One man’s journey to self-realization and home construction.

By Michael Jacobsen

How hard could it be? You watch a few YouTube videos, make a couple of trips to Home Depot and get to work. In a few weeks, you proudly show off your Do It Yourself (DIY) project—maybe a finished basement or a paver patio–to friends and family, who marvel at your resemblance to Bob Vila, or at least to Tim the Tool Man.   

Reality, alas—as I look back on my “DIY or die” project (as it came to be known around our household)—is so much different. At least I lived to tell about it, although my marriage very nearly did not survive. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First I have to tell the painting story, because it sets the tone for the entire project.

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You see, it was near the end of DIY or DIE that my newlywed wife and I were ready to put the finishing touches on a basement renovation. She hadn’t been too involved in the project other than some color and design advice. But painting was right up her alley…until the paint job found me happily slapping on the Mojave Sand and it all went wrong. As I bent down to reload my roller I caught my wife painting directly over where I had just finished

“You leave too many streaks,” she explained. 

At which point DIY became YDI—you do it—and I left to take a nap. But back to the beginning.

DIY vs. DIFM

There actually is a term for having others handle the job: DIFM, which stands for Do It For Me. In the real world it can complement the real Do It Yourselfer. The trick is knowing where one stops and the need for help from others begins.

DIYers fall into two camps. Many do it just to save money, hating to pay the premium that skilled laborers charge. Often the cost of labor doubles the cost of the entire project. And then there are those who, like me, relish the challenge of doing it myself—regardless of whether it actually saves money or even looks very good at the end. The pleasure and pride of looking around and realizing that my hands touched every piece of a project is what drives many of us. Sometimes in the right direction, sometimes off a cliff.

Every list of pros and cons of DIY versus DIFM starts with the price equation, then moves onto the skill level and, finally, adds in equal doses of available time and quality of the finished job. 

“When it comes to price, DIY has the professional beat hands down, but there is more to the story than that,” points out a blog post on the Rhode Island-based Hebert Design/Build website. “Before you consider taking on a home improvement project, take a good, hard look at your skills and experience.”

Another point to consider: If a home improvement project is not done correctly, who will you call to fix it? If you hired a professional, he should stand behind his work. If you did the work yourself, you may still end up calling the same guy to fix the job. Last but not least, according to the pros at the aforementioned Hebert Design/Build, a DIY home improvement project can have a fantastic outcome, but there is likely to be some “significant stress” along the way. Oh, if only I had read that before I started out with my modest basement refinishing. In reality, “significant” turned into “overwhelming.”

Knowing Your Limits

I write magazine articles for a living, so what do I know about DIY home renovation projects? Turns out, enough to get myself in trouble, but also enough to get myself out of it. 

Let’s set the scene: A growing family in a typical suburban New Jersey 1,000-square-foot, three-bedroom ranch with a nice backyard and an unfinished basement. Big enough for now, too small for the next decade. What to do, short of moving to a larger home with a larger mortgage? Wait. Did someone say unfinished basement?The space—all gray cinderblock walls, exposed beams and cement floor—is ripe for an aspiring DIYer such as myself with more time than money, more energy than brains and certainly more enthusiasm than expertise. Whatever. Let’s head to Home Depot.

Those guys are great. Many of them are ex-contractors felled by a soft New Jersey housing market, looking to make ends meet while sharing what they know with people like me. Want to know how many 2x4s you’re going to need? What type of ceiling to put in? How many linear feet of this and that? They actually know! And they are kind enough not to snicker right to my face as I ask stupid questions. Also, before hammering my first nail, I spent an afternoon with my good buddy Mikey G., perhaps the most ambitious DIYer I know. Now semi-retired, he was busy gutting and redoing his entire house, for God’s sake, so he must be some sort of expert at everything.

Turns out, he was an expert at finding experts. His mantra: Know when you are getting in over your head. 

“When you are not sure about the outcome of what you are about to do next, when you are not sure if it is the red or black wire you should be touching, then it is time to call an electrician,” he says.

Mikey G. is fond of YouTube videos. There are instructional videos for everything and he makes sure he watches a few—whether it is for pouring concrete or hanging a ceiling light—before he is comfortable enough to dive in. If he never gets to that comfort level, he turns to a pro: “Electrical work and plumbing are not rocket science, but one mistake can be very hurtful, either to yourself or to your wallet.”

His solution is a combination of DIY and DIFM. 

“I had to know what I could handle and when I see an opportunity to do it myself I do it,” Mikey G. says, pointing out that the contractors he is working with are more than willing to take a few bucks off the invoice if he handles some of the labor. That was to become my blueprint, especially after consulting with Big Joe, who I was told was the best handyman in northern New Jersey. Having learned the trade from his father (whose father before him taught him), surely this Joe of all Trades would have some sage advice.

“Yea, don’t be an idiot and try it yourself,” was his immediate response. “I wouldn’t try to write one of your boring articles, why you gonna try to do my job?”

Smart, insightful guy for a builder. But apparently he and his ilk get quite a kick out of DIY fails. In fact, they have a word for them: Happy Homeowners. As in “I had to go in and fix a Happy Homeowner job. Charged them a little extra.” Therein lies one of the pitfalls of trying (and failing) to do it yourself. If you come up short, you have to call guys like Big Joe and his friends, who will fix it for you, but at a price that may be more than it would have been had you called him first.

“Homeowners have to know what they can do and then stop there,” he says. It’s worth pointing out that Big Joe knows his limitations: “I never touch electric or plumbing because I know I don’t know how to do it. That way I know that when I flush the toilet the lights won’t shut off.” His advice: Let the pros do it. They have the knowledge and expertise and, just as importantly, the right tools. And when they see you are in trouble and can’t do it yourself, dollar signs start flashing in their eyes.

“I can’t tell you the number of times a Happy Homeowner gets halfway done and then I get a phone call to finish the job,” he says. More often than not he has to start from scratch because the initial work just doesn’t work. His favorite story? A Happy Homeowner tried to sheetrock and spackle a room but did such a bad job that before calling for the cavalry, he tore the whole thing down instead of admitting he screwed up. That one cost him a lot.

Identifying My Limits

At the end of the workday, I can honestly say I accomplished a lot of the basic stuff myself: nailing 2x4s to the frame, figuring out a grid for the drop ceiling, even pouring some concrete in one corner to level the floor. My rule of thumb turned out to be DIY on things you can’t see and leave the visible stuff to the pros.

So my experience came down to three pieces of advice about three things you don’t want to do yourself:

  1. Electrical. One of the first books I purchased had a title something like How To Do Electrical Work and Live To Tell About It. Sort of a precursor to Electricity for Dummies. Well, turns out I’m no dummy, and I really don’t know my red wire from my black, so the first expert I called was a local electrician. Well worth any extra cost and I lived to write about it.
  2. Plumbing. Speaking of not cheap, the one item that floated my budget down the river was plumbing work. Not much more than moving some pipes and routing the heating baseboards. The last thing I wanted was a flood of Biblical proportions ruining all of my hard work because I didn’t solder something completely.
  3. Finish Work. You can’t cover everything with a coat of paint, so it is a good idea to have someone detail-oriented to handle things like spackling, trim, mitering the molding and hanging the doors. Nothing ruins a nice project like a crooked door that won’t close.

In the end, it turns out my two best tools were my hammer (I got pretty good at pounding away at things) and my cell phone. 

It’s amazing how many contractors are out there looking for work.

5 REASONS I’D DIY AGAIN

Price • You know the saying Will work for food? That’s me, plus maybe a cold beer. Either way, as long as I didn’t screw up too badly, there’s no doubt I saved plenty by not paying the mark-up of a skilled contractor.

Challenge • I’ve always liked to tackle new things. As long as they don’t tackle me back, it’s all good.

No Complaints • My father always had a saying when we were working on

something together: “Suits me and I’m fussy.” It was tongue-in-cheek and usually went along with “That’s good enough for government work.” Translation: Hey, it’s done and no one is complaining, so on to the next thing.

Satisfaction • There’s nothing like sitting back with a cool beverage and looking around at work that I did. Myself.

New Skills • This stuff isn’t rocket science and anyone with a little intelligence and drive can learn the basics. Home improvement can also be personal improvement.

5 REASONS FOR DIFM

Stress • Did I tighten that pipe enough? Did I use the right nails? Did I get enough materials? Worry can take years off of your life and add weeks to a project.

Quality • Be honest. Are you really going to be able to produce work to a standard of quality that matches a professional? 

Danger • Unless you really, really know electricity, don’t try to wire anything. Same goes for plumbing. And maybe climbing on a roof.

Warranty • If you screw up, who you gonna call to fix it? But if a contractor did the work in the first place and something is wrong, you (hopefully) have someone to make it right.

Time • Lots of us have better things to do, like real jobs, spouses, kids, sleep. Do you really want to spend your free time hanging sheetrock?

TALES FROM THE FRONT LINES

It didn’t take many conversations with contractors to come up with some of their favorite Happy Homeowner stories. Here are three of them.

Jumping the Gun 

After spending three days framing and sheet-rocking a room and after finishing with two coats of spackle on Friday, this contractor planned to come back on Monday to finish the job with a third and final coat to perfect the job, as is SOP. But when he showed up on the job Monday at 8 a.m., he found the homeowner had already painted the room. “I guess it looked good enough to him and he thought it was finished.”

Door No. 1 

One DIYer neglected to ask his Home Depot guy what the standard size of a door was. So he framed in a closet for his washer and dryer and figured, hmmmm, a door this random size was would look nice. So he slapped a few 2-by-4s up into an opening that looked about the right size. Trouble was, when the contractor came to hang the door the opening bore no relationship to reality. It took him a half-day to resize the opening and then hang the door. Obviously, there was no cost savings there.

Not My Fault

Thinking he would help out a cousin, a contractor agreed to do some finish work on the walls and leave the rest to his Happy Homeowner relative. He didn’t see the outcome until about two years later, when he stopped by for a visit and his cousin pointed out how bad everything looked and blamed it on his finish work. But, our pro pointed out, it was actually the terrible paint job done by his 80-year-old father that left the job looking amateurish — all streaks and drops and missed spots. Turns out his cousin had been blaming him for a bad job for two years. Who says every good deed doesn’t go unpunished?

Editor’s Note: Mike Jacobsen is a frequent contributor to consumer and trade magazines and an aspiring DIYer. That means his words are mostly spelled correctly, but his house has a lot of unusual angles, mismatched tiles and paint drops on the floor.