When to DIY and when to hire a pro

Alabama Living Magazine
Some do-it-yourselfers are comfortable tackling an attic insulation project. The steep pitch of this roof and the plywood decking this person is kneeling on makes this project appear easy, but in most homes, you’ll only be able to stand on the floor joists or rafters. Photo courtesy The EnergySmart Academy

Q When it comes to home DIY projects, I recently asked myself, “Why hire someone to do a mediocre job when I can do a mediocre job myself?” That may sound odd, but I recently hired a contractor to remodel my kitchen. Needless to say, I was not happy with the quality of the work. Unfortunately, hiring a contractor based on positive online reviews and references doesn’t always guarantee quality work. 

A One reason to DIY (do it yourself) instead of hiring a contractor is if you’re convinced you can do a better job. Naturally, this depends on the scope of the project and how knowledgeable you are about the work. And there are additional reasons to tackle a home efficiency project yourself:

  • You’re unable to find a contractor that is available and reasonably priced.
  • You need the work completed in a tight timeframe or during odd hours.
  • You’re certain you can save a lot of money. 
  • The job is one you’d really enjoy doing yourself. 
  • On the flipside, there are also several good reasons to hire a contractor (and not tackle projects yourself):
  • Specialized equipment is required. For example, the best wall insulators use a fill tube, which results in a higher R-value performance. Some contractors use an infrared camera to review wall framing and air leaks.
  • Specialized materials are needed. Attics need proper ventilation, and contractors might have easier access to attic insulation baffles or roof vents.
  • • There’s a safety issue. I was once moving insulation in our attic and accidentally stepped onto the sheetrock ceiling and fell through to my waist. My legs were dangling in the air and the room below was littered with broken sheetrock and insulation. I wasn’t hurt but could have been. As I repaired the damage, I regretted the decision not to hire a contractor.
  • Expertise is required beyond the homeowner capability, like tuning a furnace or repairing holes in a sheetrock wall to match the wall around it.
  • Tackling the project yourself will save little or no money. I discovered years ago that some contractors could install insulation cheaper than I could buy it. 

As you consider whether to do the job yourself, be sure to research the tools and supplies you’ll need. Fortunately, there are amazing resources online. 

When you search for information like “how to insulate an attic” or “how to air seal a home,” you’ll find fact sheets and video tutorials from contractors, home improvement shows, big box suppliers and material manufacturers. YouTube videos often show experts making the installation of anything seem simple, but beware, some of these videos are aimed at other experts and not DIY homeowners. 

To ensure you’re getting technically sound information, visit the ENERGY STAR® website (energystar.gov). Also, if you have a good energy auditor in your area, they can be another great source of information. An energy auditor can provide specifics about the materials you’ll need as well as information about local contractors and suppliers.

Our advice: Don’t tackle energy efficiency projects yourself unless you’ve thoroughly researched it and have become very knowledgeable. Another benefit of doing the research upfront is that it will help you even if you decide to hire a contractor. You’ll be able to identify a knowledgeable contractor and hire one that knows you recognize a quality job. Good luck!

Patrick Keegan writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives. Write to energytips@collaborativeefficiency.com for more information.

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