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Remodel: Do It Yourself, Or Call in the Pros?

Like many guys, I'm inclined to indulge my inner Bob Vila.

Whether to prove to myself that I can tackle a repair or remodeling chore, or to save the cost of calling a pro, I generally spend a few minutes eyeballing what needs mending and then tell myself: "I can fix that."

So it is, then, that as my wife, Amy, and I set out to reconstruct our master bathroom, I found myself looking around the bath to determine what I could do myself. Demolition work? I'll have everything ripped out in just hours. Tile work? I've seen goofballs do it on HGTV. Plumbing work? Probably no big deal. Electrical? A snap, based on having replaced some fixtures in the past.

But when I mentioned to Amy that I'd tackle various parts of the project to keep our costs down, she responded with, "Whoa, cowboy. I think we should talk to a contractor first."

In the husband-and-wife world of home remodeling, this is the do-it-yourself vs. do-it-right debate. One half — stereotypically the guy — wants to get his hands into the mix. The other half — stereotypically the woman — likes that notion in theory, but knows that in practice projects that should take a few weeks often drag on much longer, if they get done at all.

Part of the debate is about simple competence: Many do-it-yourselfers find out, too late, that their tool belts are bigger than their brains.

But the core of the debate is really the old one about time and money. Is it worth the money you save to spend all the time necessary to do something right? Or is the entire family better served by hiring a pro — and having you concentrate on the things that the family needs, and only you can provide?

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Home-repair wannabes should have that tattooed on their foreheads. Because, as any do-it-yourselfer knows, a little success with small repairs gives you a false sense of ability, a feeling you can pretty much handle the big stuff, too.

In recent efforts I have deconstructed a dishwasher to stanch a leak; built a heavy-duty, retractable support bracket for a wall-mounted television; and taken apart my son's scooter to replace electronic components he fried. So naturally, such a résumé left me little doubt that I was capable of reworking the plumbing infrastructure in our bath, laying slate on a shower floor so that water drains properly, and fashioning an arch in a doorway that was formerly square.

That optimism isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's like the Little Engine That Could: I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. And when we can, it's often satisfying and a lot of fun.

But sometimes, our optimism is met by an equally strong force: the spouse as the Voice of Reason. Perhaps she (to continue the stereotype) knows you don't have the skills, based on the historical evidence. Or she recognizes that you don't have the time you think you do — that with all the games, the car pooling, the grocery shopping, your day job, there aren't enough hours in the day to devote to this project. Or she just doesn't want to live with a pile of crown molding in the middle of the dining room.

That's what my Seattle friend, Jack, says he realized when visiting his brother nearby, who has been working for a while on several home-improvement projects. Jack says his brother has the skills. What he lacks is the time.

"They've been living in this house where you walk in and there are workshop lamps, not regular lamps," Jack says. "There are power tools in the living room, bare drywall around the window, and all the trim stacked in the middle of the room."

So when Jack's brother went on a trip recently, his wife "hired a handyman to finish some of this stuff," Jack says. "She was afraid he was going to blow a fuse, but she was tired of living in a construction zone. So, she just went wild and hired a pro."

What's more, Jack says, his brother is "starting to warm up to it because it's really nice to have it all get done finally. He says he can't watch the process because the handyman doesn't do things the way [he] would do them, but once it's done he says he can't tell the difference."

I called in the pros. And I'm glad.

Over the past several weeks, as our new bath has taken shape, I've watched the various craftsmen work with wood and tile and plumbing. None of it looked particularly difficult; a lot of it I know I could have done. But, honestly, I would have never known about techniques and tools they employ. And while I would have saved thousands of dollars, I just know I would have created thousands of headaches in the process.

The painter is a perfect example. All the prep work and painting for the walls and ceiling will run about $1,200. The paint we bought cost us exactly $72.94, meaning we could have saved roughly a thousand dollars painting the room ourselves.

Amy and I have painted rooms before with fine results, so this would have been no problem. Except the level of work in the bathroom exceeded my expectations. I would have had to repair areas in the wall and ceiling where the electrician and plumber had to cut away wallboard. I would have had to remove the previous wallpaper where possible, apply sealer in places where the wallpaper couldn't be removed, float the walls twice, then sand them smooth and apply a texture, and only then get around to the painting.

I only know of these steps because I watched a pro do it. I'm certain I would have missed some of them along the way and possibly ended up with a subpar result that neither of us would have been happy with.

Moreover, as Amy was quick to remind me, neither she nor I has in our life the kind of time this one, relatively small part of the overall project required. Though I relished the idea of saving more than $1,000, to her those savings meant little because of the great likelihood for frustrations and tension, "and the possibility that we screw something up and then we have to call someone to come fix it, which is only going to add to the costs. I'd much rather spend the money and know we're getting what we want."

Obviously, everyone has his or her own calculations to make in these situations. Some people have the time and the skills to finish a job quickly, while saving a ton of money.

And some of us just think we do.