How to Succeed at Any Home Improvement Project

Building a deck, replumbing a bathroom, adding new wiring, hanging new kitchen cabinets – projects like these can be intimidating to start, and once started may seem to drag on forever, with results that don’t always match expectations. You can bridge the gap between amateur and professional results with planning and a better understanding of the process. Think like a contractor: get lots of information about the project, draw a clear set of plans, find the proper tools and the right materials – and once you start the job keep moving. The work-in-progress photos shown here cover a wide range of major projects, but even if you only have average skills you can do any of them.


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    Research your project on the internet and in the library and bookstore. How-to magazines maintain easily searchable archives of years of past articles. Manufacturers’ web sites are also a gold mine of information, with pages of advice and troubleshooting and downloadable installation and repair manuals. Most companies also have 800 numbers for product questions. Find several sources of information for your project. Look closely at how-to photos and illustrations for useful information not made clear in the text.
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    Before starting any large project, call the local building department and talk with an inspector. Most provide handouts on code requirements for common projects and are happy to answer questions. For large projects you will need to pull a permit and have your work inspected, but it’s money well spent to have experts check over your work. Homeowners are generally allowed to do any kind of work on their house (if it's residential property) as long as you submit a clear set of plans and have the work inspected. Also, if you’re digging holes, call the local utility company and have them scan for buried utility lines (a free service).
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    Draw your project to scale on ¼-in. graph paper. This helps with the design process, clarifies the construction details and makes it easier to compile a list of materials. It's also usually required for a permit. Draw a side view, a top view and a front view. Use a ¼-in. (one square) = 1-ft. scale, with larger details as needed for clarity. Use a standard ruler with 1/16-in. markings to draw the lines and be as accurate as possible, identifying each part. Making a scaled plan organizes your thinking and saves major mistakes during construction.
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    Keep the construction details as simple as possible to avoid mistakes and unanticipated problems. Projects in how-to magazines and books illustrate standard, code-approved construction practices that can be adapted to fit a variety of situations. Organize your projects around basic building code requirements and intended function and the design will fall into place.
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    Buy or rent all the tools you need – it’s counterproductive to attempt a major project with second-rate equipment. Good tools – compound miter saws, pneumatic nailers are two perfect examples – save hours of frustration and make jobs look better with a lot less effort. The basic hand tools that you need are: 25-ft. tape measure, hammer, 4-in-1 screwdriver, adjustable wrench and large channel-lock pliers, razor knife, square, 4-ft. level, wire-stripping pliers, pry bar, caulk gun and wire tester. Basic power tools are: drill, circular saw, jigsaw, miter saw, power sander, sawzall, 12-gauge extension cords and, if possible, a compressor and a few nail guns. The total cost for a set of good-quality hand and power tools is around $2,000, but with that investment you can do almost anything.
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    Get all the materials you need before starting your job to avoid time-wasting trips to the home center - and arrange for deliveries when possible. If you’re working from a how-to article, the material list will show everything you need. Otherwise, make a list of materials based on your plan. Special order items like windows and doors can take several weeks to get and are usually non-returnable, so triple check measurements.
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    Find sources for good advice at the local hardware store or lumberyard. The quality of advice from clerks working the aisles at big home centers can be uneven, and for a major project you need people who really know what they're talking about. Ask the more experienced people working at the contractor’s desk for advice. Hardware and paint stores also usually have a few really knowledgeable people. Catch them on a slow day (not Saturday morning) then ask them about your project and let them talk.
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    Investigate local lumberyards and suppliers that cater to contractors. They’re staffed with experienced people who can answer questions and give advice on complicated technical issues, and although the prices might be slightly higher, product choices and service are usually better because they specialize in one area, they're used to dealing with large jobs, and they’re set up to make contractors’ lives easy and profitable. Most are happy to sell to the general public (call first to be sure). A full-service lumberyard can quickly translate your plans into a complete materials and price list, size load-bearing beams, calculate material quantities for you, set up deliveries by phone and even pick up returns.
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    Make a list of everything you're doing and work out the sequence of steps. This will help you remember, for instance, that rough wiring and plumbing come before insulation and that natural woodwork should be stained before installation but not nailed up until after the walls are painted.
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    If you have to remove the only toilet in your house to re-tile, plan your work so you can reinstall it temporarily at the end of each day – all you need is a fresh wax ring and a few shims. If you’re building an addition, frame it and close it in before you knock out any existing exterior walls. Staging work in the right sequence is a major part of a contractor’s job, but mostly it just requires common sense.
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    If possible, break your job down into small sections and finish each one before moving on. This will keep a large job from feeling overwhelming. A good trick to keep the momentum going is to accomplish at least one task on the job every day, even if it’s just putting a few screws in.
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    If you’re following a guide or how-to book, detailed how-to instructions may not be completely clear on the first or second reading, but they'll start to make sense when you get more involved in the job.
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    There are two parts to every job – the satisfying rough work when you knock walls down or nail up big 4 x 8 sheets, and the sometimes frustrating finish work where you may spend hours on a few square inches. Finish work can be more mentally and emotionally demanding, but avoid cutting corners - one bad-looking miter joint can make a whole job look shabby.
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    Buy extra materials and make practice cuts first when you do finish work. Be aware that some materials should be cut from the top to reduce splintering and checking, while others should be cut from the bottom. How-to websites will tell you which is which, and recommend what tool(s) to use and how to proceed. Corners, for example, are almost never exactly 45 degrees. Make initial cuts slightly long, then check the fit and trim it. Get tips from a “finish carpentry” search at how-to magazine web sites. Measure everything twice, and check your tape measure to make sure the hooked metal end isn’t bent or jammed – either of which might cause all your cuts to be 1/16-in. off.


  • All projects are full of surprises and detours. With good information and a network of knowledgeable suppliers, you can find a way to solve any difficulties that come up.
  • Projects always cost more and always take longer than you think they will, so be prepared. Line up more money and credit than you think you'll need.
  • For more information, see the external links below.


  • Wear eyeglasses and safety equipment.

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