Think you can do a remodeling project yourself? Think again.

Al Heavens is a Haddonfield, N.J.- based, nationally syndicated, home-improvement writer and author whose newspaper columns, magazine articles and books have been the first word on remodeling for 50 million readers for more than three decades. He is the author of What No One Ever Tells You About Renovating Your Home and Remodeling On The Money: Fifteen Innovative Projects Designed to Add Value to Your Home, and was “The Gadgeteer” on Discovery Channel’s Home Matters program.

For many years, I traveled to the National Hardware Show. For someone into home gadgetry, it was a candy store filled with Hershey’s Kisses and Mars Bars.

In the early years, the show was at Chicago’s McCormick Place. I stayed at downtown hotels and either walked or took public transportation to the convention center at the south end of town.

One Saturday, I was a few paces behind, but well within earshot, of two 30-something men. One was in a track suit, the other wore suit and tie.

“Another six-day week?” track suit inquired of dress suit.

“Yes,” his companion replied, but “I’d much rather work extra days to pay the kitchen contractor than do it myself.”

I had just spent two years remodeling my own kitchen with the occasional help of a patient plumber and an often-horrified electrician. I was proud of my kitchen renovation. Two years later, it was a major selling point of our house. It gave me endless topics about which to write.

But, after brief reflection, I realized that dress suit was probably correct.

Savings, overtime and more freelancing would have meant a faster and, yes, I’ll acknowledge it, better job.

I should have hired a contractor. It is a far, far better thing to focus on what you can do well and leave the things you cannot manage easily to the professionals.

If you have become a fan as I have of Maine Cabin Masters on the DIY Network, you see this situation unfolding every week. The cabins that the crew rescue often are the victims of well-meaning, do-it-yourselfer owners whose mistakes require 10 weeks and $40,000 to fix.

A little knowledge … well, you know the rest.

“The smartest projects are those that improve the quality of life of the occupants.”

If hiring a contractor scares you, welcome to the club. A former colleague messaged me in late February, looking for a contractor recommendation. Her problem was that the contractor she had hired for a bathroom that needed to be retrofitted for use by a person suffering the initial effects of a debilitating disease made promises that he couldn’t keep, abandoned her half-way through the job and even lied about being insured.

I was able to find someone for her, but the solution did nothing to ease her angst.

If this story adds to your fears, let me just say that good contractors are in the majority. The successful ones are those with excellent reputations. Their business is based primarily on referrals from satisfied customers.

My first book, What No One Ever Tells You About Renovating Your Home, was a guide to a cost-effective, generally angst-free, renovation project. Things have changed since I wrote the book – Angie’s List, HomeAdvisor and other Internet-based sites that vet contractors – but I think what I wrote passes the test of time.

Before you pick up the phone to call a contractor, have a well-defined idea of the project in mind. Saying “I want a new kitchen,” doesn’t make the cut. Do you want an entirely new kitchen or just new cabinets? What kinds of appliances interest you? What about flooring? Lighting fixtures? Windows and doors? Countertops? Island or peninsula? Eat-in or galley?

Don’t rush into it. Homeowners Alex and Beth Cerrato spent a year getting their renovation plan into their heads. They even had an architect review it. When they finally called the contractor, they had a plan. The plan was fine-tuned during discussions with the contractor, but they did have something in hand when those talks began.

Most consumers get their ideas from the Internet and cable television. Be careful. When I was “The Gadgeteer” on Home Matters for three seasons, I had to do my projects in four-minute segments. None of them took just four minutes. Remember my two-year kitchen?

Other sources of ideas include design showrooms, home shows, the magazines that still line drugstore shelves, and model homes in new communities. Some developers hate “gawkers,” but most say they often attract buyers from among visitors who were just looking for renovation ideas.

How much do you want to spend? If you only have a $5,000 budget for a kitchen, don’t expect much. Some top-of-the-line stoves cost $5,000. The standard Wolf dual-fuel range with six burners and 36-inches-wide is $10,000, for example.

But $5,000 might pay for new cabinet doors and hardware, a new sink, a garbage disposal, some new lighting and the labor to install it all. This will give you a better kitchen, but not a dream kitchen.

Where does the money come from? Twenty years ago, when I did my kitchen, I used savings, and a loan from my 401K, to buy the cabinets, appliances, flooring, lighting and countertops, and to pay the electrician and plumber. Many renovation projects are paid for by refinancing mortgages, which isn’t a bad idea with fixed interest rates at the beginning of 2020 still at historic lows, or home-equity lines of credit at similarly low rates.

But only borrow what you can reasonably expect to repay, or we could have a repeat of the financial meltdown of 2008, which resulted in record foreclosures and a stagnant housing market for almost seven years.

My advice always has been never renovate to sell. There is no guarantee that what you spend will be recouped when the house is sold, especially if it is a short-term goal.

I remember a case many years ago when a seller spent $60,000 on a kitchen he believed would snag a well-heeled buyer and he would recover all of his investment or more. As you might expect, the seller took a bath, and what’s worse, the buyer ripped out the kitchen before he and his family moved in.

Some major real estate companies are now pushing full-scale renovation as a way to quickly sell stagnant listings at a huge profit. Most real estate agents don’t think this is a good idea, even though today’s buyers are looking for perfection.

“I think you can do a little bit of refreshing to sell,” said Nancy Pearl, an agent with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach in Cherry Hill. “Something like fresh paint, new carpets or pulling up the old one and refinishing the floors. I have had sellers freshen the bathrooms— new vanities, new lighting, and the like. I’ve asked about getting a roof redone, new front door and have had sellers repaint decent cabinets.”

But Pearl came across one example of another agent’s listing that had been on the market for a long time and could sell with some updating. The renovation is costing $10,000 to $15,000.

My advice is renovate to enjoy. Many renovation projects can add value to the house if they are not “one of a kind,” meaning too much a reflection of the taste of the homeowner.

The smartest projects are those that improve the quality of life of the occupants. If you have four kids jockeying for position at the bathroom door every morning, a second bathroom makes life better for all. It even might make the house more marketable at resale.

Although there is no guarantee that the renovation will pay for itself at sale time, the house might sell faster than competing properties.

Construction takes time, even if someone else is doing it for you. No matter how well the project is planned, there are always unanticipated problems. Beth Cerrato notes that the kitchen portion of her project was supposed to take six to eight weeks but was completed in 11 weeks due to weather delays. The family coped by getting used to toaster-oven food and using their neighbors’ kitchens.

There are other ways hiring a contractor is better than doing it yourself:

They can acquire materials at lower costs easily from a host of suppliers.

They have long working relationships with trusted subcontractors.

They already know how to do the job. Their team has an encyclopedia of skills needed for renovation. By contrast, I once tiled a bathroom successfully, but only after watching a do-it-yourself video 100 times.

They know how to deal with municipal building inspectors.

Can you guarantee your work? A contractor will provide a warranty for his. He will make sure the appliances and materials have warranties as well. Usually, a warranty lasts one or two years. The best contractors honor those warranties for much longer.

Next time, I’ll talk about how to find the right contractor. If you have any questions, email me at alanjheavens@gmail.com.

Al Heavens is an expert in providing guidance to homeowners and Cipriani Remodeling Solutions is an expert in bringing those ideas to life. This post is one in a series of articles that will help educate homeowners. And if you are looking to add on or improve your existing home, Cipriani Remodeling Solutions has been helping homeowners for over 40 years.