How to Tell if Your DIY Project Is a Disaster—and How to Dig Out

diy-disasterWhen you first envisioned your renovation project, it was the stuff of rainbow-colored daydreams. A few weekends of manual labor, a forcibly fun painting party, and your house would be totally transformed. A new you!

Indeed, it was fun for a while. The first weekend you blasted out the walls, ripped up the floors and channeled your inner Bob Vila.

That was 11 weekends ago.

Since then you’ve taped some stuff off, laid down some plywood and covered everything with plastic tarp so the settling dust wouldn’t get into your morning coffee. Is it time to accept you are in over your head? Maybe. Or maybe not. You might need a good contractor, but you also might be able to rally and get this done yourself. Here’s how to tell:

1. Are you on the highway to the danger zone?

Even small DIY home projects are risky (safety first, kids!), but have you tackled something that really could land you in an ER waiting room? Some projects are better left to the pros.

“Anything that involves permitted trades like electric, plumbing, or HVAC repair,” says Sabine H. Schoenberg, founder of PrimeSitesCT and host of ThisNewHouse. “Trade licenses mean something, and you really do not want to learn on your own house.”

Look at your project from a safety perspective. If you could do serious damage to yourself—or your house—you might be better off quitting while you’re ahead.

2. Going through ch-ch-changes?

Sometimes, life throws you a curveball. Sometimes, even a knuckleball! Maybe work has gotten busier. Maybe that one-day-a-week volunteer project has taken way more effort than you thought. Maybe your kid joined the varsity Serbo-Croatian debate team. Sometimes, you find that you just don’t have the time or energy to finish a DIY project. And when that happens, you may decide that it’s easier to let it languish than deal with it.

“It’s OK to admit it to yourself,” Schoenberg says.

If you’ve been too busy lately to devote any time to your project, ask yourself how long your preoccupation might last. If you can give yourself a solid deadline to get back to the project, stick with it. If you can’t, call for backup.

3. Missing a piece of the puzzle?

Money is often a big factor in why DIY projects go dormant. If you’ve been waiting weeks (or months) to save up for an expensive piece of your project, change your approach.

Check secondhand construction stores such as Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore. You can also hunt for missing pieces in antique stores, flea markets, and on sites like Craigslist. Secondhand materials can save you a bundle.

4. More gusto than knowledge?

At some point we’ve all gotten excited about a DIY project and dived right in, only to realize later that we can’t do everything we thought we could.

If you’re stuck on a part of a project (how do you get those tiles to lie evenly, anyway?), you might be able to teach yourself. Search for how-to videos online—including’s library of free video guides.


Know when to call for help—and how to get it

Of course, learn-at-home videos aren’t foolproof. If you’re still at a loss simply watching the pros, it might be better to bring them in, in person—even if it’s only for part of your project.

Finding pros who want to step into a project started by a DIY person is not easy,” Schoenberg says.

But it can be done. Just make sure you’re clear with the contractor. Explain that you need help with this part, but ultimately want to finish the job yourself.

You’ll save some cash overall, but don’t expect the pro to work for cheap.

“They know they will likely have to rip out and redo a bunch of installations,” Schoenberg says. “To price that is difficult.”

But be careful when you’re looking for a contractor.

“The only way to gauge things a bit is by multiple bids,” Schoenberg says. “The right price is usually in the middle. Toss the highest and the lowest numbers.”