The Home Improvement Blues: What You Wish You'd Known

by Nancy Crowe

When we own a home, you never retire. We also never graduate, because there's always something else to learn about maintaining "Our House" … sometimes the hard way.

Here’s a lyrical sampling of what many homeowners figure out in retrospect:

YOU BETTER "SHOP AROUND"

Whether you’re looking for a contractor or new appliances, the old-fashioned method of asking people you know and trust for referrals still works.

Of course, we have Angie’s List, Yelp and other online sources. Online reviews can be informative, but it’s still wise to take them with a grain of salt, especially if they are anonymous. People tend to vent and complain online in ways they would never do if they had to be accountable for their words. Consumer Reports (membership required) is a great source for unbiased (there’s no advertising) product reviews and buying guides. And don’t forget the Better Business Bureau for your city or region.

If you’re looking for a contractor, aim for about three estimates and ask plenty of questions: When could you start? How long will it take? What experience do you have with this specific type of job? What do you like best about this work? Listen carefully to the answers, and don’t be afraid to go with your gut.

Free Home Shopping Guide

I DID IT "MY WAY"

Do it yourself and save money, or hire someone? DIY resources are more plentiful and accessible than ever, thanks to workshops and support available at retail stores and, of course, YouTube videos. The best thing about DIY: You see the tangible results of your work every day.

The worst thing about DIY: You see the tangible results of your work every day. It could turn out great. If not, will you be able to live with it, or will that slightly crooked cabinet mock you every time you walk by?

It’s also important to factor in sufficient time and money to complete the project. Contractors will generally be able to buy the materials for less than you will pay, and they own the tools you may have to borrow or rent. Give yourself time to figure it out, goof something up and do it over. It happens.

If you want to build your confidence, Bob Vila suggests projects that can seem small but deliver big results, such as:

• Painting one wall in a room with a bold color

• Switching out a faucet

• Installing weatherstripping around doors and windows

• Pressure-washing your siding

If what you are contemplating doing yourself involves messing around with electrical lines or natural gas pipes, leave that to the pros. Playing with plumbing may not be as hazardous, but mistakes can be very costly. Also check your neighborhood association covenants and local building codes. It may be easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission, but it could very well cost more.

A Bankrate.com article details factors to consider when deciding whether to do it yourself or hire someone, including a hybrid option of being your own general contractor and farming out the work to subcontractors.

"LITTLE THINGS MEAN A LOT"

Frances Brooks and her husband recently replaced the kitchen sink, counter and dishwasher of their 1944 Cape Cod home in Fort Wayne. “We are loving the results — just needed to pay more attention to the little things,” she said.

Such as: She wished she’d noticed there was not a vent in the new dishwasher, as her dishes don’t ever seem to dry completely. She said they also should have used refrigerator slides, as moving it back and forth resulted in a small tear in the flooring (area rug to the rescue).

They also added end caps to the new countertop, which, “as it turned out, our old one didn’t have,” Brooks said. “This resulted in a happy accident, though. We are tall and this added height to our countertop, which is better on our backs — less bending over to cut and chop!”

Do your research, be smart about what you do yourself and pay attention to the details … and yours, too, could be a very, very, very fine house.

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