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Five Takeaways From Remodeling Our Home As Our Own Contractor

With construction costs rising (and construction budgets feeling the pinch) it’s becoming more and more popular to self-perform at least some of the work on a remodel that might normally be left for a general contractor. Luckily, Kaysie did just that not too long ago, and she’s sharing her five takeaways from the experience.

September 24, 2020

The cost of construction is high right now, especially in Seattle. We’re seeing costs ranging from $350 - $600 per square foot or more for remodels and new construction of single-family residential homes. You might be thinking, “What if I just do it myself?”

For more handy folks, this is definitely an option — but there are a few things to consider first. My partner and I renovated our home together and, boy, did we learn a lot about construction and each other. Read on to hear about the things we learned along the way.

Your work will never be as good as a Master Craftsman’s work.

You don’t do this full-time, you likely don’t have all the tools to do the job right, and you probably don’t have the same patience and care for the work. Sometimes that’s okay, though! It’s really up to you where things should be flawless and where they can be a little rougher. For us, this project was our first home – I’m pretty sure the last updates happened in the ’80s and anything would be an improvement from the laminate countertops and flooring.

Looking down at a floor where dark grey hex tiles are being installed. There are smears of grout where it's been added.
Start Learning Now

The internet is a wonderful thing and full of tutorials on how to do home improvements. Find a project you’re okay with not being perfect and go for it. It might end up better than you think!

You might have a basement bathroom that’s never seen a real tile floor – I bet you can do that! It’s pretty amazing: you can find a video on the internet about how to do just about anything these days.

What We Took Away from Our Experience

Finish work adds up in the cost of labor and, if you’re willing to spend some time learning and probably messing up a little along the way, it can really pay off.

Hire professionals for work that requires a permit.

There is a reason that your jurisdiction requires permits for certain types of work. Electrical work done wrong can start fires, a broken sewer line can undermine your foundation, and plumbing installed incorrectly can lead to costly water damage or worse, contaminated water. It’s going to cost more than doing it yourself, but you’ll have a lot more confidence in the final product.

An interior wall in a home opened up to reveal the plumbing and electrical wiring behind it.
Knowing Your Limits

We’re do-it-yourselfers (why else do you think we did our own remodel?), but it’s important to know your limits. Professional and licensed plumbers and electricians did the work we knew was more than we could handle (and had more safety and health concerns at stake).

Professional electricians, plumbers, and others talk with inspectors regularly, so they’re going to know exactly how things should be installed and what the inspectors are specifically looking for. Doing this work yourself could mean many days off from your day job waiting around for inspectors to show up again after your first failed inspection.

While we’re on the topic – get permits for your work. This is not an “ask for forgiveness later” situation. They will throw the book at you to prove a point if you’re caught doing work without a permit. On top of that, you’re putting your home and those you share it with at risk by not having the work permitted.

What We Took Away from Our Experience

If a permit is involved or doing the work incorrectly could create a health and safety concern, hire a professional to do it. It’s worth the investment.

Don't underestimate the time and patience involved.

Working on your home takes time. More than you think. Tiling that bathroom like I suggested earlier? You’re not going to have a toilet installed and running for about a week. You have to remove the old flooring, prep the substrate, install the tile, let that set, install the grout, let that set, and seal your lovely new floor surface. If you don’t have time every day to work on your project, what started as a week-long update can last weeks or maybe months.

A work-in-progress shower with 1' by 2' white tiles being installed. There are spacers in place to keep the tiles from shifting as they set.
Living Without

Any updates to your home, whether performed by you or a contractor, take time. While we updated our only bathroom, we couldn't use the shower while everything cured. Be prepared to make alternative arrangements.

Not to mention all the other things that can slow you down. What if you run out of tile before you’re finished and now it’s on backorder? If you have another bathroom to use, this sort of thing may not be a problem, but if you’re like us and it’s your only bathroom, you’re going to have to stay somewhere else until the project is finished.

What We Took Away from Our Experience

Everything will take longer than you imagine, and unexpected issues may arise. Estimate how long each task will take, then add some extra time and ask yourself, can I live with this?

Small improvements can make big impacts.

Paint is magical. Our house was probably painted with the intention of feeling “cozy,” but the warm yellow-white everywhere left the whole thing feeling dark and dingy. By repainting every surface, the house felt brand new, clean, and like it was ours. We also replaced the baseboards to remove the two-piece trim that had been installed after the carpet was removed by the previous owners. This helped it look like the hardwood was intended to be exposed all along.

A room with freshly painted white walls. There's a ladder to the side and a pile of boxes and equipment in the center of the room covered in a drip cloth.
Small Changes with Big Impacts

Sometimes you walk into a home and can only see everything you want to change. Small updates, like putting a fresh coat of paint on the walls, can help you see past the things you dislike and make your spaces more pleasant before bigger updates can be made.

Changing out light fixtures can also do wonders. Don’t focus on adding can lights if you don’t have them already – there are plenty of surface-mounted fixtures available these days with a thin profile that will provide better light and be much less expensive to install.

What We Took Away from Our Experience

Simple cosmetic updates can make a huge difference to your home fast, and tend to be easier to do yourself than other projects. Plus, they can make your home feel more livable while you wait or save up for those bigger projects.

Keep an eye out for treasures.

Older homes can be filled with delightful pieces worth keeping to either build your renovation around or hang onto as a piece of history. Reuse the original medicine cabinet by removing the rust and repainting it. Move that funky chandelier from the dining room into the powder room to make a statement. Or, be like us and frame and display the letter written the year your house was built that you found in the fireplace when you cleaned it out.

A yellowed piece of paper, charred along the edges, written in the mid 1900's. The writing is cursive.
You Never Know What You'll Find

Remodeling your home can uncover some spectacular treasures. We found this old letter stuck up our chimney and chose to frame and display it as a nod to the history of our home.

What We Took Away from Our Experience

Renovating isn’t all elbow grease and exhaustion if you can find items that bring you joy and celebrate them.

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