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When to tackle a do-it-yourself home repair project, when to call a pro

Here's how to plan ahead so you won't get in too deep

By Gary Foreman

The New Frugal You
New Frugal You columnist Gary Foreman
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner who currently edits The Dollar Stretcher website and newsletters. He writes "New Frugal You," a weekly Q&A column about frugal living, for CreditCards.com

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert Dear New Frugal You,
I'm a recently divorced mom. My children and I stayed in our home after my ex moved out. So cash is tight. To save money I try to do small repairs myself, but I sometimes question what I should take on. For instance, last week I noticed a drip under the kitchen sink. I didn't want to call in a plumber, but also didn't want to make a bad situation worse. How can I decide which projects to take on and which ones require a professional? -- Natalie

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert Dear Natalie,
Very good question! You're absolutely right. Many times you can save quite a bit by taking on a repair job yourself. But, there's often a danger that you could fail, make it harder for the professional and even add to the cost of a repair. So what's the average do-it-yourselfer to do?

The first step is to try to understand what the problem is. Your sink is a good example. It could be as simple as turning a wrench to tighten a loose joint. Or it could be something much more serious.

Fortunately, there are some really good resources available today to help you answer that question. Gone are the days when you needed to go to the library to research or have a big stack of "Popular Mechanics" sitting in your basement.

The Web has changed all that. Just do a search for your problem. Include both text and video results. Unless your situation is really unique, you should find some resources that can walk you through the repair. Many even include discussions that you can join that will allow you to ask questions.

Your search should give you an idea of the potential complexity of the problem. Let's assume that it's something that you think you might be able to do.

The next question to consider is do you have the tools needed. If not, what would it take to get access to them? Often you can borrow from a friend or neighbor. Check with the store where you're buying your repair supplies. Some will loan or rent tools. Or, if necessary, find out how much it would cost to buy the tool you need.

You may be able to perform part of the task, but not be unable to complete it. That's fine, as long as you've planned it that way. What you want to avoid is getting trapped in a situation that keeps getting more complicated, quickly exceeds your abilities and doesn't offer a way out.

One way to avoid that is to think about some "decision points" before you begin the project. Take your leaky sink. You could decide to try tightening the joint that's leaking. If that's not successful, your plan would be to call in a pro.

The trick is knowing in advance at what point in the project that you'll stop and re-evaluate whether it's possible to complete it. Make sure that the stopping place doesn't put you in crisis mode.

Let's return to your leak. Suppose that you find that you can't fix the leak, so you put a pan under it to catch the drip and call a plumber. If he doesn't show up until tomorrow, no problem. But, if your failed "fix" causes a leak in the water supply line, you might be making an expensive emergency service call.

Before you start a project, have an idea where you can find the required repair parts. The places that cater to professionals will often sell to the homeowner. If you think you know what may be wrong, call the appropriate supplier before you start. Check if they'd have the parts you could need. Often they'll even dispense some free advice on how to proceed with the repair.

Before you start you might also want to talk with other avid DIYers. They may have done a similar job in their home or might have some tools you need. Could be that they'd even be willing to give you a hand.

Don't forget physical dangers need to be considered. Some jobs can be dangerous. Electrocution shouldn't be part of any DIY project!

Finally, before you arrange for a service call, make sure that the appliance is worth repairing. By describing the symptoms over the phone, you could find that the most likely repair would cost more than you'd want to spend on the old unit. In that case you might want to skip paying for a service call.

Unfortunately, Natalie, there's no bright dividing line between repairs that you should attempt and which ones are best handled by a professional. So sometimes you'll make mistakes. But, by being willing to take on some repairs you'll certainly save some money. Plus you'll develop some new frugal skills!

See related: When NOT to do it yourself at home, Compare 8 home improvement financing choices

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Published: April 12, 2012


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