It was their first plumbing project. "It was just a small crack in a pipe," says Karah Bunde. She and her husband, Joel, had just purchased a fixer-upper they planned to renovate and rent.
They bought a new piece of PVC pipe to replace the cracked one. "We installed it, glued it, gave it 24 hours to cure. The next day we turned on the water and it busted at the seams. We had extra pipe and did it again, this time allowing it to cure for two days. Same story," says Bunde, an avid DIYer who writes "The Space Between" blog.
The couple returned to the store and started asking questions.
Turns out they had made one of the most common DIY mistakes: choosing the wrong material for the job. "Our downfall was not doing enough research. Turns out we picked PVC pipe for drains and not one that would hold the pressure of water lines," Bunde says.
Whether you're choosing tile, flooring, lighting, or cabinets, making the right choice can make or break your success. Get the right materials by doing these five things:
1. Set a Budget for Every Item
Make a budget for every single item you're purchasing, says architect Todd Miller, owner of QMA Architects & Planners in Linwood, N.J. Otherwise, you may blow it all on a sexy plumbing fixture, but then choose the wrong flooring, for instance, just because it's cheap and you want to keep on track.
"There are always tradeoffs, but having a budget will help you manage the choices," Miller says.
2. Shop Where the Pros Shop
Not to dis big-box stores; they're great for many things. But you have to know what you're getting into, says Gary Rochman, owner of Rochman Design Build in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Heeding the siren call from the big-box store can oftentimes go wrong. You're not getting the service and the professional advice you'd need, especially if you're a DIYer."
For example, he says, "You might purchase treated lumber for an outdoor deck, but no one tells you the nails you bought aren't for outdoor purposes. At a lumberyard, they'll let you know those two items don't go together."
Additionally, Miller says some manufacturers will make two versions of the same product: a more cheaply made one for major retailers and another for supply stores that sell to contractors. "I purchased one product at a retail store that had PVC supply lines, and the exact same product from my supplier that had solid copper fittings," he says. Homeowners can have access to suppliers through their contractor, but many stores also sell directly to consumers.
3. Try It Out Before Committing to It
Robin Flanigan, a homeowner in Rochester, N.Y., thought she was doing all the right things when she chose backsplash tile. She went to a local tile store. She schlepped along her cabinet sample, and they knew her floor — a wood-look farmhouse tile — which she'd purchased from them. "The owner took his time with me every time I went to the store — and there were a lot of times I went to the store," she says. It took her two months to decided on a clear tile. "I thought clear tile would be less noticeable, not clash with the concrete."
She hired an installer who put up the tile on two walls before Flanigan saw it. "I wound up in tears all night and asked them to take it down," she says. The installer did beautiful work, but "what looked great in a small sample turned out to look way too futuristic once the walls were covered. It didn't fit the rest of the industrial loft vibe at all."
Flanigan says the mistake was a "huge budget buster" and posted the torn-down tile on Craigslist. She had a thin concrete backsplash installed instead. "If there's a next time, I would order a box to see if I liked the look first," she says.
4. Invest in the Right Tools
Here's a good place to practice balancing durability and cost: Get the right tools for the job.
"You can buy a brush for 98 cents, but you won't get good results," says Les Lieser, who recently retired as owner of a painting company and now runs Front Range Coating Consultants in Greeley, Colo. "Good brushes cost more for a reason."
Lieser says cheap brushes are like straw, flaring out and not holding their shape. A good quality nylon or bristle brush, on the other hand, will allow for nice, straight lines. For a few dollars more, you'll save a lot of hassle and get a more professional-looking result.
"The same goes for roller covers and paint," Lieser says. "Spend a little more money on a brand name or something of good quality."
What if you need a costly tool? "We've rented a bunch of tools; it's a great option," Bunde says. In addition, many cities have tool lending libraries or a MakerSpace where you can borrow bigger items. "When you buy your materials, always ask what tools are going to aid in your success," Bunde says.
5. Be Cautious About What You Buy Online
Buying things online might be less expensive and convenient, but when you've purchased a 700-pound cast iron tub from Craigslist only to discover it's scratched or too heavy for your second-floor bath, you're going to have a hard time sending it back. "It's important to see and touch the products," Miller says. “And you'll have an easier time with returns at a retail shop or professional wholesaler."
Although it's enticing to think you'll save money by purchasing the cheapest materials and save time by doing it yourself, you've got to weigh the value of your time against the inevitability of things not fitting, arriving broken, or not lasting. Otherwise, you'll be spending your free time wandering the fluorescent aisles of the hardware store rather than kicking back and sipping lattes in your newly renovated space.