Here's how to know when you can roll up your sleeves and play Ms. Fix-It, and when you'll actually save money—and your sanity—by leaving it to the experts.

By Lisa Tucker
Updated March 26, 2018
Couple fixing house
Credit: Annika Erickson/Getty Images

When my new husband and I moved into a 200-year-old brick house last winter, we faced a looming list of home-improvement projects. We needed a ceiling fixture in the otherwise gloomy dining room. The flooring was shot. The storage was minimal. And—after an epic knockdown, drag-out fight over what design we could both live with—we had to put up a tile backsplash in the kitchen. Then there were the toilets, all of which needed to be replaced.

We knew we could save hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars doing the work ourselves, and as newlywed homeowners, our budget was already tight. But we also knew that if we messed up, we would have to spend even more money to have a pro fix our amateur efforts. Peter Rose, owner of The Home Hero, a Philadelphia-based handyman service, told me he always dreads picking up a message from a client who tried to install a toilet: “If you don’t get the seal just right, you’re looking at water leaking through the floor into the room below – and it isn’t clean water, either.”

So before we pulled on our work clothes and started hammering and wiring, we investigated which projects we could safely DIY. Here’s what we found:

Couple fixing house
Credit: Annika Erickson/Getty Images

If you're a a total novice, start with simple home decor.

Home décor projects involve very little risk of causing damage, and can pay high returns in making a space feel new. “Manipulate the lighting in a room by adding or rearranging lamps and create a whole new ambiance in a familiar space,” says Agnieszka Wilk, co-founder of Decorilla, an online home design service. “Play with different textures and patterns on small items like rugs, throw pillows and window treatments to make a huge difference in a space

But leave major projects to the pros.

If the project has the potential take a risky turn—say, shorting out a circuit or flooding the basement—leave it up to a licensed pro. The folks at Home Depot recommend calling in help for electrical, plumbing, or demolition projects. You could hurt yourself as well as bring the roof tumbling down.

Consider how much your time is worth.

Before you get started on any project, take in to account how many hours you’ll have to spend on it (always overestimate!) and decide whether your time is worth the saved money. “Sure, you can definitely try to install that crown molding yourself—the only bad result will be if it winds up crooked,” says Rose. “But do you really want to spend hours on a ladder with a level when you could be relaxing on the couch with a cool drink?"

Finally, think about whether your relationship can survive the project.

You want to come out of this project still in love with your partner. If your guy is anything like mine, he doesn’t yell often, but destroying the ceiling with toilet juice would probably make him turn a pretty bright shade of purple. If your dream project is going to cause breakup-worthy fights, pay for the repairs, and save the money you would spend on a couples counselor.