundry room.


The potential to save on labor costs can entice people to DIY – 15% of homeowners who have taken on DIY projects in the past two years said they did so because they didn’t couldn’t afford to hire a professional, according to the Home Improvement Report survey. But failing to properly weigh the previous two factors – capacity and time – could ultimately make your DIY project more expensive than hiring skilled labor in the first place. And doing it yourself just because it will be cheaper might make it repulsive.

Determine project baseline costs

Here we are talking about materials and tools. Make a list and collect the prices. Depending on the size of the project, your tools can be as simple as a few brushes and rollers, but if you’re not just painting, equipment costs can add up quickly. (And even paint isn’t cheap these days.)

If you need a tool you don’t already have, consider borrowing it. Although I have quite an extensive collection, there are still times when I need something that I don’t have. If it’s a tool that I will use again and again, I can buy it outright. However, if it’s something very specialized, I’ll borrow it from a family member or rent it from a hardware store. Yes, you can rent just about any power tool you need from a big box hardware store.

Because I knew I had a whole house of work ahead of me, I spent a large amount of money on power tools in my first year in that house, buying them as needed. But now that the tools are mine, the project costs are largely just materials, and I see significant savings over hiring a professional.

Add a budget reserve

Chances are your costs will exceed that initial estimate – you forget something, prices go up, or you accidentally blast a hole in the wall behind you while wielding a sledgehammer during an aggressive demolition. Give yourself a buffer; I suggest 20%.

Describe your financing plans

If your project is small, you can probably pay for it in cash. Of homeowners who undertook home repair and improvement projects in the past two years, 42% were able to easily pay the majority of them without dipping into their savings, going into debt or doing other sacrifices, according to the NerdWallet survey. But if your project is more expensive, think carefully about your financing options for home renovation and their costs.

Let yourself be guided by the estimated total of the project and the time you will need to pay it off:

  • Using an existing credit card can be a good option if you need full financing up front. It’s wise to pay off the balance quickly, save on interest, and protect your credit score from the negative impact of high usage.

  • Opening a new credit card with an interest-free introductory period can give you more time to pay, at little extra cost.

  • A personal loan can often provide quick funding and extended repayment terms.

  • Leveraging the equity in your home for credit in the form of a loan or HELOC may have lower interest rates, but take longer to fund. So, it’s better for big projects and sales that you’ll need time to pay off.

Devise an “oh crud” plan

If you’ve carefully selected your project based in part on what you’re capable of, the likelihood of you having to pay someone to fix your mistakes is pretty slim, but it can happen. Having a plan in place will allow you to act quickly if the hubbub hits the fan. Have an idea of ​​who to call and how you will pay if things go wrong.

I’m currently doing a mini makeover on my downstairs bathroom, including painting, new light fixtures, and a ceiling upgrade. When I pulled out the 1980s fixture to replace it with something more appropriate, I discovered some issues that I knew would require cutting into the drywall and possibly doing some wiring updates. These tasks would increase the oh-crud risk factor on a fairly high-stakes project, at a time when vacationers are right around the corner. Could I watch enough YouTube to understand? Most likely. But I’d rather pay someone else’s few hours of skilled labor on this one.

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