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Once you’ve decided that you’re ready to make your home more comfortable and lower your energy bills, it’s time to make a choice:

Do-It-Yourself or hire a contractor?

Many home improvements – like upgrading to compact fluorescent light bulbs, buying new Energy Star® appliances, or sealing some of the air leaks around your home – almost anyone can do easily on their own. Other projects like insulating hot water pipes, installing low-flow showerheads, or a programmable thermostat may require a bit more skill, but are still well within the reach of most homeowners. But you’ll probably want to leave the more involved home renovation projects to professionals – like replacing windows, installing new heating or cooling equipment, or adding new light fixtures. Of course the choice is always yours. Here’s a little information to help you make up your mind.

About 25 million American homeowners undertake some type of home improvement project each year. And their trips to the hardware store account for about $20 billion in materials spending each year. If you are planning a do-it-yourself project, be sure you are prepared with the right tools and materials and have the skills to get the job done.

Don’t get in over your head! Many projects that may seem easy at first may not turn out that way when you try them at home. Do-it-yourselfers who are more eager than careful often end up costing themselves more money in the long run. And in the worst cases, D-I-Y dreams can turn into disasters damaging lives and property.

If you decide to do-it-yourself, the most important things to remember are:

  • Safety first – don’t take any chances!
  • When in doubt consult a good reference or ask an expert – before it’s too late.
  • Find out if any building codes apply to your project and follow them – they’re for your own good and may add to your resale value.
  • Check with your local building department to see if any permits are required – it’s the law, and you may need them when you sell.
  • As an alternative, consider the “buy-it-yourself” approach and get a contractor to install.

Here are links to a number of sites offering help for DIY homeowners:

DoItYourself.com is ranked as the top home maintenance and repair site by PC Novice and Snap.com. It has hundreds of topics covering nearly every home project that you’d ever want to do.

Free advice on improving your home, including buying appliances, choosing materials and more from HGTV’s Don Vandervort who has written 25 home improvement books.

Ask the Builder
A virtual encyclopedia of all you ever wanted to know of how and why certain things work? Nationally syndicated columnist Tim Carter’s library houses all of the Ask The Builder newspaper columns and Builder Bulletins.

Better Homes and Gardens
If you're fixing a clogged drain, building a deck, wiring that new addition, or adding landscape to your yard—then this is the site for you.

Bob Vila
America’s handyman - Bob Vila’s site has tons of info on renovating, remodeling and decorating.

HandyArts Handy Home Advisor
Solutions to common household problems and lots of interesting ideas.

This site has detailed information on everything about the home from installing shut-off valves to building a new deck.

The Home Depot, the world's largest home improvement retailer, offers helpful, step-by-step installation instructions online for a variety of home improvement projects.

If you’re looking for a contractor, take some time and care in finding one who will do the job right.Unfortunately, even though their home is a much bigger investment, most consumers spend less time choosing a contractor than they do choosing a car. Most contractors are competent, honest, hard working and financially responsible. But almost everyone has heard at least one horror story of a contracting project gone bad. Smart homeowners avoid these problems by carefully considering at the start:

  1. What they want done,
  2. What it will realistically take to do the job, and
  3. What kind of professional is needed.

In recent years professional contractors have increased their share of all the remodeling work performed in the United States. But homeowners need to be wary of unqualified contractors. The industry remains diverse and highly fragmented. Of the 800,000 or so remodeling contractors, an estimated 70% are self-employed. Although it is still relatively easy to start a contracting business, many fail in the first year. So make sure that the person you’re going to trust to work on your house knows what they’re doing, and is likely to still be around if anything goes wrong.

The California Contractors State License Board offers the following tips in dealing with contractors:

  1. Hire only licensed contractors.
  2. Check the contractor's license number by calling 1-800-321-CSLB or doing a License Check.
  3. Get three references, and review past work.
  4. Get at least three bids.
  5. Get a written contract and do not sign anything until you completely understand the terms.
  6. Pay 10% down or $1,000, whichever is less.
  7. Don't let payments get ahead of work. Keep records of payments.
  8. Don't make final payment until you're satisfied with the job.
  9. Don't pay cash.
  10. Keep a job file of all papers relating to your project.

Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance. Be sure to plan carefully exactly what you want done, what you want it to look like when finished, and how much you have to spend. Your plans, once written done down, are the key to communicating your expectations to your contractor. Good plans make it easier for the contractor to prepare an accurate bid, and can help avoid disputes later on. For more complicated projects, hiring an architect, draftsperson, or a general contractor to manage the project may be a good idea.

Make sure your plans reference any codes and permits that may be required in your area. Laws in California and many other states require new and remodeled buildings to meet or exceed certain energy efficiency standards. Even so, energy codes generally don’t keep up with the most efficient and cost-effective products on the market. So don’t forget to include energy efficiency related details like insulation R-values, appliance energy ratings, or window NFRC ratings in your project specifications. In general, if something you want isn’t in your plans, don’t expect it to end up in your house.

For online help in selecting a contractor, the following sources may be helpful:

ImproveNet is an independent and objective contractor matching service providing links to 650,000 contractors, architects, and designers nationwide. Since contractors can’t pay to be included in ImproveNet’s database you can be assured that your project will be submitted to only the finest, most reputable professionals in the business.

Better Business Bureau
Founded in 1912, this well-respected organization offers consumers information on the reliability of businesses, scam alerts, dispute resolution, buying tips, a variety of other important consumer services.

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