There are three kinds of home improvement projects. The first are the easy ones, like changing out the knobs on kitchen cupboards or bathroom vanities. They may take several hours, but they come with zero risk. At the other end of the spectrum are the jobs that require real expertise and/or potentially dangerous tools to complete, like rewiring a home or installing a new HVAC system. Since most people lack experience and degrees in electrical engineering, professional help is often needed.
The tricky projects are the projects in the middle — the ones that are outside the typical comfort zone but look so easy in the Lowe’s commercials. These projects are the tempting ones, considering that success could save a substantial amount of money plus give legit DIY (that’s Do It Yourself) bragging rights.
Before venturing forth with a DIY undertaking, consider some wise advise from a few non-professionals who’ve successfully tackled four common bathroom projects and are willing to share what they learned along the way. Although each experienced a few unexpected challenges, they completed their projects successfully and are thrilled with the results. They saved money and picked up skills that will help them take on their next home improvement projects.
Two of the projects can be done in a morning or an afternoon each. One will take a whole day. Plan on spending a weekend to finish the fourth. Then sit back, and wait for the compliments.
Project: Install a new bathroom faucet
Time required: Half Day
Weeks into painting and stripping wallpaper in the fixer-upper home that he’d purchased with fiancée Meredith Sawyer, Stevens Walker was ready to take on something a little more manly. He decided to replace the dated gold and acrylic faucet with a brushed stainless steel model that the couple had purchased at Lowe’s. The process seemed straightforward — until a stray elbow knocked all the piping out of the wall. “The pipe from the wall was old and deformed, and I realized there’d be no way to fit a new pipe into it,” explains Stevens. Instead of panicking, he took a few photos, measured the pipes and headed to Lowe’s. “I showed the guy the photos, and he agreed it wouldn’t work with a regular pipe. We rigged up a connector with a piece of rubber tubing and several clasps,” he explains. “Once we had that problem taken care of, the rest of the installation was pretty standard.”
• Turn off the water to the house before you do anything, and have a bucket and rags nearby.
• You’ll need both hands, so have a lamp in the room that will light the area where you’ll be working. A flashlight won’t cut it.
• Take photos every step of the way. That way, if you need to call in reinforcements, you can show them exactly what the problem looks like.
• Unless you’re comfortable replacing water pipes, make sure your plumbing is intact before you start.
• Before you start, try to unscrew old bolts and screws. In older homes, they’ve often corroded together.
• If you plan on replacing towel bars and toilet paper holders, make sure the pattern you’ve chosen for the faucet is available in other products before you install.
• Choose a faucet that works with the existing holes in your counter.
• Don’t be afraid to ask questions at Lowe’s for advice.
Project: Install a sconce on a mirrored wall
Time required: Half Day
Working with electricity is scary and intimidating. But it didn’t stop Stevens from taking on the small project of replacing a light fixture. Although Stevens had never worked with lighting, he had installed new speakers in his truck and felt confident working with wires. “The previous owners had sconces on the wall, so the wiring was already in place,” he explains. “All I had to do was remove the old fixtures and install the new ones. We didn’t take on hanging the mirror or cutting the holes in it — we left that to professionals.”
After attaching the first sconce to the harness that would eventually attach to the wall, Stevens and Frank Walker, his father, were ready to hook up the wiring. Unfortunately, the professionals had cut through the existing wires, leaving Stevens with only short ends. After figuring out a way to connect them to the sconce wires and the grounding screw, the only job remaining was to attach the whole thing to the wall. It seemed pretty straightforward … until Stevens caught the edge of the hole with his hammer as he was pounding in a plaster screw and cracked the glass. Luckily, the crack was small and didn’t spread. “It was very doable,” he says. “I’m ready for my next project.”
• Turn off all the electricity to the room at the breaker box and have a powerful battery-operated light source on hand.
• Have a partner. One person will need to hold the fixture while the other attaches the wires.
• Make sure your measurements are precise. If your hole is off just a bit or too large, the sconce may not cover it.
• A small rubber hammer will make it easier to pound in the plaster screws without cracking the mirror.
• Be careful — the cut edges of the mirror are sharp.
Project: Paint a bathroom vanity and add new knobs
Time required: Full Day
Experts agree that one of the easiest ways to change the look of something is to add a coat of paint. Although Meredith Sawyer had painted plenty of walls in the house she and Stevens were updating, she’d never tackled a piece of furniture, or worked with oil paint. But when she saw the results of a similar project on Pinterest, she decided to take it on. “Our vanity had a lot of details in the wood, just like the one on Pinterest,” she says. “I didn’t think paint could make that much difference, but it really did.”
After wiping the piece down and removing the doors, drawers and hinges, Meredith sanded it, using an electric sander on the flat sides and sanding the trim work by hand. Although she didn’t like working with the electric sander — she felt that the strong vibrations gave her less control — she did feel it saved time. Another wipe down and a coat of primer later, she was ready to paint. “The oil-based paint was thick, like painting with honey,” she says. “But the finish was great. It looked dated before, but now it looks modern and new, and we didn’t spend a lot of money.”
• Buy more than one brush. Meredith used a 2 1/2 inch brush on the flat surfaces and a craft brush in the crevices.
• Leave enough time for the paint to dry completely between coats.
• To make it easier to reinstall the hinges, put the same screws back in their original holes. The easiest way to do this is to mark their location on painter’s tape and then tape them to the floor.
• You won’t have to drill new holes or fill old ones if you purchase new hardware that will fit into the existing holes.
Project: Retile the bathroom floor
Time required: Weekend
For Jim and Mary Nichols, a $25 sink and a box of hand painted tile turned into a $2,000 bathroom renovation. “We found a beautiful sink in Mexico and decided we wanted to use it in our bathroom,” recalls Jim. “It set off a chain reaction and before I knew it, I had built and tiled a new bathtub, constructed a new vanity for the sink and had tiled both the vanity top and the floor.”
“Laying tile seems ominous, but with the right tools, it isn’t hard at all,” explains Jim, whose father taught him to learn by trying. “I rented a water saw to cut the tiles, which really cut down on breakage. Rent it for the whole weekend since you’ll be cutting tiles as you go.”
Jim’s first step was removing the old tile, which he says was a chore but not terribly difficult. “Just beat the daylights out of it,” he laughs.
Although tile will stick to plywood, Jim recommends using backer board between the sub-floor and the tile because it creates a smoother surface. Thinset, the product he used to stick the tile to the backer board, can be applied as thickly or thinly as necessary to make up for humps and ridges that plague every surface. The key is to level as you go so you end up with an even floor. “It’s easy to apply the thinset,” notes Jim. “Stop, look and use a level regularly.” Lay the tile and, after a 24-hour curing period, you’re ready to grout. “It really isn’t hard,” says Jim. “Mix up the grout, smear it on and smooth it with a rubber smoother, which does a great job of getting the grout into the crevices.” Then wipe the excess grout off the tiles. The last step, sealing the grout, is one that many tile-layers skip, but one that Jim found to be necessary, especially in a bathroom. “It really keeps the grout from absorbing too much moisture.”
• Before you cut a piece of tile, create a model of what you’ll need from cardboard. That way, you can trace the shape onto the back of the tile and follow the lines.
• Don’t get stuck in a corner: tile towards the door, not away from it. But also follow the directions on the tile box and start in the middle and work your way out.
• Buy about 10 percent more tile than you think you’ll need, and a bit more if you’ll be doing a lot of cutting.
• After grouting, make sure to wipe off every bit of grout from the tiles. Once it’s dried, it’s nearly impossible to remove.
• Talk about your plans with another person. Their questions might spur you to think of things you hadn’t thought of before.