- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2005

C. Edward Rager, a do-it-yourselfer who lives in Annandale, is willing to fix a few things around the house, such as patching cracks in the walls, hanging a ceiling fan or doing touch-up painting.

“I’m pretty handy with a saw and a hammer,” says the 60-year-old, adding that for cabinetry work and larger projects involving structural changes and complicated electrical and plumbing work, he calls in a contractor.

For instance, five years ago, he and his wife, Patti Rager, hired John Hall Construction Co. to update the kitchen and bathroom and reconfigure the main-floor rooms of their six-bedroom Cape Cod home. Late last year, the Ragers rehired the Falls Church company to finish the basement for an in-law suite.

“If you don’t have the skills that you need, hire somebody that does, but only somebody that is reputable,” Mr. Rager says.

Having the skills and experience, along with considering the scope of the repair, addition or renovation project, are the most important factors in deciding whether to do the work or hire a contractor, says Mike Toalson, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Virginia, a 6,000-member organization in Richmond that provides products and services to the housing industry.

“Obviously, if it is a simple project that may not involve electrical or plumbing additions but only cosmetic work, it is something most homeowners or renters can approach on their own,” Mr. Toalson says. “If it goes beyond that, the experience you have with the trades — plumbing, electrical and HVAC [heating, ventilation and air-conditioning] — is important.”

Charles “Charlie” Wade, store manager at Lowe’s of Bowie, agrees.

The typical do-it-yourselfer can take on cosmetic projects, such as painting, wallpapering, paneling or installing flooring, but needs to have more experience for projects involving structural, foundation or systems changes, he says.

“The first step, obviously, of any home-improvement project is figuring out what you can do and a professional can do,” Mr. Wade says.

Larger projects might require a building permit and inspection of the project for compliance with local and national codes, including building, plumbing, electrical and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) codes, Mr. Toalson says.

“It’s rare we say you can’t do it yourself,” says Heidi Baker, co-founder of Be Jane Inc., an online community, content and product company based in Los Angeles that serves women do-it-yourselfers. “Be Jane is about believing in yourself, that you can take it on.”

Eden Clark, company co-founder with Ms. Baker, recommends trying out a home improvement project first and calling in a contractor when difficulties are encountered.

“The hardest part is getting past the fear, not the project,” Ms. Clark says.

John Hall, owner of John Hall Construction Co., is called to jobs that do-it-yourselfers start, but realize they lack the skills or proper tools to finish. Other homeowners do the demolition work beforehand and the painting and finishing work after the contractor leaves, he says.

As such, do-it-yourselfers can ask the contractor which aspects of the project they can undertake themselves.

“Some people have a natural ability,” Mr. Hall says. “Some people are not handy at all. I guess that’s what keeps us in business.”

Home improvement projects can require specific tools, which do-it-yourselfers should know how to operate and use safely, Mr. Hall says.

Homeowners who do not have the needed tools can rent or purchase them, but that option might cost more than hiring a contractor, Mr. Toalson says. Contractors can purchase tools, along with the materials for a project, at a discount from their suppliers, a factor to consider in the cost of the total project, he says.

Another factor for the do-it-yourselfer to take into account is time. Other than cosmetic projects, most home-improvement projects require more than a weekend to complete, Mr. Toalson says.

Ken Ruffin, contractor services sales associate at the Hyattsville Home Depot, recommends that do-it-yourselfers and those hiring a contractor add an extra week or two to the estimated time for a project.

“If you go in desperately, you tend to cut corners, and that tends to cost you much more later,” Mr. Ruffin says.

If the project is beyond the homeowner’s scope of experience or ability to dedicate time to it, calling a licensed contractor may be the best option, Mr. Toalson says.

“If you’re completely unnerved, unraveled and scared, don’t do it. Hire somebody to do it for you,” says Lynda Lyday, a carpenter, professional contractor and author of “Do It Yourself! The Illustrated Room-by-Room, Step-by-Step Guide to the Most Popular Home Repair and Renovation Projects.”

Hiring a contractor, in that case, is worth the investment and avoiding the risk of doing a project incorrectly, says Ms. Lyday, who lives in Los Angeles and Manhattan.

Mr. Hall recommends researching the contractor’s ability to do the project, along with asking for proof of proper licensure and insurance. Licenses can be verified through the county and insurance through the contractor’s insurance agent.

The Better Business Bureau can be contacted to check for complaints, while asking for references can help determine the contractor’s quality of workmanship and timeliness in finishing past jobs, he says.

A homeowner acting as his own general contractor for a large project, however, is not a good idea in most cases, Mr. Toalson says. Subcontractors typically take on jobs from clients that already are customers before considering a one-time project, he says.

“The biggest frustration that I hear from people who have made a decision they want to save a few bucks and be their own contractor … is the ability to get those subcontractors there when they need them,” Mr. Toalson says.

In addition, a general contractor needs to coordinate the different trades or subcontractors on a project, a job that requires some skill, says Billy Evans, president and owner of Evans Carpentry LLC in Chantilly.

“If you have a general contractor taking care of it, they know how to handle coordinating the [contractors] and all of the scopes of work included in each contractor’s bill,” Mr. Evans says.

Mr. Evans recommends outlining the work involved in a home improvement project from the start to finish and noting every step along the way to eliminate the guesswork.

Budgeting in another 20 percent to the cost of the project will cover any unexpected changes or delays in that project, Mr. Wade says.

As for doing the job or hiring it out, “It depends on the individuals themselves, how talented they are working with their hands,” Mr. Evans says.

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