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Renovation project: Do it yourself or hire a professional?

Nothing beats the escapism of a good Cinderella story on television, even if the diamond in the rough is a bungalow in Pasadena, California, with popcorn ceilings and a nasty case of dry rot.

Millions of viewers watch some of America’s most dilapidated abodes turn into dream homes on the 24-hour loop of fixer-upper shows. We can’t seem to get enough of the bright, open-concept kitchens, tech-heavy man caves and sparkling, spalike master suites.

But the shows make it all look so easy and that’s where folks can get into trouble. Experts say do-it-yourself projects can be time-consuming, unpredictable and expensive. This means homeowners who are inspired to get off the couch and pick up a tool belt need to plan ahead before burrowing into their own DIY ventures.

Chip Wade, the contractor and master carpenter from HGTV shows “Elbow Room” and “Curb Appeal: The Block,” noted that the work viewers see on TV is just a fraction of what goes on behind the scenes. What do-it-yourselfers may need more than anything else, he said, is patience.

Every project, no matter the size, should begin with a master plan or “road map” showing “where everything goes, what it’s going to look like, how things are going to correlate with one another,” he said.

“What happens is … (novice renovators) try to make decisions on the fly, which causes us to take one step forward and two steps back, and those two steps back always end up having a hidden price tag associated with them,” said Wade, who also has a degree in mechanical engineering and is a consultant for Liberty Mutual Insurance.

He recommends people who are purchasing a fixer-upper, or have signed the deal, to go beyond the home-inspection report and hire someone such as an architect or contractor to take a more detailed look at the property in view of the planned renovations.

“This is oftentimes what I do with my clients; it’s all about knowledge and knowing really what you’re getting into before you start spending money. It’s one of the best things that you can do,” he said.

For most build projects, he will set aside about 10 percent of his overall construction budget for any unknown costs that arise. For a fixer-upper older than 20 years, he recommends setting aside 15 percent to 17 percent.

The mechanical elements of a project — electricity, plumbing, heating and cooling — should be installed or repaired by licensed experts, he said. But, he added, projects such as painting or installing drywall or flooring can be tackled by DIYers who have the skill and know-how. Local contractor Shane Hayes of PDQ Electric agrees.

Hayes, an electrician for 26 years who also provides handyman services, has seen plenty of DIY projects that have gone wrong because someone has tried to save money by going way beyond their knowledge and abilities.

National codes, for example, must be followed to ensure something such as electrical wiring is installed safely, he said. If something goes wrong, insurance companies are likely to dismiss a claim if a licensed contractor didn’t handle the work.

Although bad wiring is a fire hazard, poorly installed plumbing can cause flooding in the home or even a backflow of methane gas, which can be explosive, he added.

Hayes also advises amateur renovators to break a project into specific tasks and decide what each will require in time, money and skills. DIYers may want to save money on a backyard makeover by picking up and hauling the landscape rock on their own but pay an expert to install patio lighting.

Tasks such as installing baseboards may seem straightforward enough, but if the tools have to be purchased it could cost $500 to $700, he added. In those instances, it may make sense to hire the work done.

Wade recommends spending the money on licensed contractors for foundational or structural work, such as the plumbing and electrical. He also suggests investing in the rooms that are going to be used the most and in hardware that gets constant use, such as faucets, toilets and doorknobs.

It’s also important to design a room or home based on personal tastes and needs, not just what’s popular at the moment, Wade said. In other words, do you need that big kitchen island or walk-in closet? Does the living room design in the magazine photo really make sense for your family?

One element in those reality shows is spot-on: Unexpected problems will crop up.

Hayes sees it all the time, whether it’s asbestos in the popcorn ceiling, black mold behind the walls or dry, cracked wiring. Sometimes they are the kind of issues that will “blow your budget right out of the water,” if you’re not prepared, he said.

He even has his own story to tell. During a project to replace the kitchen cabinets in his home and install new lighting, he found a major plumbing issue from the original builders that needed repair. The project went on from there, including the replacement of some old telephone wiring and cable TV systems.

“I have the know-how but it’s taken me three months to get my kitchen back in order,” he said with a chuckle.

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