Monday, Nov. 9, 2015 | 2 a.m.
Home improvement projects can be fun: Upgrade your space. Redo your look. Fix a nagging problem.
But, as many of us know, they also can be a nightmare, with flaky contractors, repairs gone awry and overblown budgets.
Do you tackle a project yourself or hire a professional? How do you find the right contractor for the job? And how do you ensure that you don’t fall victim to a scam?
Here’s a guide to help you navigate the potentially dicey waters of home repairs. Learn what projects should cost, the red flags to watch out for and which questions to ask.
WHICH HOME RENOVATIONS SHOULD YOU TACKLE FIRST?
The general answer is whichever ones make you happy and improve your living space in a way you’ll enjoy. That said, some projects offer more bang for your buck in terms of resale value. And perhaps surprisingly, simpler, lower-cost projects tend to yield greater returns.
Top projects nationally, in terms of cost recouped
1. Entry door replacement
Average cost = $1,285 | Cost recouped = 101.8 percent
2. Siding replacement with manufactured stone veneer
Average cost = $7,357 | Cost recouped =92.2 percent
3. Garage door replacement mid-price door
Average cost = $1,652 | Cost recouped = 88.5 percent
4. Siding replacement, using fiber cement
Average cost = $14,975 | Cost recouped = 84.3 percent
5. Garage door replacement, upscale door
Average cost = $3,008 | Cost recouped = 82.5 percent
CALL A PRO, OR DO IT YOURSELF?
The answer hinges on an array of factors. Do you have the confidence, will, tools and ability to pull the project off? And if you mess up, what are the consequences?
What to consider
• Cost (both in money and time): Some projects are a snap — a few minutes of work, a couple of cheap parts and no sweat. But rerouting plumbing or installing new windows? That’s skilled labor.
• Tools: Sometimes, a screwdriver and a pair of pliers are the only tools needed for a project. Other times, the work involves tools that cost hundreds of dollars and require skill and practice to operate.
• Risk: Unsuccessfully swap out the guts in a toilet, and at worst, you’ll have to call a pro because the toilet won’t work. Fail at properly rerouting the wiring from your electrical box, and you could die. Big difference.
Don’t do this
There are a host of mistakes you can make when tackling a DIY project, but experts say these are the most common pitfalls they encounter.
• Buying cheap materials. Remember, you get what you pay for. If you can’t afford to do a project correctly, wait until you can.
• Taking inaccurate measurements. As they say, measure twice, cut once. Even a fraction of an inch can throw a project off.
• Skipping the prep work. This part of the job stinks, but it’s arguably the most important. Doing it right will save you time and money.
• Not planning properly. Before you start hammering and hacking, be sure you have a clear plan. If you go too far in gutting, it’s hard to recover.
Replacing a light fixture, light switch or wall outlet
Cost = 2
Disregarding the price of the fixture, replacing it generally is quick and cheap.
Tools = 2
Screwdriver, wire cutter/stripper, voltage tester; wire nuts may be necessary but often are included with the part being replaced.
Risk = 8
However, risk can be eliminated by using a circuit tester. After turning off power to the fixture at the electrical box, use the voltage tester to ensure the electricity is off. If not, go back to the box and try another breaker, then test again.
Overall difficulty = 3
Replacing a sink
Cost = 4
Disregarding the price of the sink, replacing it is fairly simple as long as it doesn’t require the countertop opening to be altered or pipes to be rerouted. Then, all bets are off.
Tools = 2
Screwdriver, adjustable wrench, pipe wrench, caulk.
Risk = 5
Remember to turn off the water supply to the faucet. The valves typically are under the sink. Also, once the sink is out, it’s smart to place a bag over any open pipes and secure it with tape.
Overall difficulty = 4
Cost = 7
You’ll want to make sure to proceed methodically, so the job can be time consuming. Materials are fairly inexpensive, though.
Tools = 3
Home-improvement stores sell wallpapering tool kits for less than $20. Add a level and plumb bob, and you’re ready to go.
Risk = 4
There’s no chance of flooding or fire, but start off wrong or mess up midway, and it could be time to call a professional.
Overall difficulty = 5
Repairing or adding irrigation lines
Cost = 5
This depends on the extent of the project, but irrigation supplies generally are cheap compared to interior pipe fittings.
Tools = 3
Most irrigation materials snap or slide together. A utility knife and an awl can go a long way.
Risk = 8
This is a project in which things can go very wrong. You’ll want to call 811, the national digging hotline, before you put a shovel in the ground to make sure you don’t hit a water, gas or electric line.
Overall difficulty = 5
Tiling a floor
Cost = 8
This will take time and could require renting or buying special equipment, such as a tile cutter. It also could require removing and replacing baseboards.
Tools = 6
Tile cutter, tools for grouting.
Risk = 5
Although you’re not likely to get hurt or cause serious damage, messing up tiling could be expensive and inconvenient to fix.
Overall difficulty = 7
Cost = 7
If you’re pouring a large amount of concrete, you’ll need to do a lot of prep work — digging, erecting forms and leveling the area to be covered.
Tools = 8
Forms, smoothing and finishing tools, a large tub or mixer and reinforcing material are needed.
Risk = 8
The risks include hitting a utility line, not mixing the concrete properly, not pouring it properly, not finishing it properly, not laying forms properly and more.
Overall difficulty: 8
Removing a wall or cabinetry
Cost = 9
It looks easy on home improvement shows: Grab a sledgehammer and start swinging. The reality is anything but. Walls may need to be reinforced; plumbing and electrical lines may need to be rerouted; and finish work will need to be done once the wall is gone. Also, removing walls requires a permit.
Tools = 9
Saws, hammers, pry bars and a number of finishing carpentry tools will be needed. Possibly bracing materials, too.
Risk = 10
Tearing down a load-bearing wall could cause the roof to cave in. Call an engineer to find out if bracing is needed.
Overall difficulty: 9
HOW MUCH SHOULD IT COST?
When it comes to home improvements, estimates for work can be all over the map. You may think the lowest bid is best, but that’s not always the case. If you consider only dollar signs, you could end up with shoddy work or repairs too narrow in scope. On the other hand, you certainly don’t want to overpay for a job. The Sunday surveyed a number of local workers and home improvement companies to find out what common jobs typically should cost. Of course, a reasonable quote for your specific project will depend on many factors, but this is a good guide to make sure a deal isn’t too good to be true and you aren’t getting royally ripped off.
Exhaust fan — $250-$400
If your bathroom exhaust fan sounds like a small jet taking off, you might want to consider an upgrade.
The noise a fan generates is measured in sones; the higher the number, the noisier the fan. A standard, builder-grade fan may be in the range of 4 sones, while a whisper-quiet model could be rated as low as 1.2 or 1.5 sones.
Replacing your old fan with a low-sone model will run about $250 and take about two hours to complete. If you’re putting the fan where it requires new electrical and duct work, expect to pay at least $300 or $400.
Exterior painting — $1,500+
Prices can vary greatly, so get multiple bids and let painters know you’re shopping around. But expect to pay about $1,500 to paint a stucco house of about 1,500 square feet.
That price should include painting the body of the house and the trim, as well as pop outs, doors, shutters and the garage door. The job also should include pressure washing the house and minor repairs, such as caulking small stress cracks in the stucco.
Be sure the painter leaves behind extra paint for touch-ups or to refresh doors and shutters. Also, find out what kind of paint was used and record the color code so you can buy more later, if needed.
An exterior painting job should take two to three days to complete.
Pro tip: If you have solar screens, they’ll be coming down, so it’s a good opportunity to wash them.
Ceiling fans — $75-$350
For those who are handy, hanging a ceiling fan can be a do-it-yourself project. For the rest of us, leave it to the pros.
You can purchase a basic fan at a big-box store or specialty shop for $75 to $175. Installation by a qualified electrician should cost about $65, assuming the spot you want the fan is pre-wired (typically where an existing ceiling light fixture is located).
The job should take 30 to 40 minutes.
If new wiring or ceiling bracing is required, expect the cost to jump to about $175 for installation and the work to take about 90 minutes.
Bathroom remodel — $4,500-$8,500
It gets a little dicey trying to put a cost on a project like this, because there are so many variables. But expect to pay anywhere from $4,500 to $8,500 or more to redo a full bath of 50 square feet or less.
That’s for almost a complete gut job. For that price, you should expect a new tub/shower, toilet, vanity with sink, fixtures, lighting, paint and tile.
Expect your bathroom to be out of commission for about 10 days.
Pro tip: If you’re interested in saving money, talk to your contractor to see if you can do some of the demo or prep work yourself.
Garbage disposal — $85-$510
If your in-sink disposal is leaking or has stopped working, or you simply want to upgrade to a quieter or more powerful model, expect to pay from $165 to $425 for a new garbage disposal with installation.
Popular disposals typically cost $85 to $340, depending on how quiet they are and the size of the motor — a third horsepower to 1 horsepower. Some stores have displays with audio so you can compare for yourself.
If you’re handy, you can save about $85 by installing the disposal yourself. If you’re installing the same brand, you may be able to save time by using the mounting hardware that already is in the sink. When done by a professional, the job should take about an hour.
Pro tip: Consider placing a water-leak detector under your sink. When the device senses water, it sounds an alarm similar to that of a smoke detector. Most of the devices are battery operated and cost less than $15. They also can be placed behind toilets and near washing machines.
Water heater — $500-$1,000
Keep an eye on your water heater for signs of trouble, such as corrosion or moisture at the top or bottom of the tank.
The average lifespan for a gas water heater is about 10 years.
A new 50-gallon gas heater costs about $500 to $600, and you can expect to pay about another $400 for parts, a permit, installation and haul-away of the old heater. Parts should include the new water and gas supply lines, as well as earthquake straps and a drain pan to help prevent damage in the event of a leak. The job should take about an hour to complete.
DO I NEED A PERMIT?
Contractors typically handle the permit process, so homeowners don’t have to. Most bill a small surcharge for doing the legwork, and the homeowner foots the bill for the permit fees.
Whether a permit is required depends on the type of work being done. In general, permits are needed for room conversions, patios and additions; fences and block walls; water heaters and water softeners; pools and spas; playhouses and sheds; or new electrical outlets and fixtures. Permits typically aren’t required for painting and wallpapering; replacing doors and windows; clearing stoppages or repairing leaks without altering plumbing; replacing light or plumbing fixtures; or replacing floor coverings, cabinets or molding.
In Clark County, fees range from $54 to hundreds of dollars. A permit for pool construction, for example, averages $400 to $600 (not including sanitation fees), while permits for patio covers average $150 to $300. Municipalities require permits because faulty installations can cause fires, flood damage and safety hazards.
Every May, building departments in Southern Nevada offer an amnesty program that waives penalties on self-disclosed residential construction work done without a permit. Homeowners must pay the normal fees for permits, inspections and plan reviews but not penalties.
DON'T GET SCAMMED
Follow these tips when choosing a contractor
1. Get recommendations: Use your friends, family and neighbors as resources. If they’ve used a contractor or handyman in the past and approve of the person or company’s work, pay attention to the endorsement. On the other hand, avoid contractors who contact you unsolicited, and don’t hire someone based solely on an ad or coupon.
2. See what others are saying: A quick Internet search should yield plenty of reviews for home improvement companies and even individual workers. If the reviews are negative or lukewarm, find another company. Also, check with the Better Business Bureau for complaints.
3. Check credentials: Especially in Southern Nevada, where undocumented workers are common, be sure the workers you hire are licensed, bonded and insured. That will protect you from unnecessary liability.
4. Ask for references: Call the contractor’s previous customers and ask if they were satisfied with the work. Go out and look at the work for yourself.
5. Get multiple bids: Before hiring a contractor, get at least three written estimates for your project. If prices differ by a wide margin, consider obtaining additional bids. Beware of any bid that is substantially lower than the others; it may indicate the contractor made a mistake or didn’t include all of the work requested.
6. Ask for everything in writing: Nothing is a done deal until it is put onto paper. Don’t agree orally to a price or to details about the project, as that could lead to misunderstandings later. Demand a written contract.
7. Know your rights: Under federal law, you have three days to cancel most contracts that are signed in your home or outside the contractor’s regular place of business.
What to look for in a written contract
1. Contractor’s license number and classification
2. Contractor’s monetary limit, which is the highest amount for which he or she can contract
3. Exact amount due from you
4. Date the work will begin and number of days for completion
5. Detailed description of the scope of the work to be performed and the specific materials to be used
6. Approximate percentage of the work to be subcontracted and a list of subcontractors
7. Detailed payment schedule
8. Warranty terms
Other tips once the work begins
1. If anything regarding the project must change, demand a work order (but try to keep changes to a minimum). Be sure that all change orders are in writing and signed by both you and your contractor.
2. Make frequent inspections as the work is being done. Do a final walk through once the project is completed.
3. Don’t overpay your contractor. If he or she is paid in full too soon, there’s little incentive to finish the job — in a timely manner or at all. Some experts recommend paying no more than 10 percent or $1,000, whichever is less, to get a project started. When the work is half complete, bring your paid total to 50 percent, then close out the remaining balance once the project is done and has been inspected and signed off on. Also avoid making a final payment until you receive a lien waiver stating that the contractor has paid subcontractors.
4. Always pay contractors by check or credit card, not in cash, so you have a record of the transaction.
Hiring unlicensed workers
Contracting without a valid state contractor’s license is a crime in Nevada — a misdemeanor for the first and second offenses, a felony for the third and subsequent offenses. As a homeowner, if you hire an unlicensed contractor, any contract you may sign is void by law, and you could be held liable for any injuries, damages or other problems that arise during the job. More commonly, with unlicensed contractors, you have little recourse if something goes wrong or if your project isn’t completed.
To check a contractor’s license: Call 702-486-1100 or visit nscb.state.nv.us. The automated phone system is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
To file a complaint against an unlicensed contractor: Call 702-486-1160 or visit nscb.state.nv.us.
The Nevada State Contractors Board licenses and regulates contractors in Nevada. It can be a great resource for homeowners, as it offers the following services:
1. Check if the contractor you are considering is licensed and in good standing
2. Check for disciplinary actions
3. Receive tips on protecting your rights in a contract
4. File a complaint against a licensed contractor
5. File a complaint against an unlicensed contractor
6. Report unlicensed contracting activity