How to Tell If a DIY Project Is Worth Tackling

How to Tell If a DIY Project Is Worth Tackling

When the cost versus time equation is confusing, it’s hard to know how to proceed.

The day my husband and I closed on our house between the Hudson Valley and the Catskill mountain range, we sat in the empty great room and reality set in. The rush of actually buying behind us, we began identifying details we hadn’t really noticed when visiting earlier, things like dusty antler-shaped fixtures and a slightly wonky staircase. We were anxious to begin making it our own but doubt crept in and we wondered aloud, what the hell have we done?

The house was, we had thought, lovely: a three-bedroom log cabin with two outdated bathrooms, a mid-size kitchen, and a wrap-around porch. It sat on two acres on a not-so-busy street. We could walk to a flat trail from the dirt driveway. A small stream ran through the side of the property and if you listened closely from the porch, you could hear it babble. When we first found it, we fell in love with the high ceilings, the location, and the property. We walked through with our realtor, who had recently fixed up her own house in the area, and she offered perspective on what easy updates we could implement in order to zhuzh up the place.

A few things stood out: We could refinish the red Brazilian cherry hardwood floors and gut those bathrooms. The kitchen countertop was cracked, and new cabinet fronts might be nice, too. Sure, it would be pricey but we could offset the cost by doing much of it ourselves—the painting, the sanding, hell, maybe even the tiling. We were both writers with no experience wielding a power drill, not that we even owned one, but we figured we could learn. The DIY folks on Instagram and TikTok seemed to have no problem getting it done. The house would be an adventure! We were young and energized, hungry to make something ours.

But when it was just my husband and me sitting in that space, keys in hand, we began to notice peculiarities about the house that we had not before. Aside from rustic fixtures and a questionable staircase, none of the doors closed right. All of the outlets were splattered with paint. The whole house was… crooked?! Over a bottle of what was supposed to be celebratory champagne and a restless night sleep on a mattress on the floor, we realized we had bought a house in the woods and had not the first clue how to make it a home.

The popularity of DIY and home improvement projects has soared in recent years. The homeowner improvement and repair industry increased from $350 billion in 2021 to $406 billion in 2022, and is projected to hit $450 billion in 2023, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. Seventy-three percent of Americans have attempted a DIY home project since March 2020, according to a 2022 survey by CraftJack. The spike can be attributed to the rising costs of real estate and the dearth of homes on the market, which force new buyers, especially millennials, into zeroing in on fixer-uppers; the surge of pricing in building materials and labor; the lack of available professionals (56 percent of homeowners said after reaching out to contractors, they were told they would have to wait at least three months for work to start); as well as the booming popularity of DIY content and tutorials on social media sites like YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. (A Google search for "shower tile tutorial" reveals more than 25 million results.)

"It all looks so easy right?"

But with the rise of snappy "you can do it, too!" content that makes tasks like hanging sheetrock seem as simple as hanging a framed photo, some would-be DIYers can be met with the hard realization that not all projects are worth doing on your own, fiscally or time-wise.

"I always compare this to the question of when do you pay for an Uber versus when do you take public transportation?" says Arlena Armstrong-Petock, a real estate agent with Country House Realty, and our aforementioned buying agent during our home purchase. After Armstrong-Petock and her husband bought their house in Accord, NY, they embarked on a mix of DIY projects like electrical work, painting, and professionally executed renovations, including two remodeled bathrooms and a new deck. "The ‘Uber’ here is the contractor—you get there and you don’t have to worry about parking. It’s expensive but it takes less time, versus taking a train or a bus, which might take twice as long even though it’s cheaper."

The top reason folks embark on DIY projects is probably obvious: it’s to save money, according to the CraftJack survey, which also found that 29 percent of respondents broke something while attempting a DIY project (27 percent said they started a project but didn’t finish it, while 13 percent said they had to call someone to fix a project they started themselves).

But the obvious trade-off to saving money is using your own time, the value of which can only be determined by the person whose time is being spent. For some, embarking on a weeks-long project to build a custom live edge walnut dining table is a great adventure and pleasure. For others, it turns into a horrific back-breaking experience with no end in sight. Especially if you’ve never done it before.

"When my husband and I first bought our current home, a 100-year-old farmhouse near Portland, OR, we had the dream of renovating it ourselves," says Emily Henderson, a New York Times best-selling author of Styled and The New Design Rules, interior designer, and founder of Style By Emily Henderson. "Cut to inspections and getting a reality check on the scope of work, we quickly realized this simply wasn’t the time to decide to become reno DIYers."

Her renovation, which she’s been documenting on her website, included gutting much of the house, full bathroom and kitchen remodels, major landscaping, and exterior work. "It’s kinda hysterical we thought we could handle it on our own."

Though, when we closed on our house, we did, too. Especially after watching dozens of videos, Reels, and TikToks about how simple it is to sand and bleach hardwood floors, compound seams in walls, and craft your own built-in furniture. "Literally anyone can do this," said dozens and dozens of influencers holding orbital sanders.

"It all looks so easy right?" says Henderson. "But I would say start super small so that you can build up your confidence and skills. Don’t try to renovate your kitchen if you’ve never used a power tool, etc. Patience is key."

We soon realized that neither my husband nor I really had the time to learn how to renovate bathrooms or "do plumbing," and we ended up hiring a contractor to tackle anything that would be structural (like fixing our staircase) or could impact resale value (like bathrooms). Instead, we chose a few key projects that we thought we could handle and would save us enough money to be deemed "worth it." Among those, we decided to paint our wood kitchen cabinets; paint and repair our bedroom walls; replace outlets, light fixtures, and switches; build a gravel patio; and paint and winterize all of our doors. This approach is common, according to a recent SoFi survey, which found that 52 percent of homeowners take a 50/50 DIY-professional approach. (Twenty-four percent said they do all DIY.)

"I’ve found that projects seem to go wrong when people take on tasks that they don’t have the time to fully invest in."

"Ultimately, it’s all about what you’re willing to risk if whatever you are doing may result in, say, losing a security deposit, or could negatively affect how much you will be able to charge if you decide to sell your house," says Henderson. "If you are wanting to do something involving plumbing, gas, or moving electric then I would urge you to at least consult a professional before you bite off more than you can chew."

Armstrong-Petock agrees: "For larger things, like redoing a kitchen or a bathroom, I always recommend hiring that out. Those are the main things that people look at when buying a house. So those need to be great. Hire someone to tile because if it looks like shit, there’s no going back—and it will look like shit if you’ve never done it before."

But with the advent of social media, the time-money conversation becomes warped—particularly since hyperlapse videos and time limits on Reels or TikToks make months-long projects seem simple. Take the closet renovation in Kyla Herbes’ Chicago home. Herbes is a design and home renovation blogger and influencer at House of Hipsters, and began documenting her walk-in closet/laundry room renovation in late 2022. After committing to the project, she and her husband realized they were going to have to use 70 bags of 60-pound self-leveling concrete and install radiant heating floors, which required tricky electrical work. These were two hiccups neither one of them could physically or skillfully tackle.

"I kept telling my husband ‘that’s no big deal,’" she says now. "Until it became a really big deal." What her 370,000 followers on TikTok didn’t know at the time was that it took her nearly two months to find someone to pour the concrete, that they were almost robbed during her first experience with a new contractor, and that the contents of what were once her closet were everywhere, making her living situation chaotic and frenetic. "People don’t see that the rest of your house is a train wreck," she says. Herbes writes about these hurdles on her blog, but finds it more difficult to sum up the details in videos posted on social platforms where they might receive hundreds of thousands of hits. "You don’t necessarily see it play out in 30 seconds."

But she does feel a sense of responsibility to be honest with her followers who might be taking renovation cues from her experiences. When she painted her living room a color she ended up hating, she went to her followers, asking what they thought, and spoke openly about making the design mistake. "You need to be authentic in those situations," she says. "That doesn’t always happen on HGTV. And when you show people the real play-by-play on social media, followers are like, ‘oh, this is really what it takes. Thank you for showing me. I don’t feel like I’m failing because I can’t finish this in a weekend.’"

Emily Shaw, an interior designer and content creator with over five million followers on TikTok, agrees. "I feel a lot of responsibility to be honest about fails. If a DIY goes wrong, you need to pay to fix it. I know how intense money struggles can be because I’ve been there, so I’m always trying to look out for the people who watch my content to make sure I’m protecting them from situations that could spiral out of their budget." Shaw has been painstakingly renovating an old house in New Hampshire with funky updates and unique millwork.

"I have shared plenty of failed DIY projects in which I explain what went wrong and how it could be adjusted because I think there’s people out there who will make it better than I did," says Shaw. "I try to frame these missteps as comical because I think it’s helpful for others to view their mistakes positively in order to stay motivated. I don’t want anyone to feel discouraged because a home DIY went wrong; there’s no point in that. I also have found a positive impact by sharing a bit about the hardships in my personal life in conjunction with DIY projects because it shows how sometimes you just don’t have the time available to work on your space because you’re going through things, and that’s ok."

Shaw also says that most DIY "fails" have less to do with "skill level and more to do with commitment." She says, "I’ve found that projects seem to go wrong when people take on tasks that they don’t have the time to fully invest in. Things inevitably go wrong during home projects, and a lot of people don’t have enough free time to make solutions to any missteps or to add necessary details for integrity. New skills can always be acquired, but everyone is limited to their own resources and availability."

Even with an influx of honesty from DIY experts, it’s easy to get caught in an expectation versus reality renovation nightmare. "Every project will take you twice as long as you think it will," warns Armstrong-Petock. "You have to think, do you have the space for this? If you’re cutting things and getting sawdust everywhere, where is that happening? You have to factor in things like cleanup time and prep space."

That’s something Danielle Cadet and Jonathan Wiggins wish they knew when they began a few renovations in their six-bedroom vacation house in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts on Martha’s Vineyard. They purchased the home, fully furnished, in fall 2021 and hoped to make some updates before the summer rental season in 2022.

But working with a professional to do things like replace a countertop or add wainscoting to the dining room was out of the question due to cost in their unique location. "Because we’re on an island, you have to take the cost of working on a home and double if not triple it," says Cadet, Executive Editor and VP of Content at Essence. So, in May 2022, Cadet, her husband, their toddler, and their nanny moved up to the house full-time for a month and began tackling the projects one by one. Wiggins took off a week of work, and the two worked late into the night most days.

They had some home improvement experience—Wiggins built out a closet in their previous apartment, and Cadet had refinished some dressers—but nothing like they had planned in their new house. In the kitchen, they used a faux marble epoxy kit to update the countertop, painted the cabinets, and changed the hardware. For the dining room, Wiggins installed wainscoting, Serena and Lily wallpaper (not the easy peel-and-stick kind!), updated light fixtures, built new furniture, and gave everything a fresh coat of paint.

"I mean, it was insane," Cadet says now. The projects involved not only purchasing the supplies, but also all of the power tools, which they didn’t own, making 15 trips to eight different hardware stores, plus paying for transportation, which, in their case, included taking their car on the pricy ferry back and forth from the mainland to Martha’s Vineyard. Still, they wager the whole experience cost them far less than hiring a professional to do work in a remote place.

"It wasn’t impossible," says Cadet. "But it was really painful. There was definitely blood, sweat, and lots and lots and lots and lots of tears. Would I do it again? No, I don’t think so." Wiggins agrees, sort of: "It took three and a half times as long as we thought it would. I’d probably do it again, but I would want to adjust my expectations."

"At the end of the day it was really worth it financially, but in terms of the price of our sanity, it was very high," says Cadet. Though, they’re both relieved the process is behind them, especially since they were able to make some of the money back by renting the house out during the summer, and were able to charge more than the previous owner because of their modern updates.

The time-cost equation stumped my husband and me dozens of times throughout our nine-month stop-and-start renovation. After confirming it was worth it to paint our own kitchen cabinets (we got two quotes hovering around $4,000), we set aside a week in January to take time off work and do it ourselves for a few hundred dollars, which included paint, brushes, primer, sandpaper, tape, and drop cloths. We watched a handful of YouTube videos, consulted a friend, who is a professional cabinet maker, and began taping off our workspace. What we thought would be a leisurely five days full of sing-alongs and newly formed inside jokes turned into 10 eight or nine-hour days of hard physical labor. (Though, we did sing a lot of ABBA.)

Repairing and painting walls in two bedrooms was the same: What we thought would take us four days took over a week, even with extra labor from two friends who helped finish the final coat. Installing a ceiling fan took four hours when the instructions said it would take two. And a harrowing experience of stripping and resealing our slate kitchen floors took who-knows-how-long because I blacked out the process of wet vaccing potent chemical slurry while trying to make sure our dog didn’t lick any of it up by accident.

"You are sore every day," says Armstrong-Petock. "Even if it’s painting, it kills your back. It kills your hands. But when it’s done, the high is so high. You feel amazing and it looks great. But if you mess up one thing and have to redo it, it’s like you just want to jump off a bridge."

Top Illustration by Kaitlin Brito.

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