Author: Stephanie Tinsley Fitzwilliam
I met the Vigeo crew last year when they agreed to finish my garage and do some improvements to our HVAC room and crawlspace after we moved in. That went so well we had them gut, design and remodel our basement bathroom. We liked them so much and they did such a great job we knew that they were our go-to for anything else we’d have done on our house. So when I decided I was going to forge my own path and gut and renovate half our basement to create a movie theater, it felt a little like I was betraying our relationship.
This is the story of how I did this project by myself, with no previous experience, what I learned and tried to ultimately determine: was it worth it?
We had a builder-grade finished basement the previous owner had designed himself. It was…weird. There were entire half walls we would never know the reason for, and out-of-date TV cubbies carved into the wall space under the stairs. It was beige and bland. The steel foundation beams were encased and finished (both the vertical ones and horizontal ones.) There was a room-to-room in-wall window for some reason.
One night in early July, I took a hammer to the half wall because I hated it and wanted to relieve some COVID-related lockdown stress. I knew how to do this safely because when Josh from Vigeo came to do the bathroom gut earlier that year, he handed me a hammer and a hard hat and let me go to town tearing down the walls that day. It was fun. I kept the hard hat.
I learned quickly that in order to tear some things apart, you have to learn how they were put together. Step by step, the beam encasements came down, the half-wall was gone, the in-room window was framed and filled in with drywall and all of the subsequent rubble was hauled up and out of the basement, one wheelbarrow at a time. Demolition is hard, but not just because of the labor. I learned that electrical Romex wires may lurk in places in the wall you don’t expect, or copper water pipes.
I learned, slowly and carefully, how to run Romex wires to outlets and switches. I electrocuted myself exactly once. I learned how to hang drywall and mud correctly. I bought tools. Lots of them. I learned how expensive the good ones are. All of them yellow. Because I wanted them to match.
After demolition was over, it was time to build. But…what am I building?
Hours upon hours of researching home movie theaters to see what I liked and if it was in my blossoming skillset to accomplish. I had no “grand vision”, no well of experience to draw from, and no idea of what direction I wanted to go or if I would even be able to finish what I started.
I settled on a recessed wainscoting look and feel, with pilasters around the doors.
I lacked a big table saw and Miter skills, so I knew making my own wainscoting was out of the question. I also knew that I hated the “orange peel” wall texture so I wanted to cover it up. (What I didn’t know then is that you can just apply dry wall mud over orange peel and then just sand it to get it all smoothed out…could have been a game changer but hindsight is 20-20.) But none of that mattered, because if I would have attempted classic recessed wainscoting on my own it would have been a frustrating disaster. I know that now, I knew that then.
So my solution was to order pre-cut wainscoting panels. A company called Wainscoting America sell these pre-cut MDF panels in whatever measurements you send them. They are extraordinarily high quality, beautiful panels and the measurements were perfect. The downside is that they are expensive. The upside is that it would look incredible, save me a ton of time and I really liked that they would be applied over the drywall for extra sound insulation.
I hung each panel by myself, which was no small feat (humble brag). I messed up about half of them around the wall outlets because I didn’t know how to do the cut-outs for the electrical outlets. I patched them the best I could. It looks…ok.
I had also decided I wanted pilasters around each door. I spent hours researching products via the crappy Home Depot website design looking for ones with the correct measurements and design pattern. They’re expensive and this was remarkably time consuming.
Then I promptly ruined one of the pilasters with a bad Miter cut and had to reorder it and wait on long shipping times before it arrived to try again. (This is something Vigeo would have ordered right away at the beginning…since they would have designed it all first vs. “figuring it out as you go.”)
The only times I hired someone in this process was an electrician to create two new switches and run Romex through the ceiling for the four sconces, and my painter, Bill, who has done the inside and outside of my house. I wasn’t breaking myself in two and spending the money on those beautiful panels only to mess them up with a bad paint job.
Once those were up, I installed the chair rails, baseboards and crown molding, also purchased from Home Depot. Transporting 12-foot-long chair rails, baseboards and crown molding on the roof of my Jeep Grand Cherokee was this wholeass thing I wont even go into.
Doing the crown molding broke my soul; it was hard for my brain to reconcile an angle on an angle and of course hanging them by myself was difficult. I was on deadline at this point for the painters to arrive later that week and working late into the night every night to finish. It was hard, and I was exhausted and burned out by this point.
Determined to have my painter simply walk in and start painting, I took it upon myself to caulk. And since I’d never caulked anything beyond a kitchen sink before, this cost me a whole day’s worth of labor from my painting crew because I did it wrong and they had to undo what I had done. I know how to caulk now. It only cost me a *checks notes* day rate for three entire people.
In the end, there were things I wanted to do that didn’t get done because I ran out of time before my looming painting deadline but also because I was wildy burned out, I was exhausted and to top it off, I had torn my meniscus in the final week of the work. Those little things that got missed haunt me from time to time but are also a reminder of everything I learned in the months I worked on this project.
Finally the carpet was installed – I sprang for luxury Silk Strand super dense carpet from Carpet Exchange with the best/cushiest/highest quality padding I could get from them.
So here I am, recovering from meniscus repair knee surgery, with a beautifully designed home movie theater, complete with custom cognac leather power recliners on order and sconces to die for, with a brand new 4k projector and a 135” theater screen in a black velvet frame.
Was it worth it? DIY vs hiring a contractor for remodeling
Was it worth the effort, time, pain, energy, frustration and cost of learning how to DIY vs hiring someone like Josh and the remodeling team to come in and whip it all into shape faster than I did?
That’s hard to say – on one hand, after he checked it out this morning during a meeting about the patio work we’ll be doing with Vigeo in the spring he quoted me an astonishingly low figure when I asked what they would have charged. I’ll probably have at least two drinks tonight as a result of that conversation. But he took me through how Vigeo would have done it which was really cool insight for me and most importantly for my own self-validation he said I did a great job.
Yes, they would have done it faster because they have the experience. Yes, they already had all the tools for the job. Yes, they have their own non-retail lines on things like carpet. And yes, they could have installed the recessed wainscoting for far, far less money than my custom cut-to-order panels because they could have simply flattened the texturing and then just cut the panel pieces by hand.
But now I know how to hang drywall. And find studs using my knuckle. I know how to remove carpet. I know how to use a plunger saw, hell, I know what a plunger saw even is. And I have a confidence about approaching repairs and doing house-related building work. I have a greater understanding of how houses are put together. I know how to change electrical outlets. I know how to caulk.
I also know that I don’t ever want to do this again, for now.
I know that the rest of the basement work will be done by the Vigeo team. I’m burned out on home renovation. At one point I think I posted a photo on Instagram captioned, “I will never question another quote Josh gives me ever again.”
But it feels good to tell people I did it almost entirely by myself. It’s cool that I have so many neato power tools now.
I think, in the end, I’m 50-50 on DIY vs hiring someone for remodeling. I certainly didn’t save huge amounts of money, but money wasn’t the driving force behind my motivation to do the project to begin with. I also did not save any time, but during COVID, time is something I had a lot of. So if your determination to succeed no matter the cost to yourself is there, and you have time, maybe a DIY solution works for you. If you are leaning towards hiring a contractor but need to learn the basics and how to financially prepare, check out Vigeo’s process here https://vigeoconstruction.com/financing-home-remodeling-projects/.
But for me, during the entire project, I think I kept going because I knew if I got stuck that Vigeo would take my call. They were like my mental safety net for when I inevitably hurt myself or got stuck. Thankfully that reality didn’t happen (until the end with the knee thing). But they could have done it faster and maybe a little cheaper than what it all cost me.
And, importantly, I know they would have knocked it out of the park too. There’s incredible value in having a team come in with a deep bench of experience and skill in design, preparation, process and execution. That’s worth a lot – peace of mind, for starters.
So if you’re reading this, hopefully you’ve gleaned a little insight into what I went through to build this theater and you’ll gain some confidence that you’re in good hands with whatever you are looking to renovate.
Hope this helps you when deciding if you should DIY vs. hire someone for remodeling, and best of luck!
To learn more about construction and cost differences when searching for a general contractor, visit https://vigeoconstruction.com/good-work-aint-cheap-and-cheap-work-aint-good/.
If you are wanting to complete some DIY remodeling projects but don’t know where to begin, start with these small home improvement projects for under $50 here https://www.hgtv.com/how-to/home-improvement/diy-home-projects-pictures.