Home Renovation: Hire a General Contractor or Do It Yourself?

When you take on a small home improvement project – redecorating a guest bedroom or refinishing a dresser, for example – you might enjoy every step of the process and see it through from start to finish with ease. But when it comes to larger projects, like remodeling an entire kitchen or adding an addition, even the handiest homeowners often choose to hire a general contractor. Which projects are worth doing yourself and which would go from DIY to disaster? Read on for an in-depth guide on contractors, doing it yourself, and deciding between the two paths.

Hiring a general contractor

What does a general contractor do?

A general contractor will oversee and execute a project, usually doing a lot of the physical work themselves. They’ll also bring in subcontractors and tradespeople to help them complete larger, more complicated renovations. A general contractor will review your project, provide an estimate of costs and projected timeline, then you’ll both sign a contract before they start work.

What types of jobs should I hire a general contractor for?

General contractors offer different services depending on homeowner needs. From installation of flooring or windows to whole room or whole home renovations, contractors will work with you to determine if their skill sets can bring your project to life. Some contractors specialize in kitchens or bathrooms, while others will manage an entire top-to-bottom home gut and remodel.

As a rule of thumb, you should contact a general contractor for any project that involves changing the structure of your home. These projects involve building permits, which vary depending on where you live, and you’ll almost always need a licensed professional to undertake them.

Though it is possible to DIY certain mid-level and major home renovations, a contractor can streamline and oversee projects that involve greater levels of structural and financial risk. Consider hiring a general contractor for any job that is either outside of your realm of skill and safety training, outside of your realm of free time and desire, or both. You’ll also need to avoid DIY plumbing, electrical, and gas work, as well as any repairs that involve heights. The number one factor in making the choice should be safety.

Pros and cons of hiring a contractor


·  Your contractor will oversee and execute the project from start to finish

·  You’ll have help understanding building permits and, when done right, the renovation will be up to municipal codes

·  You’ll save valuable time and energy

·  An expert’s work will likely be better quality

·  You’ll keep yourself and the rest of your household safe


·  Hiring a general contractor is generally more expensive than doing it yourself

·  The project will be out of your hands in terms of timing

·  Some elements may be done differently than how you’d wanted (due to misunderstandings or human error)

·  Potential for dispute between the homeowner and the general contractor

Gathering Estimates

You can gather free quotes from general contractors and companies, but most will provide one price for the entire project without breaking down the estimate (so you won’t know what portion is dedicated to materials, permits, labor, etc.).

Billdr provides detailed estimates (itemized) for homeowners at a cost. Homeowners who decide to work with Billdr receive 2 to 3 quotes from general contractors in a similar format so they can compare apples to apples. This can be useful in negotiating and ultimately choosing the right general contractor for your project.

Do it yourself

Determine if you have the right skill sets

Just about anyone can replace a toilet seat. But when it comes to remodeling a whole bathroom, not everyone will have the skills needed. Although DIY projects can be a great opportunity to learn, there’s a big difference between watching someone do a job on a home improvement show and doing it yourself. Be honest with yourself about your abilities.

What type of jobs can you do yourself?

Your local by-laws will dictate which renovations must be handled by a licensed professional. For any project involving plumbing, electrical or gas work, consider calling a contractor from the get-go. Many projects can be completed by handy homeowners, but you’ll need to put in the research in terms of permits, plans, and securing other experts as needed (such as a structural engineer or architect, if you’re planning major renovations).

Pros and cons of doing it yourself


·  Having a long-term project can be a lot of fun

·  You might save money

·  Since you’ll be doing the work, it will be up to your standards (no worrying about careless mistakes)

·  You’ll get to build new skills and enjoy the satisfaction that comes from accomplishing a goal (plus, bragging rights)


·  You could easily get in over your head and end up spending more money than you hoped to

·  You likely don’t have the network of subcontractors that a general contractor has, so you may end up spending a lot of time looking for help (if needed)

·  Making mistakes can be both costly and dangerous

·  You are on your own when it comes to permits and making sure your handiwork is up to code

·  Home renovation projects can drag on for months and disrupt your life

What to consider when making the decision

Is it legal?

Contact your local municipality’s building permit office with a description of your project. The office may ask you for a floor plan and a more detailed drawing of your plans before they can determine if you need a permit. Don’t take the easy way out here – keep it legal or you could face major fines. A contractor can make this whole process easier.

Do you have enough time?

As mentioned above, home renovation projects can drag on for months – and that’s if there are no unexpected delays. Even if you have the skills required, you may only have weekends to work on your project. If the scope of your project means your kitchen or bathroom will be unusable for the duration of the renovation, you may want to reconsider and have a contractor complete the job quicker.

How do I know if I have the right skills?

No matter how much HGTV you watch, real renovation experience is the only way to know what you’ll be comfortable doing yourself. By starting small and building up your skills over time, you can work up to larger projects. Don’t go tearing out your kitchen cabinets just yet.

Is it worth the hassle?

There’s a reason people hire general contractors. They likely have way more renovation experience than the average homeowner, so the entire process is less complicated. Though hiring a contractor can be more expensive than doing it all yourself, you could save yourself a considerable amount of time and stress by working with a seasoned pro who already has a network of reliable vendors. And, depending on the project, bringing in a contractor or a project manager could actually save you money since they may get preferable rates from their vendors. Plus, you’ll have peace of mind knowing the work was performed by a licensed pro.

Will you be able to do it as well as a pro?

This depends on your own set of skills as well as the caliber of professionals you bring in. The difference between the average homeowner and the average professional general contractor is pretty vast, but there are exceptions.

How will my family feel about it?

Though DIY projects can be fun, your family might not share your enthusiasm. Asking your kids to share a bedroom for months while you build an addition might be more headache-inducing than splurging for a team of professionals to handle it over a few weeks. Consider the needs of those with whom you cohabitate as you decide how you’ll handle your project.

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