When to call in the pros after a DIY project cries out for help

Mark Allen had a bit of a problem. The 52-year-old barber from Baldwin had finally upgraded his 75-gallon fish tank to an impressive 220-gallon aquarium. Thrilled with his purchase, he wanted to show off the beautiful new addition, which he planned to stock with fish such as African cichlids, oscars and tinfoil barbs. That, he reasoned, should be a pretty simple task because the new tank would simply replace the old one in a prominent spot on the first floor of his two-story home. It would be featured in his living room, against the stairway to the second floor.

“I knew where I wanted it to go but I just couldn’t figure out how to make it look right,” Allen said. “I wanted it to appear both spectacular and calming at the same time. No matter how I tried to configure it, though, I couldn’t do that new tank justice.”

Allen mentioned his problem to one of his clients, Damion Chambers, who happened to be the owner of Better Horizons Solutions, a Rockville Centre-based home improvement company, whose rates start at $150 for small jobs. Chambers offered to take a look at the project and help figure it out.

“What a great move that turned out to be,” Allen said. Rather than place it on the floor, a plastic lid or a table as Allen had been thinking, Chambers suggested building a custom case with pinewood planks and recessed lighting to house the tank and make it stand out.

“I hadn’t even considered that option,” said Allen, who spent $5,500 for labor and materials. “I really liked his vision, and that he was flexible and able to work within my budget. Now my aquarium looks great! Everyone who visits my home instantly falls in love with it. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to call in the pros.”

Contractor Damion Chambers, left, with Baldwin homeowner Mark Allen after...

Contractor Damion Chambers, left, with Baldwin homeowner Mark Allen after installing Allen’s new 220-gallon fish tank.
Credit: Howard Simmons

When to hire a pro

At what point do you throw in the towel and call the pros? The answer can depend on several factors, according to local home improvement experts. While many Long Islanders are capable of tackling home repairs, upgrades and do-it-yourself projects with a little online research to point them in the right direction, individual skills, time constraints, budgets and a host of other considerations should factor into the decision.

“It’s easy to get overwhelmed before you even start, or to bite off more than you can chew,” said Chambers. “As soon as you feel yourself getting stuck or bogged down, or if you get the sense that things aren’t progressing quite right, it’s time to consider making that call. Waiting until you get further into the project will likely cost you more money and time in the end, because any pro you eventually hire will probably have to undo some of what you’ve already started if things haven’t been working out right.”

Overwhelmed is how Juliet Laor, 41, a school psychologist from Valley Stream, felt about the basement clean-out she and her husband, Doron, 46, a high school teacher, were considering. “We’ve talked about starting this job for the last five years,” she said. “Once we finally admitted that we might never get around to doing it on our own, making the call was a logical solution.”

That’s really par for the course, but it takes some people longer to realize they don’t have — or won’t make — the time necessary to get a job done. “Even something that sounds as basic as a basement clean-out can require more thought and effort than you think at first,” said Larry Jackson Jr. of J&J Garage and Basement Clean-ups in Hempstead, who tackled the job for the Laors with his business partner, Kevin James.

Letting go

Kevin James, left, and Larry Jackson Jr. of J&J Garage and Basement...

Kevin James, left, and Larry Jackson Jr. of J&J Garage and Basement Clean-Ups clear out a garage at a house in Valley Stream.
Credit: Johnny Milano

There’s a logic to these tasks, Jackson says. With basement or garage cleanups he’ll stop by to provide an estimate. Often there’s a ton of stuff and the homeowners are having trouble deciding what to keep and what to toss. Providing colored stickers, orange for saving and yellow for tossing, is one way the clean team gets the ball rolling.

“Once people start putting stickies on things, it gets easier,” said Jackson. “If they complete that task, they don’t even need to be around when the actual clean-out gets done. If you have items you’re not sure about keeping, we’ll tell you if we think they should be tossed or, perhaps, that they are valuable. We’ll take what needs to go out, consolidate items to be saved, and organize and tidy everything to make it look as nice and clean as possible. Most cleanups can be done in a single day.” His company typically charges $350 to $500 for a cleanup, depending on the size and difficulty of the job.

Cleaning out a cluttered basement, garage or attic might not seem a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but it can be exceptionally liberating. “It was a weight lifted off our backs,” said Juliet Laor, “The crew did an amazing job and it’s one less thing we have to worry about. For us, calling in a professional proved the best choice.” She said the bill came to $400.

Kevin James, left, and Larry Jackson Jr. of J&J Garage and Basement...

Kevin James, left, and Larry Jackson Jr. of J&J Garage and Basement Clean-Ups clear out a garage in Valley Stream.
Credit: Johnny Milano

Of course, the bigger the job, the more important it is to consider having a licensed and insured contractor or home improvement specialist step into the batter’s box, advises Frankie DeNicola of Southold-based Diamond Home Care Maintenance. He’s been called to fix many projects that went awry over the years. “From simple things like painting trim, to crown molding, flooring, bathroom remodels and building backyard patios or decks, people often overestimate their skills and underestimate the cost and time needed to complete pet projects.”

He charges $65 an hour with a two-hour minimum, plus materials.

Trouble spots

Ariel Kruger and Phillip Sabina on the new staircase at...

Ariel Kruger and Phillip Sabina on the new staircase at their Selden home. Sabina had second thoughts about building the steps himself and hired a pro to do the job.
Credit: Morgan Campbell

Decks, patios and stairways are three areas DeNicola notes as DIY trouble spots. “That patio you install in your backyard might look level to you, but if it’s tilted an inch or so toward your home, you’re going to have water draining into your house. In actuality, it should slant at least a quarter-inch per foot away from any adjoining structure. With decks, there’s a few tricks you’ll need to discover to ensure the railings are super sturdy,” he noted. “I had to rework one deck where the homeowner bought the materials, started the job — and ripped it up three times. That gets expensive, especially when using synthetic decking materials.”

Steps, said DeNicola, can be a real tripping point. They need to be spaced properly. If the rise from one step to the next is inconsistent, too high or too low, someone is eventually going to fall on your property. “That can lead to injury, or even a substantial lawsuit. Add in what you need to know about local building codes, and which permits apply to which projects, and there’s more to this than you might think.”

Philip Sabina made the right call when it came to adding a set of stairs from the second story of his Selden home to his fenced backyard. The 30-year-old stagehand and his wife, Ariel Kruger, 28, a retail manager, wanted to be able to let their dogs out without needing to go outside themselves, especially during inclement weather and on cold winter nights when they spend a lot of time on the top floor.

“I’m pretty handy so I considered doing this project myself,” said Sabina. “I completely redid the old vinyl floating floor on the lower level of this house, and I have no problem tackling small to moderate home improvement projects. For this task, though, I just wasn’t skilled enough.”

Sabina contracted Seth Weaver of WMS Handyman Services in Ronkonkoma, to work on the steps, which came to $3,500.

“Seth involved us in the planning, asked how we wanted the layout to look, if we wanted to use treated wood or a composite, and how far into the yard the stairs should extend,” Sabina said. “It was nice to have input and control some of the decisions. That’s as hands-on as we needed to be.”

Sabina and Kruger said they feel their home saw a significant upgrade from the stair and flooring projects. “Going forward,” Sabina said, “I’ll keep doing minor to moderate projects and we’ll farm out the tough ones.”

Ninjay H Briotyon

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