Most New Homeowners Feel They Can Remodel On Their Own — But Here’s What They Should Consider First

published May 1, 2018
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More than half (57%) of new homeowners believe they could remodel an entire room without any help from a professional. Millennials are even more confident in their DIY abilities, with 64% ready to tackle a remodeling project on their own. That’s according to a Home Depot survey of 1,000 new homeowners, age 25 and up, who had purchased a home in the past year.

Now, assuming your home’s major systems — plumbing, heating, electric — are up to code and in good condition, then yes, you could probably remodel a room all by yourself and you should give it a whirl. From demolition to drywall to tiling and painting, much of home improvement is tedious but straightforward work, and there’s an unprecedented amount of free instruction available through how-to sites and YouTube videos.

But when asked which rooms they want to renovate first, the perennial tandem of kitchens (33%) and bathrooms (27%) took the top two spots. And gutting a bathroom can get a lot more complicated than stripping wallpaper in a dining room or adding shiplap to a spare bedroom.

And about those major systems in the walls: Assuming they’re in good shape can be a pretty big leap of faith if you don’t live in a western suburb. Nationwide, the median existing home is 37 years old — built around 1980 or so. But that varies dramatically by region, with cities and dense East Coast states tending to have far older housing stock. In New York and Massachusetts, for example, the median home is 57 and 53 years old, respectively — meaning most of the pipes and wiring is a half century old as well, likely tucked behind layers of lead paint.

In Washington, D.C., which is entirely urban, the median age of an existing home is 75 years old; that means fully half of DC’s housing stock was built before World War II. Using the District as a proxy for other urban areas, that might explain why twice as many city dwellers as suburbanites (43% vs. 19%) surveyed planned to buy a fixer-upper in need of major remodeling.

Home Depot chalks up this DIY confidence to the Fixer Upper effect, as Chip and Joanna Gaines make it look pretty easy (and fun, and whimsical) to turn a dingy 1960s ranch into an enchanting Bohemian love nest.

(Image credit: Diana Liang)

Don’t get me wrong: I love the show and the work Chip and Joanna do. But consider a show like This Old House (the home improvement program to which all of HGTV probably owes its very existence). Where Fixer Upper transforms one house per episode, This Old House focuses on one house per season — because they actually show you what they’re doing along the way, and how you might go about doing the work yourself. It’s a far more realistic timeline that’s less dependent on TV magic.

One other finding jumped out at me: Fewer than one in five homeowners (18%) considered making essential repairs to be the biggest factor in their remodeling decisions. Paired with another survey Home Depot conducted in March, which showed fully half of millennials took on a home improvement project specifically to outdo their neighbors, I’m a little concerned about people’s motivations. Of all the reasons to invest the time, money, and hassle that a remodeling project entails, addressing a major repair is perhaps the most sensible — yet least popular.

And when it comes to improving structures, motivation matters. It’s the reason running through Grand Central Station to catch a train feels like you’re in a movie, while doing the same thing at Penn Station is more reminiscent of trying to find a bathroom in a sloppy basement house party. Chasing trends and one upmanship is generally a poor basis for any remodeling project; if it ain’t broke, think twice before you fix it.

I commend anyone ready to tackle a remodeling project themselves — cost savings aside, it’s one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do. But before you start breaking down walls — jeez, especially before you take down a wall! — make sure you’ve got a good reason for doing so, an honest assessment of your skills and capabilities, and a pro’s number in case things get hairy.