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DIY or Buy? When It’s Cheaper to Make It Yourself or Buy Off The Shelf

Last year, the Better Business Bureau received 5,558 complaints regarding general contractors, placing the group in the top 30 out of all industries tracked, according to Money Talks News.

No wonder home improvement stores are packed to the gills on weekends and everybody is becoming a do-it-yourself-er – no one wants to get ripped off!

In addition, for many homeowners, there is no greater feeling of accomplishment or satisfaction from improving your house with your own two hands.

But does doing it yourself really save you all that much money?

It many cases, it does.  But in some, it may be less expensive to just hire someone.

Why DIY?

For the purpose of this article, DIY projects can be big or small – from the artwork ideas you see on Pinterest to gutting your entire kitchen.

First, let’s look at why someone would DIY in the first place:

  • Money.  The most obvious reason.  Doing things yourself is often cheaper.
  • Quality.   An inexpensive contractor might do a shoddy job – you know you’ll do your best.
  • Time.  Who knows how long a contractor could take?  When you do-it-yourself, you can set your own timeline.
  • Creative Fulfillment.  There’s a lot to be said for making something of your own and walking past it proudly every day. 
  • Spending time with someone.  Perhaps your friend or relative is a handy craftsman or decorator – a project could be a great reason to spend time with someone.
  • Fear.  Many people may assume they’ll be ripped off if they hire someone to complete a project. 

I’m sure there are many more reasons, but as you can see, there are a number of good reasons why someone would choose to do-it-themselves rather than hire someone.

How To Make Your Decision

First, you’ll need to determine if you have the resources, ability, and time to complete a project on your own. 

Consider these costs to determine your overall project expense plan.

  • Rental fees for large tools/machines.  Larger projects may require complicated tools.  Though many can be rented, those fees can add up quickly, bringing your bottom line closer to that of hiring a contractor.
  • Safety net for the unexpected.  Unexpected complications and/or expenses arise in most projects.  Consider a safety net for those expenses that is relatively proportional to your overall expense (e.g. larger projects should have more of a safety net).
  • Supplies list.  Seems simple, but I know I’ve started projects before and realized halfway in that I needed a certain item and had to rush to the store to purchase it.  Lay out your project from start to finish to determine exactly what you’ll need so you have a better idea of costs.

After you’ve determined an overall expense plan for doing-it-yourself, start calling a handful of local contractors for estimates.  Some may need to even visit your house to provide an estimate.  Compare these estimates to your plan to determine which is more cost effective – DIYing or buying.  Don’t forget to ask each contractor how long it would take for them to complete a project  so you can use that as a guide for how long you’ll need to allocate for the project if you do-it-yourself.

Now that you know which is more cost effective, you’ll need to determine if you even have the time and energy to complete a project on your own.

If you gathered time frame estimates from contractors, use them as a guide.  In general, you can expect to take longer to complete a job than a pro.  Consider adding a percentage of time to their estimates, like 25% or 50% depending on your skill level.

If you work full-time, it’s important to look at a calendar and see when you’d be able to work on the project.  If you have two hours each night and six hours each weekend to dedicate to a 40-hour project, it could take you five weeks to complete the project – and that’s not even including busy schedules or burn-out.

It’s important to be realistic with your expectations – especially if you’re a newbie DIY-er.  Your first several projects will definitely not go according to plan.

Tips if You Decide to DIY

Face it: Your first time will be a little scary.  Never fear!  Someone somewhere has likely completed the same project you’re tackling and they lived to tell about it.  Try these tips if you plan to DIY:

  • Hit up your experienced friends. Chances are we all have a friend or relative that is known as being a handyman.  Get in touch with them.  Tell them about your project.  Maybe they’ll even offer to help.  Either way, you could learn valuable lessons from them!
  • Harass the guys at home improvement stores. Okay, I don’t mean seriously harass them, but get to know them.  My husband and I have accomplished several projects successfully just with the help of the Home Depot or Lowe’s guys.
  • Expect hiccups.  I’ve never completed a project without making an error, forgetting a tool/supply, or having it take longer than expected.  Something will go off plan – expect it and it won’t be so bad when it actually happens.
  • Go the extra mile.  This is your house that you have to live in for (probably) a very long time.  Take the extra time to tape off your lines perfectly or make a perfect cut or (if resources allow) get the best quality product.  A contractor may do a quick job, but you know you can do a quality job.
  • Follow and connect with bloggers or check forums. DIY bloggers offer a host of resources for free on the Internet.  Check out sites like Young House Love, Ana White, or Apartment Therapy for tips on almost any project imaginable.  If you can’t find an answer to a specific question, your friend Google can lead you to many forums where like-minded DIYers help each other out..  It may take some extra time, but it’s free and you’ll have more confidence that you’re going in the right direction.

In the end, remember that practically anything can be fixed by a professional. If you feel yourself getting stuck or in over your head, you may feel better hiring a contractor.  You may just need a handyman to get you past a certain point and then you’ll be on your way!

Do you like to DIY or prefer to hire a professional? Any success or failure stories out there? 

Published or updated on December 6, 2012

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About Amber Gilstrap

Amber is a twenty-something CPA from Kansas City, Missouri who loves writing, working out, and---of course---finding fresh ideas for saving money. Follow her on twitter @amberinks.


We invite readers to respond with questions or comments. Comments may be held for moderation and will be published according to our comment policy. Comments are the opinions of their authors; they do not represent the views or opinions of Money Under 30.

  1. GG says:

    Regarding getting advice at the hardware store: in my town there is an awesome independent hardware store that hires people who really know what they are talking about. We also have a Home Depot that is of course cheaper, but often staffed with teenagers who mostly rattle off the party line about how you need the more expensive tool. It is worth it to patronize the independent hardware store, pay a little more for the product, and get honest advice. Plus, that’s the only way the little guys can stay in business. So before driving off to Home Depot or Lowe’s, consider whether there is a better alternative.

  2. Savvy Scot says:

    I try to DIY wherever possible… It is the sense of self-achievment I love (when things go right)!!!

  3. Brian says:

    Nice article Amber! Now that I’m self employed, I started to DIY for a lot of things. Last week I fixed the garbage disposal, before I would have just hired a plumber. Not only do you save money but you get feel good that you did it yourself and you’re ready for the next DIY project!

  4. I DIY almost anything I can around my house and with my vehicles. I only hire a professional when I can’t get the equipment to do what I need. This is rare. The upside to DIY is not only do you save money, but you also learn about something you didn’t know of before. You can now use this knowledge to help others or continue to fix your issues. DIY rocks!

    • Amber says:

      Good point about cars! My husband recently replaced the alternator on my car for $125 and the dealership wanted $550! DIY in all areas can really save some dough. And I know my husband is still very proud of himself for replacing the alternator on my car. :)

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