You’ve finally bought your first home and get the prized title of “homeowner.” All is going perfectly until — what’s that dripping noise? Welcome to homeownership, the land of unexpected home repairs and costs.
When those unexpected home repairs pop up, you really only have two options: fix it yourself or hire professional home-repair help. Here’s how to decide what is best for your situation and how to afford it.
When should I hire a general contractor and when should I do it myself?
Fixing minor home-repair issues yourself can save you a lot of money, especially for simple matters like clogged toilets or replacing a few loose shingles on your roof. You can virtually teach yourself anything using online resources and YouTube tutorials.
That said, before diving head-first into a DIY home repair, make sure you have the skill set and the time to complete the project correctly. The last thing you want to do is make the problem worse and then have to hire a general contractor to fix the problem and your mistake.
Some home-repair jobs should be left to the experts, no matter how handy you are. Call a contractor if the job requires following a code or needs a permit, like removing a load-bearing wall, or can put your life in danger, like rewiring your home or replacing a garage door torsion spring.
A Tale of DIY Home-Repair Caution
When Jme (pronounced Jamie) Thomas, 41, bought her Redmond, Wash., home in 2016, she and her husband were excited to rent out the downstairs area and live in the upstairs portion of the home. At first glance, the downstairs area just needed cosmetic updates, such as new flooring and paint, so they decided they could handle it themselves. However, once the couple started to strip the area down, they realized the downstairs had a lot of hidden damage. The plumbing needed to be redone and some areas even required reframing and better insulation.
Not only did their “do-it-yourself” home repairs take much longer for the couple to complete, but the project ended up costing three times their initial estimates. Had the couple consulted a professional from the start, they might have known that the space was not ready to be rented out to a tenant. An expert handyman could have also saved the couple many months of work, as well as money, since the job would have been done right the first time.
Finding the Best Contractor for Your Budget
Derek Hales, 29, the brains behind household tips blog Modern Castle, bought a home in 2016 with his wife, Samantha. Although their Phoenix, Arizona home wasn’t considered a fixer-upper—it was built in 1996—the house was experiencing the usual wear and tear. A home warranty saved the couple several times when it came to replacing a water heater, air conditioner compressor, and more. “Neither myself nor my wife are particularly handy when it comes to larger house DIY projects, so we let the professionals take care of it,” he admits.
When his second-floor balcony deck needed to be replaced six months ago due to extreme rotting, the couple’s home warranty wouldn’t cover the cost, so they had to rely on their own savings and research to hire a contractor to replace it. “We received a few different quotes; one from a referral from our homeowner’s insurance, one from a friend’s handyman, and one from a local handyman directory,” he says. “We ended up going with the handyman from the local directory, as he was the least expensive and didn’t sugarcoat the situation or what needed to be done. I appreciated how direct he was and the way he explained the situation.”
Hales adds that he opted for the local handyman because the other professionals he talked with wouldn’t give clear answers about how long the work would take or what it would end up costing. Ultimately, the repair cost $3,000—about what the handyman had estimated.
A big part of homeownership is knowing when to hire a contractor. Time commitments, price, complexity, and level of risk will ultimately factor in to your decision. If and when the time comes to hire outside help, ask family and friends for referrals and spend time reading reviews online. Don’t be afraid to ask potential contractors for a detailed quote breakdown and references.
How to Afford Unexpected Home Repairs
“You have to have money set aside,” warns Amanda Plewes, 30, who knows firsthand the financial damage an expensive repair does. The travel blogger bought her first home in Tampa, Florida when she was 25 and discovered that a family of raccoons moved into her attic a year into homeownership.
Getting the raccoons removed and the attic sterilized cost her $3,000.
“I put the unexpected costs on my credit card,” Plewes says. “With the other balances I was carrying, I was nearly maxed out. I was terrified something else would go wrong!” This moment motivated Plewes to aggressively pay off the credit cards and start saving for an emergency fund. A few years later, when her air conditioner needed to be replaced, she was able to cover the purchase with her savings instead of relying on financing.
Plewes paid for her first unexpected home cost in the worst way possible: with a high-interest credit card that already had a big balance on it. As she later learned, having an emergency fund is essential when owning a home. Aim to build the fund to $3,000 – $5,000, which is the typical cost of an unexpected home repair.
If your budget is still caught off guard, see if you qualify to draw from your Home Equity Line of Credit, also referred to as a HELOC. A HELOC allows you to borrow money against your home’s equity with a limit and interest rate based on your creditworthiness. Another potential benefit of a HELOC is that the interest you pay may be tax deductible, but you should consult with a tax advisor to be sure. If a HELOC isn’t the right direction for you because of your available equity or how quickly you need the funds, consider looking into a personal loan or a personal line of credit. These options could offer faster opportunities to get the money you need for your home improvement project.
Home ownership has many perks, but it can also come with pesky and expensive repairs. For minor issues and maintenance, save money by teaching yourself how to do the job. If you are wondering, “Should I hire a contractor,” then the answer is most likely yes. Don’t be afraid to get several quotes from contractors when a project seems too advanced, time-consuming, or dangerous. It is better to pay a reasonable price in the beginning of a project than to pay someone to fix DIY home-repair mistakes.