Do-it-yourself or hire a contractor? Get your home improvement project done right

Do-it-yourself (DIY) home-improvement projects usually start out well. Then, you set something on fire or cause bodily harm with a power tool. So, should you hire a contractor? That depends on you and the project.

It's always tempting to do home repair or improvement projects yourself to save money. But you need to know what kinds of projects you can handle safely, and when it's time to call in the pros, says the Minnesota Society of Certified Public Accountants. Otherwise, you may end up spending even more money hiring someone to undo inadvertent damage.

• Should you do it yourself?

If you're wondering if you should take the DIY approach or hire a contractor, here are a few considerations:

- Know the degree of difficulty. Whether you're grouting your tile or installing new kitchen cupboards, understand what you're getting into before you get started.

- What's your budget? Can you afford a contractor? If hiring someone else isn't even an option, be sure to educate yourself before you get started. Read a book, watch a video or head down to the local home-improvement store for advice. And don't just budget your money, budget your time as well. Your family may not be too pleased when you told them it would take a few hours to fix the kitchen sink and days later, there's still no running water.

- Prepare for the unknown. A simple tile re-grout may unearth water or mold damage that has to be repaired first. Be prepared for the project to get complicated fast.

- Safety. Truly, this is where your ego needs to take a backseat to common sense. If you don't have the appropriate skills, consider a contractor for safety's sake.

• Hiring a contractor

If you've decided the project calls for a contractor, there are a few things to consider to ensure a successful outcome:

- Research your options. Ask friends for contractor names, contact the Better Business Bureau, use a customer referral service and contact local trade associations. Compile a list of contractors who specialize in the service you need.

- Get an estimate. Most contractors provide free estimates. Others may require you to pay for an estimate and then reduce your job cost by the cost of the estimate if they're chosen for the work. While free estimates are nice, consider the quality of work as well. Get the estimate in writing, and pay attention to the terms, including how long the estimate is valid.

- Establish a timeframe. The most important question for your contractor isn't, "When can you start?" it's, "When can you finish?" The estimate should include start and completion dates so you're not living in home-improvement project limbo.

- Look for bonded, licensed and insured. Bonded means that a bonding company has secured money that is available to the consumer in the event they file a claim against the company. Certain professions require a license to show someone is permitted to perform certain types of work. Insured refers to what happens if someone gets hurt on your job - do they hold insurance to cover the claim or will it be filed against your homeowner's insurance, which you do not want. Ask to see a contractor's paperwork in each of these areas before work begins. Confirm who will be working in your home. Will it be employees of the company or subcontractors?

- Compare estimates. Don't jump at the lowest estimate. Compare carefully. Does the lowest bid include all of the project components? Is warranty work included? Is the same quality of materials included?

- Be specific. If you have a vision for how you want the project to turn out, be specific. Show pictures, drawings or photographs.

- Use a contract. Unless your job is a really quick fix, you need a contract. Get every detail in writing, including things like the materials and paint colors to be used, how trash will be removed, how your home will be protected from damage, how changes to the original work order will be handled, etc. What happens if you need to cancel the job? Get everything spelled out ahead of time.

- Don't make the final payment if there is still work to be completed.

- Watch out for scams. While most contractors are ethical, there are those who are unscrupulous. Beware of people coming door-to-door or calling you on the phone to work for an unusually cheap rate. Other red flags: asking for money in advance, wanting an immediate decision, asking you to sign illegible documents and asking you to get the permits. All of these could indicate a less than reputable company or individual.

- Finishing safely. Tackling a home-improvement project or repair on your own is always something to consider as a way to save money, according to the MNCPA. But understand the limits of your capabilities and the scope of the job. If something might be a little more complex than you can handle, don't hesitate to call in the pros. Your safety, and that of your family, is too important to risk tackling a project beyond your level of expertise.

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