09/23/2012 10:50 am ET Updated Nov 21, 2012

What To Do Before Tackling DIY Home Improvement Project


When confronted with a home improvement project, the first thing you have to do is decide if you can tackle it yourself or if you should I hire it out. This is not exactly an easy decision and you might find yourself changing your mind halfway through.

You really have to consider how badly you could screw up your house and your body. For example, ask yourself, "How hurt could I get carrying the clothes dryer downstairs all by myself?" Or, "What are the chances of burning the house down or electrocuting myself if I install this chandelier?" If you think the chances are high for you to incur serious bodily harm or damage your house beyond repair, I suggest you pick up your phone and call a professional.

The most important thing to remember is what I call the Rule of Two: almost every project takes twice as long as you expect and costs twice as much. This is true whether you hire it out or attempt it yourself. So this is really the first step: accept some escalating cost and extend your timeline in order to be realistic.

If you really think you can handle what you've set out to do, then go for it: they are, after all, your knees, your fingers and your walls to risk if you are up for it. Conventional wisdom would posit that, from here, you should do your research, but be careful not to get stuck gathering too much information. Over time, preparation can so easily turn into procrastination and giving yourself too many options can really put a so-called wrench in your process. I recommend that you quickly get some basic technique and safety tips under your (tool) belt, then jump right in -- otherwise, you might get tired of your project before you even begin.

Make sure that you take "Before" photos so that you can track how much progress you make. This documentation will also come in handy if you decide along the way to bring in some outside help -- it will be good to show a professional how things looked before you ruined them beyond recognition.

Don't forget to roll up your sleeves: this seems to be a wise thing to do when undertaking anything in life. After all, you don't want to rip your cuffs or get them dirty.

The next step is to gather your materials, but remember to save all receipts and open everything you purchase carefully. It is very likely that you will buy some wrong items - pieces that don't fit, screws of the incorrect size, or the wrong tools altogether. Plan to make several trips back to the store, and be aggressive about returning the incorrect items during every trip. Otherwise, these things will build up in your basement or your trunk and you'll forget about them amid the mayhem of your project.

According to my DIY-ready brother-in-law, "There's nothing you can't fix with some caulking, some duct tape, or staples." I think this is a wise observation, so you might want to keep those materials close at hand.

Whatever you do, be careful. They make hard hats, work goggles, and steel-toed boots for a reason. Don't do anything with your eyes closed (this may seem obvious but you'd be surprised), and if there are instruction manuals involved, find someone else to read them to you while you're using power tools.

Will mistakes be made on your DIY project? Yes. Will you regret certain decisions? Definitely. But this could be the case even if you hire someone else to do the work. The good news is that, if you attempt the project yourself, you can brag about whatever you accomplished or you just might have a good story to tell from the hospital.