Do-It-Yourself, Contractor or Both?

Do-It-Yourself Basement Finishing, Contractor or Both?

finishing a basement
Finishing a basement is a big job, but high quality results are possible for any able bodied person willing to put in the work. For some people a combination of professional help and DIY works well.

As I mentioned earlier in the course, the know-how here is for two kinds of people. If you want to finish your own basement entirely with your own hands, this course will show you what a really good job is all about, right down to the nitty-gritty details. If you want to hire a professional in an intelligent and informed way to do all the work for you, this course will teach you what to ask about ahead of time, and what to look for on site as the work is progressing.  The knowledge in this course applies no matter what your approach.

Depending on your personality, you face different dangers when it comes to deciding how to get the job of finishing your basement done. If you’re a handy optimist, your tendency might be to under-estimate the time and skills required. You’ll have no trouble starting the job, plunging right in with enthusiasm and energy, but a year or two out you’re still not done. Why? You over-estimated your ability to handle the quantity of work involved in finishing a basement in a disciplined way. It happens all the time. Finishing a basement is a big job made bigger by the fact that so many people spend unproductive hours each day on screens these days.

On the other hand, if your tendency is to be over-cautious and pessimistic, then you might shy away from the work (and financial savings) that you could have otherwise enjoyed, opting for a contractor for all the work when you really didn’t need one. Finishing a basement may be a big job, but it is not rocket science. Many people are quite capable of doing the work themselves. Once you understand the critical issues and optimal design approaches, you’d be surprised how simple the work is and how easy it is to create better-than-average results.

So how can you decide whether you should take on the work yourself or hire it out? Some self-assessment questions can help. The main thing to keep in mind is that the crucial factor is not so much about skills (which you can acquire) but rather about the time and personal energy you have to devote to the project. Here are some things to think about . . .

Do You Have the Ambition to Finish Your Basement?

It takes hundreds of hours of labor to finish a basement. And if you’re like most of us, this is time you need to find after work and away from family commitments. Are you willing to make this sacrifice, or would you rather pay someone else to do it? For most of us with home improvement projects, it’s what you accomplish after 6pm on a regular workday that counts. Puttering around on Saturday mornings only won’t get your basement finished in anything like a practical timeline.

Do You Like Working With Your Hands?

Sure, you want a finished basement, but do you also have an interest in tackling the work yourself? Finishing a basement is a large enough project that you need to have some sense of satisfaction in the work itself to give you the stamina. You don’t need to be great with tools, but you do need to enjoy working with them. If you hate the idea of hands-on labour, and are only interested in having a finished basement as cheaply as possible, then you probably shouldn’t tackle the work yourself.

Do You Have the Finances?

The cost of hiring someone to finish your basement can easily be double or triple the cost of materials alone. This means that a basement finishing job that consumes $10,000 worth of materials might require an additional $20,000 to $30,000 of labour to build. Sometimes a strong desire for a finished basement coupled with a small budget can do wonders for your personal motivation.

It’s not unusual to hear homeowners say that their time is worth more than the $20, $30 or $50 an hour that a basement contractor might charge for each person on the job, so it makes sense for them to work at their jobs and pay for all work rather than do anything themselves. This argument may be true for people who earn huge amounts of money, but it’s not as true as you might think for the rest of us. The thing is, few people actually crunch the numbers before forming their opinion. While most homeowners will progress much more slowly than a contractor, as a homeowner you also have advantages you might not realize. Click below to listen to an audio lesson on the hidden efficiencies of doing things yourself.

AUDIO: The Hidden Advantages of Doing it Yourself

As you’re deciding how to handle the work of your basement project, consider the main pros and cons of DIY basement finishing versus contractor finishing:

Do-It-Yourself Basement Finishing Approach


  • Saves lots of money, even considering the cost of buying tools
  • Provides the satisfaction of working with your own hands on your own house
  • Allows the project to unfold slowly or in stages, providing more time for decisions and to earn money to cover costs without debt



  • Makes the project take longer to complete (usually)
  • Takes time away from recreation, family and friends
  • Physically tiring with some potential dangers


Contractor Basement Finishing Approach


  • Potentially faster project completion
  • Requires much less personal time



  • Costs 200% to 300% more money than the DIY option
  • Faster pace of project completion makes it harder to monitor details
  • Reliance on contractor to do a good job even when you’re not looking

Thinking of hiring a contractor? This is the best approach for some people, but you need to be careful. Hiring an incompetent or dishonest contractor will cause huge problems. I’ve seen it happen. Click below for an audio lesson on how to choose a contractor wisely and to learn about the main (and not so obvious) drawbacks of working alongside your contractor as a “helper”.

AUDIO: How to Choose & Manage a Contractor Wisely

If you do decide to hire a contractor, make sure every detail of the work required is listed as part of an actual signed contract. Good contracts make good basements. Be sure to look at the downloadable PDF file I’ve included here. It describes all the main points that should be covered by a contractor. This file comes from the Canadian Homebuilders Association but the details apply no matter where you live.

Guide to Renovation Contracts

Tools, Building Codes & Inspections: Lots of people wonder about these questions . . . don’t tools cost too much to make it worthwhile buying them for one project? How could I follow building codes if I’ve never finished a basement before? I have no idea how the inspection process works and I’m unsure of myself.

These are the kind of unknowns most homeowners face when it comes to choosing a DIY or contractor approach for finishing a basement. The good news is that the whole business of tools, codes, permits and inspections is simpler and less expensive than it seems. I’m not saying that everyone should tackle their basement finishing project without professional help, but you should know the facts before you decide.

Tool Cost: For more than 25 years the cost of tools has been dropping in real terms, while the quality of pro-grade models has skyrocketed. Assuming a contractor charges $25 per hour (most charge much more), here’s how many 10-hour days it takes to pay off the cost of various professional-grade power tools in wages saved. You don’t necessarily need to buy these particular models (though they are my favourites), but it just gives you an idea of tool price versus the cost of labour:

Cordless Combo Tool Kit = $500; 2 days wages for one person

* Based on the DEWALT DCK940D2 kit including drill, impact driver, reciprocating saw, circular saw, grinder, multi-tool, job site radio, batteries and charger.


Portable table saw = $350; 1 1/2 days wages for one person

* Based on the Bosch GTS1031 jobsite tablesaw


Cordless miter saw = $550; 2 1/4 days wages for one person

* Based on Milwaukee 2733-21 7 1/4” sliding compound miter saw kit


Cordless framing nailer = $300; 1 1/4 days wages for one person

Based on DEWALT DCN692B dual speed nailer


Miscellaneous hand tools = $500*; 2 days wages for one person

* This should be more than enough to buy a hammer, pry bars, chalk line, level, handsaw, drill bits, etc.

The wages you’d pay one carpenter for 9 days work will buy all the basic tools you need for finishing your basement. This time becomes even shorter if your builder charges more than $25/hour (and -most do).  Even being conservative and estimating that you’ll actually need to spend twice as much money as listed above, that’s still less than 3 weeks of wages for an economical carpenter.

Building Permits & Codes

Despite the way personal freedoms have been in decline in some places over recent decades, homeowners still enjoy the freedom to do all construction, electrical and plumbing work themselves on their own homes in almost all jurisdictions in North America and beyond. In fact, local authorities exist to help you figure out what the code requirements are for all phases of construction and renovation projects including basement finishing. Although building codes are based on national standards, they’re administered on a local or municipal level.  Many homeowners are frightened by the idea of taking out permits and meeting code requirements, but there’s no need for fear. Be sure to listen to the audio message coming up to see why.

AUDIO: Why Building Permits are a Good Thing

Construction, Electrical & Plumbing Inspections

Once you take out permits as required by your local building authority, you’ll be on their radar for inspections. These include examinations of structural issues, electrical and, in some places, plumbing. Building inspectors want you to succeed, and they’re available to help you decide ahead of time exactly how things need to happen. Better to visit your building inspector early on and be corrected about some issue that you have planned, rather than to get the same advice after you’ve paid to make it real then have to pay again to take it down.

The Hybrid DIY/Contractor-Assisted Approach

Combining the do-it-yourself approach along with hired professionals can make sense, but only if you focus on specialties. For many people it makes the most sense to hire, for instance, an electrician or plumber to handle wiring and plumbing, while the homeowner does the simpler and less technical work. There’s certainly nothing stopping you from doing electrical work yourself, but a reputable electrician will obtain permits for your project, and you’ll eliminate the need to learn specialized knowledge. Another area where people find it helpful to hire a pro is with drywall. It takes much, much less time for a professional drywaller to finish walls and ceilings than it does most handy homeowners. Drywall taping and finishing is one of those things that you can only get fast at with lots of practice. Are you noticing a pattern here? If you are going to hire help, hire specialists to handle specific tasks. You can hire an electrician, plumber or drywaller just as a general contractor would do on your behalf. Just make sure you talk to these people first and get a clear sense of when during the process they need to be called in. As when hiring any kind of tradesperson, ask for and check at least five references from previous clients. Generally speaking, here is the order of workflow when it comes to finishing a basement and what specialty trades would be required at different stages:

Step#1: Settle on an overall floor plan for your finished basement space.

Step#2: Call in a plumber if new drains need to be installed in the floor.

Step#3: Build rough wall frames.

Step#4: Call in an electrician and plumber to install rough wiring and plumbing.

Step#5: Finish wall surfaces (drywall, panelling, etc) and paint.

Step#6: Install finished flooring, cabinets, sinks and shower/bath tub

Step#7: Call in electrician and plumber again to add switches, outlets and light fixtures; and a plumber to install taps and fixtures as a final step.

Step#8: Enjoy your great new finished basement living space.

Feel like working alongside a contractor for the general labour of building walls, floors and finishing your basement? It’s actually rare that a homeowner has what it takes to offer meaningful assistance to a professional framing walls and roughing in finished basement features. If you’re skilled and fast moving enough to be productive among a professional crew, you probably wouldn’t need to hire a professional crew in the first place. It’s okay to be slow and methodical on your own, but that won’t work alongside professionals. Their livelihood depends on accomplishing much more work that a non-pro can typically accomplish in a given day. Don’t take it personally if a contractor doesn’t want you to “help”, or doesn’t reduce their bill a whole lot if you do help.

By the time you finish this section, you will:

1. Understand the unique technical challenges of finishing a basement.

2. Realize how to assess your basement space to see if it’s suitable for finishing. Not all basements are.

3. Understand that hope and enthusiasm can be dangerous things when it comes to basement finishing.

4. Decide if you’ll do all the work yourself or hire a contractor for all or part of the work.

If any of these items remain unclear to you, contact me with your specific questions and we’ll get things figured out together. That’s why I’m here.

Coming up next section. . . Learn about how basements are put together and best-practice finishing techniques for perimeter walls, partitions, subfloors, finished floors, ventilation, windows, doors and more. And remember, never hesitate to contact me with specific questions. Like every good course there’s a real instructor (me) waiting to help. Click here to contact me at [email protected]