How to Survive a DIY Remodel: The Ultimate Guide
Over time, many DIYers level up their skills, tackling small projects before moving on to more complicated jobs. Eventually they get to a level of mastery that allows them to tackle even large remodel projects. But some DIYers hesitate to take this step, finding themselves daunted by the size and scope of the project. Luckily, we’re here to help! The trick to surviving a remodel is to break it into small steps, and to communicate with everyone else on your team on a regular basis (whether your team consists of a hired crew, your family or just yourself). To help get you started, here are a baker’s dozen of tips and tricks to help ensure your next remodeling project goes off hitch-free!
The single most important element of a smooth-running remodel project is communication, and that means asking questions and maintaining an openness to honest answers. If you’re not sure about the best course of action, pull out that phone and call a more experienced friend, or hop over to a site like We do everything by our own hands, where you’ll find all the resources you need to make an informed decision.
As a DIYer, it can be tempting to try to work through a problem on your own, even when you don’t have a clear game plan. This may be the sign of a great work ethic, but it’s not always the smartest decision. Sometimes it’s in your best interest to stop for a moment and ask yourself questions like, “Is it really a good idea to remove that load bearing wall?”
Shutterstock/Andy Dean Photography
Pictures: They’re Worth a Thousand Words
There’s a reason why architects use blueprints instead of essays to communicate building plans. Depending on the complexity of your remodel you might employ anything from sketches to stamped engineer drawings, but the use is always the same: to provide an agreed-upon goal for the project.
Blueprints and sketches aren’t the only visual aides available to you. A collection of inspirational images (often called a “look book”) can establish a definitive goal for the finished project. This is much like the way cook books sometimes contain step-by-step instructions along with a photo of the finished dish. Look at the way this article combines build plans with inspirational photos to make it easy to work with an end goal in mind.
Remove the Breakables
Before beginning work, identify what objects are vulnerable to the shocks and vibrations of the construction process. Most people think to remove obviously delicate items from the work area, but also stop to consider if there are any other objects that should be protected. If you’re installing siding, for example, remove any wall hangings from the interior side of the walls being worked on. The chances of hammer vibrations shaking them loose may be low, but that’s small relief when looking at a family heirloom lying broken on the floor.
If you’re working on an indoor remodel, consider moving furniture well out the way of both the work to be done and the path through which any materials and debris will be carried. When you do, be sure to take your time and move any furniture safely.
Be Honest with Yourself
Just as you need to stop and ask questions as a reality check, protect your sanity by honestly assessing your skills and comfort requirements before tackling a large remodel. Can you really live in a construction zone? Even if you have experience in construction, or thrive in the chaos and mess that comes along with a big project, that doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy going to bed with drywall dust covering your sheets.
Another area that is important to honestly asses is your skill level. No matter how experienced you are, chances are good that a remodel will push you to new level of DIY expertise. Everyone has a learning curve, it’s important to know where you stand on that curve before starting a new project. Pushing yourself is wonderful, but setting yourself up for failure is a nightmare. Analyze a project before you dive in and assess which tasks are best for yourself or others. Some jobs are complex or dangerous enough that they should always be entrusted to pros when you’re just starting out.
Protect and Partition
When you’re working on a home remodel, it’s essential to do your best to separate your working area from the living area. If your project is on the smaller side, then something as simple as plastic sheeting can prevent dust and debris from infiltrating the rest of the home, while also protecting from paint spills. A larger project may take more planning, but if possible, break it into stages so that you can keep a majority of the house comfortable and livable.
If you can’t avoid working on the entire house at once, consider spending some time at a hotel or with friends or family. And no matter how big or how involved your remodel, review these tips for containing dust and debris.
Prepare for the Worst
When it comes to the DIY lifestyle, it’s important to be ready for the unexpected. No matter how thorough your plans are, sooner or later something will go wrong. While you can never know what obstacles will rear their ugly head, it is at least possible to make sure that your response is appropriate and efficient.
If you’re working on plumbing, for example, make sure you know where the water shut-off is before you start work. You’ll also want to invest in emergency leak repair items such as clamps or Shark Bite caps. Sometimes a little bit of preparation will allow you to remedy a setback before it can grow into a full-blown disaster. This Family Handyman article covers quick responses to emergencies ranging from animal invasions to plumbing disasters and kitchen fires.
Don’t Fear the Inspector
There is an unfortunate mindset, common among both pros and DIYers, that municipal inspections are created purely to generate fees and aggravate workers. In fact, inspections can be a godsend for the DIY crowd. They are effectively an opportunity to have a pro double check your work at no cost. Once again, communication is key: when you talk to an inspector or city official, let them know that you’re doing work on your own and you’ll often find that they will be more helpful and understanding of mistakes. While it’s true that there are inspectors who are difficult to work with (the same as every profession) most will be willing to work with you. If you still have doubts, there may be no better argument in favor of the inspection process than this list of 100 jaw-dropping home improvement nightmares.
Shutterstock/Wendy Kaveney Photography
Bring in Reinforcements
Whether it’s because you’ve run into an unexpected obstacle, or are trying to get in front of particularly challenging process, sometimes the best way to keep your remodel running smoothly is to call in reinforcements. No matter if it’s coming from friends or pros, a helping hand can literally be a lifesaver. And don’t think of calling in a pro as somehow giving up! A good contractor can be used as strategically as a scalpel, tackling precision work that requires the years of experience and expensive equipment that a pro brings to the job.
Of course, you can always opt to work solo. If so, here are 19 tips to working alone.
Remember when we said communication was essential for a remodel? It’s true for contractors, it’s true for inspectors, and it’s even more true when dealing with your family or spouse.
Two of the most common sources of disputes between couples include living conditions and money. And let’s face it: working on a DIY remodel means that you’re disrupting your living conditions and spending money. Before a project even begins, sit down with your spouse or partner and discuss the pros and cons of DIY versus bringing in contractors. It might involve a few uncomfortable conversations, but it’s a whole lot easier and more pleasant than divorce proceedings!
Prior Proper Planning
Planning is a broad term, but here we’re using it as the culmination of many of these other concepts. It’s great to have a look book, or to call in help, or to have an emergency kit for when things go wrong. But ultimately you’ll need all of these gears working together.
For some DIYers this level of planning involves a full-blown Gantt chart, while for others it might mean simply checking in with everyone on a regular basis. But if your preferred work style is diving in and improvising, you’ll need to take a serious look at whether you’ll want to tackle a full remodel. Frankly, whether you’re tweaking a bathroom or remodeling an entire kitchen, it doesn’t make sense to try and take shortcuts with your home and safety. Instead, make a plan, check in with your team regularly, and don’t be afraid to change it if the circumstances require.
Stop if Needed
Take breaks for your safety and health! This is especially true if working in an adverse environment, such as high heat or at height on a ladder, roof or scaffold. And never hesitate to pause if have any concerns about safety or the quality of your work. You’re far better off losing a few hours to double check your plan or measurements if it means you can avoid the time and expense of scrapping an entire project. Remember, there’s never a bad time to brush up on DIY safety procedures.
Tools: Buy or Rent
A simple decision that can make a big difference to your budget is whether or buy or rent any required tools. If you’ll need a tool for your remodel but doubt you’ll use it in the future, consider simply renting it instead. Tool rental houses make a wide selection of tools available at DIY-friendly prices, and the right tool selection makes a job much easier.
Alternatively, if the tool will go through a lot of abuse—such as a reciprocating saw being used in mud—consider buying a down-market version from a bargain outlet store. It’s a great way to use the tool without worrying about repairing it or returning it to the store. Of all the sources for these kind of hard-use tools, one of the very best is Harbor Freight.
In the course of your remodel you may lose materials, sleep, and any semblance of your budget. You may even lose your sanity. But whatever you do, don’t lose your sense of humor!
As long as you can learn from and laugh at your mistakes, you’ll find that the projects are much more fun to tackle and the rewards exponentially greater. Keep that sense of humor, and with time you’ll be able to entertain your friends with stories of what went wrong in the course of creating your beautiful remodel. And when they ask about your advice for jumping into their own project, you’ll have no shortage of tips to plan a remodel.