Our house is what Americans optimistically refer to as 'a fixer-upper', which is a nice way of saying that it was the residential equivalent of a bent tin of beans with a reduced sticker on it. Over the past 5 years of trying to turn it from squat to show-home I've learned a lot, and happily no longer find myself nervous of what horrors may be discovered in the process of completing each new project. I now consider myself a hardened veteran of the war against dodgy wiring, woodchip wallpaper and walls held up by faith alone. (Sadly the ongoing battle against the insurgency of clanky pipework seems unwinnable...)
This post is aimed at those who are where I was 5 years ago. That is, just about to jump in at the deep-end with a house that needs some serious renovation, and with the desire to get stuck in and do it yourself. I'm certainly no expert, but these are things I wish I'd known at the start, and I'm glad I know now.
Whatever the job you're considering is, you can probably do it. When you get a professional in to do your plumbing or painting, the guy that turns up isn't doing that job because Particle Physics looked too easy. And that's not me being facetious about tradespeople - I'm just saying that for the most part they're ordinary people, just like you and me, and whatever they can do, you can do too, given the right knowledge, some practice, and enough time. There is, in short, no witchcraft is involved*.
And there needn't even be a huge trade-off in quality of work. What professionals most often bring is speed. With experience it becomes possible to produce a quality finish in a much shorter time. So as long as you can afford to take much longer over what you do than a professional would, you can expect to get a finish of a standard that looks, well, 'professional'. Most of the knowledge you need to do any work in or on your house is out there on the internet, or in a variety of great books**, or will come from practice.
Look at your past work and learn from it
This is an obvious one: write down, or at least remember what you do, and when things go right or wrong try to understand why. Often problems may not reveal themselves until months after you finish a project, so it's important to know what you did in order to know why it didn't work.
Understand what you're actually doing
It's no use blindly following instructions to complete a task without understanding what you're doing and why. Try to be mindful of the purpose of each step, and you'll not only do a better job but also become more confident in judging what you need to do and what you don't***.
Spend time on things you won't be able to see...
Often with work you do on your house, what's under the surface is as important as what you can see when the job is finished. If you're fitting a door frame, or building a partition wall, or laying electrical cable or pipes under a floor, making sure that the job is done properly will save you time in the long run. In short, don't be tempted to bodge something just because it's going to be hidden: it simply isn't worth it in the long run, and you end up spending time and money rectifying the problem. In short, a little DIY OCD will serve you well.
...but don't worry about the things no one will notice
This sounds like a contradiction with the last tip, but it isn't. Next time you're somewhere familiar, that you know has been decorated by a professional - your office, maybe, or a friend's house - take a critical look at the standard of finish. Are the walls actually as smooth as you think they are? Are the edges between skirting and wall, or ceiling and wall, neat and tidy? Are things square? Is the door furniture fitted neatly, or does the door look like it's been attacked by an enraged baboon with a chisel?
You'll be amazed at how many 'flaws' you can spot. The lesson here is that most people, most of the time simply don't notice this kind of thing, so don't waste time on a finish that looks perfect from a distance of 3 inches if no one is ever going to examine it that closely.
By all means aim for perfection, but settle for less.
Buy the right tools, but not necessarily the most expensive ones
For years I'd simply make do with whatever I had that was the closest match to the tool I should have. My advice is: DON'T. There are countless jobs where exactly the right tool will make everything easier, and give a higher quality result. That doesn't mean that you have to buy the best of everything, just a tool intended specifically for the job you're intending to do. Using the right kind of drill bits, screwdrivers, saws, brushes and trowels will make your work easier, and give a better result.
In terms of whether or not to buy an expensive brand-name item, ask yourself how complex or precise the thing is you need, and how much hard use it will get. My cordless drill was expensive, and I've never regretted the purchase - it probably gets more use than any other tool I own. My plasterer's float is the cheapest I could find, and does what I need just fine.
Use the right materials
This is along the same lines as the previous tip. The differences between materials are often quite subtle, but believe me when I say that putting chipboard screws into chipboard, or drywall screws into plasterboard, is a pleasure compared to making-do with bog standard countersunk wood screws. Likewise jointing compound is much nicer to work with than ordinary filler when finishing a plasterboard wall, and cheapo white emulsion paint is good for sealing a bare wall, but not much else.
Car-boot sales are your friend. Most people buy too much of whatever they need to do get their DIY done, and they're all waiting to sell the surplus to YOU for about a tenth of the original purchase price. I've had paint, electrical fittings, plumbing, rolls of wire, glue and even an entire room worth of laminate flooring from our local bootsale, all new and unused, and all at a fraction of the new price.
Old tools are great
While you're at that bootsale, look out for good quality old tools. They really did make them better 40 years ago, so if you can pick up some well-made tools for pennies, do so. A good Record plane will last a lifetime if you learn how to sharpen it, and give a result that is, in my opinion, about a thousand times better than an electric plane.
Measure twice and cut once
Easily the biggest DIY cliché out there, but it's also TRUE. I definitely learned this one the hard way. The extra investment of time in 'unnecessary' checking of measurements pays huge dividends in the avoidance of stupid mistakes.
There are a lot of manufacturers out there who want your money in return for their latest time-saving DIY gimmick. Don't be sucked in. Whatever it is, ask yourself if you'd catch a professional decorator / plumber / electrician / builder using it. If not, there's probably a good chance that it won't save you time and will cost you money.
Look at what the professionals do
There's a wealth of information out there, especially videos, and seeing how someone who does something for a living works is pretty invaluable. Whatever the job is that you're about to attempt, try to see how a pro does it first. If you see builders or other tradespeople at work, pay attention to the tools they use. Two things I always seems to spot, for instance, are a cheap hardpoint carpenter's saw, and a decent Makita cordless drill.
Work methodically, and enjoy the results
Don't tackle your whole house in one go. Pick a room, fix it, decorate it, furnish it, and enjoy being in it before you move onto the next thing. It's a truly satisfying experience to use a room and know that your hard work is the reason it is as nice as it is!
* Apart from Plasterers. Any human who can mix powder with water to make pink mud, and then turn that into a gypsum-mirror on your wall is clearly a witch, and should be feared. You'll notice when you see a plasterer at work they whisper incantations under their breath while they plaster. Witches. All of them.
** Believe it or not, the 'Readers Digest Complete DIY Manual' is probably one of the best books you can own from this point of view. I'd also recommend owning some specialist manuals on electrics and plumbing that include the most up-to-date regulations.
*** For example, when you join two pieces of skirting board together along the same wall you're supposed to cut both at 45 degree angles. Seems like a waste of time compared to the easier approach of cutting both off flush. That is until you actually try it and realise that the 45 degree cut makes it much easier to disguise the join. The extra time it takes to cut the angles is more than made up for by the time saved trying to get a smooth result.