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DIY or hire a pro? What to consider before tackling a home-improvement project

Doing a home renovation yourself can save money and offer a feeling of accomplishment, but it's easy to get in over your head, experts say. Here are things to consider before jumping in.

Plumbing or electric projects may require a pro.
Plumbing or electric projects may require a pro.Read moreiStock

Think you're ready to tackle a home-improvement project yourself? Deciding whether you're up to the challenge or whether you should hire a professional can be tricky.

Doing a home renovation yourself can help save money as home improvement spending increases nationwide. From February 2016 to February 2017, U.S. homeowners shelled out an average of $5,157 on home projects — an increase of $1,869 over the previous 12 months, HomeAdvisor's 2017 True Cost Survey found.

Too, "the feeling of accomplishment you get from doing something with your own two hands is priceless," says Craig Webb, editor in chief at Remodeling magazine, adding that DIY home improvements are a great way to learn how your house functions.

But some renovations are better left to professionals, says Mark Clement, co-founder at MyFixItUpLife, a resource for DIY home remodeling.

So what's the best way to decide whether to do your next home improvement yourself? As Angie Hicks of Angie's List puts it: "You have to determine whether you have the talent, the time, and tools to do the job."

Ask yourself these questions before opening your toolbox.

What are the risks?

Every year more than 500,000 people are treated for ladder-related injuries in the United States, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Clement recommends using caution when sizing up a project requiring a ladder, such as repairing damaged shingles or replacing a second-story window.

Similarly, home projects that require you to handle harsh chemicals can pose health risks, says Liza Hausman, vice president of industry marketing at Houzz, a home remodeling and design website, so make sure you know what products you're dealing with in advance.

And renovations that involve plumbing or electrical work are typically better suited for a licensed contractor.

How much do you value your time?

Labor costs can add up when using a professional contractor. "As a general rule of thumb, about one-third of what you're paying for are the materials, and the other two-thirds are for the skills of the remodeler and their time," Webb says. You can use a website such as HomeAdvisor, Angie's List, or Fixr to get an estimate of hourly rates for professional contractors in your area, as well as prices of supplies.

How much can you save?

Compare how much it would cost for you to hire a professional to what you'd spend if you did the work yourself. The easiest way to do this is to get a quote from a professional contractor for the project and to ask the company to separate the costs of materials from the labor costs. Factor in equipment costs if you must buy or rent tools.

What's your skill level?

Be honest with yourself about your skills. "It's easy to get in over your head," Hicks says. Depending on the project, "if you screw up, you can do serious damage to your house." Check whether you know how to use the tools you'll need.

If you don't have a lot of experience, start small and work your way up to bigger renovations. "Painting a room is a great first DIY project," Webb says. "If you make a mistake, you can always paint over it."

Is the project complicated?

You should be able to map out the project step by step; this is where online videos can come in handy. Home-improvement experts such as Ron Hazelton, Bob Vila and Mr. Fix It have how-to videos on YouTube for many renovations. Pro tip: "Watch the video from start to finish to see what the scope of the job is," Webb says.

Do you need a building permit?

If you plan to alter the bones of your house — say, by adding a deck or knocking down a wall to create an open floor plan — you may need a building permit before beginning the work, Hicks says. As of November, single-family building permits were being authorized at a rate of 862,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's monthly New Residential Construction report.

Will you need a second — or third — pair of hands?

Is the project a one-person job? If not, decide whether you feel comfortable asking friends to help you — but keep in mind that you need people who know what they're doing, because any mistakes they make can cost you money.