Have you ever put together a piece of furniture and from there on out, it just never worked quite as it should? The drawer sticks, the shelf slants, the table wobbles. And the mistake haunts you forever because you did it all to save a measly $80 on professional assembly.
Sometimes that’s how DIY home improvement projects end up, too, and then you’ve got a bigger problem than the nuisance of a loose screw: A house that’s difficult to sell.
“Going DIY has one big benefit from a budget standpoint as it only costs materials and time, “ says Brandon Prewitt, a top-selling real estate agent in Columbus, Ohio who regularly helps clients get the most value out of their homes.
“However, don’t try to DIY if you’re not comfortable doing it. Homebuyers and their agents are pretty savvy at spotting projects that went wrong.”
Deciding whether to hire a pro doesn’t seem like rocket science. But American homeowners (not unlike those IKEA addicts!) tend to be ambitious. Almost 50% who completed recent home improvement projects did the work themselves, though perhaps foolishly. Renovation Planners, a certified construction management firm, estimates that 30% percent of contractors’ work comes from repairing poorly done DIY projects after the fact.
To help you make the right call on any of the common projects you’re likely to do before you sell your home, review this list that gets into the nitty gritty details on where to roll up your sleeves and grab your toolbox, and when to pick up the phone for a quote.
Home improvement project #1: Fresh interior paint
If you’ve got any loud accent walls from your red kick in the early 2000s, then it’s recommended that you paint over those with a neutral shade of beige or gray.
“A fresh coat of paint will do wonders for any interior space and if you choose paint colors that are on trend, it can transform a room,” says Prewitt. “It’s a relatively low investment for a really large impact in both marketability and an increased home value.”
But it’s a project that seems deceptively simple.
For starters, room prep takes time and patience. To protect the floors, you’ll need to properly secure drop cloths to avoid the risk of paint drips damaging your flooring. You’ll also need to tape off window frames, ceilings, moldings, baseboards, light fixtures, and outlets with painter’s tape.
Walls need to be scrubbed clean so that stains and grease marks (especially in kitchens) don’t show through. You’ll need to put on a primer coat before painting your new color over dark (or vibrant) existing wall colors. And different wall textures require different naps on your paint rollers.
Plus, there’s a whole host of DIY interior painting tips to learn that will help you avoid the streaks and bleeds that are the hallmarks of an amateur paint job.
No matter how good you get at painting, going pro will look a whole lot better—plus it’ll get done fast. However, that speed and quality will cost you. Having the interior of a 2,300-square-foot home painted by a pro costs a national average of $6,900.
If having your whole home professionally painted doesn’t fit within your budget, you can cut costs by only painting the most important spaces (kitchen, living room, master bedroom and bath), and skipping additional bedrooms, or bonus rooms.
DIY: If you have the time and patience to research (and learn through experience) how to achieve pro-like results. Plus, the willingness to try again if your first attempt isn’t up to par.
Go pro: If you’re on a tight deadline, you have money in your budget to cover the costs, or you don’t have the skills (or patience) to DIY.
Home improvement project #2: Install new flooring
“Whether you take out the carpet and put in laminate, or luxury vinyl tile, or even new carpeting, changing out the flooring transforms the space,” says Prewitt. “Fresh, new flooring makes a huge impression on a buyer.”
In addition, 54% of homebuyers would pay around $2,080 more for a house that has hardwood.
Typically this is a project best reserved for the pros or only the most skilled DIYers. And even for them, it depends on the type of flooring that’s going out and getting put in.
Carpet, for example, is a multi-step project that requires the installation of tack strips and padding before you even get to the carpet. You’ll also need to do a lot of measuring, trimming (through tough-to-cut padding and carpet backing), stretching, and gluing seams together.
Vinyl sounds simple, but cutting it to the proper dimensions, matching patterns at the seams, getting it to stick down properly can be tricky. Plus, if you don’t properly scrape up old glue, and sand down the foundation, you’ll get odd bumps showing through the vinyl.
One of the easiest flooring types to install yourself are floating laminate floors. Laminate offers the look of hardwood floors, but the planks snap together easily, and they don’t require any adhesive or nails to hold them in place.
Even so, installing laminate isn’t child’s play. You’ll need to plan the layout in advance, alternate the seams, and cut boards to fit in doorways and other awkward corners. You’ll also need to install new baseboards to cover the gaps between the wall and the floating floor, as well as end caps to transition to carpeted rooms.
Get any of that wrong, and your DIY work will stick out like a sore thumb.
Going pro on new flooring installation is the way to go for most homeowners, but it isn’t cheap. Getting new laminate flooring in just one 200-square-foot room runs an average of an average of $1,600 to $5,000 depending on factors like flooring type and existing floor removal.
DIY: If you’ve helped install the flooring type before, it may be worth trying to DIY. (That is, if you’re able to handle a box-cutter or table saw without risking injury.)
Go pro: If the only experience you’ve got under your belt is watching it done on home improvement shows and YouTube videos, go pro.
Home improvement project #3: Update your light fixtures
“Replacing dated light fixtures makes a huge difference,” says Prewitt. “Let’s say you have a brass fixture in your dining room. Just swapping that out for a brushed nickel or oil-rubbed bronze fixture makes a major impact on the salability of the property.”
Believe it or not, changing a light fixture is a rather simple DIY project IF you carefully follow the manufacturer’s instructions and take appropriate safety precautions.
Shutting off the power to the light fixture at your breaker box is an absolute must. And you’ll need to caulk around outdoor light fixtures to protect the wiring from the weather.
Keep in mind that incorrectly installed lighting or a bad wiring job poses a fire hazard, so make sure you’re comfortable with the risks before attempting installation, or go with a pro.
However, not every house is eligible for DIY lighting installation. “When you’re thinking about DIY lighting, you have to think about the age of the home that you’re living in,” advises Prewitt. “If you own a vintage Victorian that has old electrical wiring, I would be very leery about DIYing any electrical projects.”
If you’re replacing light fixtures in an older home, such as those built or wired between 1880 and 1940, they’ll likely have outdated knob-and-tube wiring. If that’s the type of wiring your home has, always hire a certified electrician.
The same is true for homes built in the 1960s and early ’70s, during the copper shortage. Homes built in this timeframe will likely contain aluminum wiring prone to overheating and failure. If you’ve got aluminum wiring, a pro is the way to go.
DIY: If you have a newer home with copper wiring, the confidence to take on a potentially hazardous project, and the discipline to follow directions and safety procedures, DIY is definitely an option.
Go pro: If you have an older home with knob-and-tube or aluminum wiring, definitely hire a professional to do all of your electrical work.
Home improvement project #4: Swap out faucets in the kitchen and bath
However, even though replacing plumbing is safer for you (safer than replacing light fixtures), there are other risks that may make hiring a pro the better choice.
For example, if your shutoffs are rusted out, or if the threading on your existing plumbing is stripped, your unprofessional plumbing attempts could flood your home. Your amateur attempts could also damage pipes and pose leakage problems in the future—which your buyer’s home inspector will probably spot.
One final note for homeowners who are replacing the countertops in their kitchens and bathrooms. Since you’re already paying a professional to replace the countertops and all the sinks—it only makes sense to let those pros put the faucets in, too.
“While some homeowners are capable of changing out faucets, when you get into plumbing-related projects, I would lean toward hiring a pro,” says Prewitt.
DIY: If your existing plumbing is in good shape, and you’re careful enough to install the faucet correctly, you can DIY this.
Go pro: If you’ve got older pipes, if you’re fond of skipping installation steps, or you’ve already paid a pro to replace the sinks themselves, hire a pro.
Home improvement project #5: Put in new kitchen countertops
One home improvement project that adds buyer-attracting bling to your home is upgrading the kitchen counter tops to a fancier material, like the ever-trendy quartz. Some homeowners even go so far as to fabricate unique countertops themselves, but this is a no-no if you want to sell your home for the most money.
If you are going to install new countertops, never DIY. It requires precision cuts and pro installation know-how to make sure the surface is level, the seams meet, and there’s no leakage around the sink.
“Replacing countertops is always a pro project. But the real question that you need to ask is whether or not you should replace your countertops,” says Prewitt.
Buyers may gravitate toward flashy surfaces in the kitchen like quartz or granite, but you don’t absolutely need to invest major money to sell your home for top dollar.
If your existing countertops are in relatively good shape, let the market and your home’s price point tell you if you need to replace them or not—and how expensive the countertop material needs to be.
For example, in some markets, if your home is listed at $250,000 and up, then buyers will expect solid surface materials, like granite, in your kitchen.
However, if you’re under $250,000 then a nice-looking Formica will suffice—and you only need to replace them if the existing ones are in bad shape.
DIY: Unless you’re a professional contractor yourself—never.
Go pro: Always. It takes expertise to fit and level countertops onto existing cabinets—especially when there’s sink cutouts and plumbing installation involved.
Home improvement project #6: Rehab your kitchen cabinets
Whether you want to refinish, stain, or paint, you’ll find plenty of advice online about how to rehab existing kitchen cabinets on your own.
And while it’s definitely possible to DIY this project, it’s never the right move if your goal is to sell the home.
“Kitchens and bathrooms sell homes, so definitely do not DIY the painting or staining of your cabinets,” advises Prewitt.
“If you mess it up, it’s that much more expensive to have them fixed, and you may wind up having to replace all the cabinets. So I would leave cabinet refinishing to the pros.”
Even for pros, refinishing kitchen cabinets is a time-consuming, tedious, multi-step process that requires cleaning, stripping, and sanding all of those awkward corners, crannies, and grooves—and that’s before you even get to refinishing them.
Whether you’re using stain, paint, or just a clear coating, it’s practically impossible to get a smooth, even finish on all of the doors—and that obvious amateur work will turn buyers off.
However, hiring a pro to refinish them for you isn’t the way to go if you intend to sell your home.
In most cases, you can give your cabinets an easy, inexpensive makeover by scrubbing them clean and replacing outdated cabinet hardware.
Just replacing cabinet pulls can make a major impact on your cabinetry, and it’s easy to do if you can handle a screwdriver. Installing new handles and knobs with a trending finish will dress up your cabinets and make the whole kitchen look refreshed.
However, there are ways to screw this simple DIY project up. You’ll need to make sure that you’re getting pulls with a large enough base to cover the footprint of the old handles.
Also, if you’re trying to go from single-screw knobs to two-screw handles, you’ll need to drill new holes. Miscalculate or slip when you’re drilling, and you’ll ruin the door—which means you’ll need to shell out cash to replace them all or have mismatched cabinets.
If your cabinets are too damaged to be improved by hardware alone, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to replace them, or have them fully refinished by a professional.
In many cases, you can keep the cabinet bases and just order replacement doors and drawers. That way you only need to pay a professional to paint or refinish the cabinet bases to match the new ones.
DIY: Never DIY refinishing the cabinets. But definitely DIY replacing cabinet hardware.
Go pro: If your cabinets absolutely must be refinished, hire a pro.
Home improvement project #7: Swap out hardware and light switch faceplates
New hardware on kitchen cabinets isn’t the only place where a little bling can go a long way to update the look of your home.
If you’ve got cheap, brass doorknobs, cracked plastic light switch faceplates, or mismatched outlet covers, then it’s worth the time and money to replace them all.
“Changing out door knobs, and faceplates on outlets and light switches, say to brushed nickel, that’s a weekend project that any homeowner can do,” says Prewitt.
You only need screwdriver skills to replace doorknobs—provided that you’ve purchased handles that fit into your existing doors. And the same is true for swapping out electrical faceplates.
When replacing your faceplates, you don’t need to stick with boring, white plastic. You’ll find plenty of options in stone, wood, or metal faceplates to accent any décor style.
However, it’s not always necessary to change out electrical. If they are all already clean, undamaged and consistent throughout the house in color and style, then stick with what you’ve got—even if they are that dated cream or white plastic.
DIY: Always. Unless you can’t operate a screwdriver, or tell the difference between a Phillips and a flathead. (If that’s the case, don’t DIY anything, ever!)
Go pro: You’ve already hired a contractor to do other major repair jobs. If there’s still time left when the other work is done and it won’t cost much extra. Otherwise, DIY.
DIY vs. pro: Which way should you go?
There’s one simple rule that will help you narrow down your list of potential DIY projects: if the job requires a permit, then it’s best to hire a professional.
In most cases, projects that require permits (such as roof replacement, foundation work, or load-bearing wall modification) are the ones that will get you flagged for violations during your buyer’s home inspection if they aren’t completed properly.
For non-permitted projects, deciding between DIY and hiring a pro requires finding the right balance between quality and cost.
“Projects typically get done quicker and at a higher quality when you hire a pro,” advises Prewitt. “However, it costs more to pay someone else to get projects done, especially with labor costs on the rise.”
For example, swapping out a bathroom sink faucet may sound easy on the package—but it does require taking steps to avoid a plumbing disaster. Otherwise, you’ll wind up spending even more money to repair floors and walls damaged by leaks or burst pipes.
The potential for a costly DIY disaster is why it’s so important to honestly evaluate your skill level and the complexity of the project before attempting to go it alone.
After all, anybody who can handle a screwdriver is capable of replacing kitchen cabinet handles, but few homeowners are able to achieve pro-quality results when attempting to DIY the cabinet refinishing.
Ability and project difficulty are why 89% of surveyed homeowners hired a pro to replace their HVAC system, whereas only 44% hired a pro to refinish their hardwood floors.
Plus, as tempting as it is to save money by DIYing easier projects, there may not always be time. If you’re on a deadline to get your home sold, then you can’t afford to spend endless hours renovating by yourself when a pro could do a better job in half the time.
Bottom line: Picking the right projects to DIY (and when to go pro) depends on required permits, your skill level, project difficulty, and your timeframe.
How to find the right contractor for the job
Once you’ve chosen to hire a pro, the next decision you need to make is who to hire.
So how do you find a reliable, trustworthy professional who’ll under promise and over deliver?
“As agents, we’re constantly networking with local contractors,” says Prewitt.
“Since we’ve developed relationships with our contractors, they’re more likely to show up on time, offer reasonable prices, and deliver on quality work. This is a huge benefit to home sellers because it lifts that burden of finding a reputable contractor.”
Friends and family who’ve recently completed projects in the area are good referral sources, too.
At the end of the day: Make smart decisions about your biggest investment
No homeowner wants to drop a bundle of cash on fixing up a home they’ll soon be selling, but listing as-is means getting less than your home is actually worth.
Tackling some of the simpler improvements yourself is a great way to get your home looking good enough to earn a higher price—but if your results are amateurish, you’ll need to pay a pro to fix your mistakes.
Savvy home sellers honestly evaluate their home improvement skills and their to-do list, and only take on tasks they know they can handle—and leave the rest to the professionals.
Header Image Source: (Eugen Str/ Unsplash)