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DIY home projects can save you money — or cost you. Here's what you need to know

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It's never been a better time to take a break from watching the markets, as the coronavirus and oil price war put a damper on investor returns. A good alternative is to focus your energy elsewhere, like on improving your home, which can increase its value, teach you new skills, and help you save money by doing your own repairs and maintenance.

Some home improvement projects — like a new deck or a kitchen remodel — can add significant value to your home, which is good if you're planning on selling at some point in the future. Other upgrades can lower your operating costs.

But homeowners should know that they can quickly get in over their heads when taking on a big project. That can lead to further, costlier repairs later on, or in some cases, injuries. Here's how to protect yourself, and decide which projects to take on and which ones to leave to the experts. 

'It's not worth working outside of your comfort zone'

There are lots of home projects you can take on to save money that can be done safely and relatively inexpensively. For example, you can install fixtures to keep your drains from clogging up. That would potentially save you hundreds of dollars in plumbing costs later on. You can also look at easy energy-efficient upgrades.

Salvador Nobre Veiga, a 32-year-old living in Pennsylvania, told Grow last year that he was able to reduce his annual utility costs by 66% by making upgrades to his house. He now saves himself $750 per year. 

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You can also do your own painting — a fairly easy and physically safe task — and enjoy considerable savings, as painters can charge as much as $65 per hour.

Painting "is 100% something virtually anybody can do if you have the right tools like frog tape [painters' tape], and the best quality brushes and a good quality paint," Laurie Jennings, director of Good Housekeeping Institute, told Grow last year.

All told, the average homeowner spends around $9,000 per year on upgrades and maintenance, according to data from Home Advisor. While doing the work yourself may allow you to avoid some of those costs, make sure you're confident in your abilities.

Take it from one of the Property Brothers, licensed contractor Jonathan Scott: "There are a million projects you can take on," he said at the recent Property Brothers and Chase on Sweat Equity event in New York City. "It's not worth working outside of your comfort zone."

Still, enterprising homeowners should be aware that working on your home is dangerous, and that injuries are relatively common — and they can be expensive.

The dangers of DIY

The main dangers with DIY home improvement or renovation projects are that you could hurt yourself and potentially incur medical expenses, or cause damage to your home, which might mean bringing in a professional to fix or finish it.

That could end up costing more money than if you had hired the pro in the first place, as a general contractor can charge up to 25% of the completed project's cost for labor. That's potentially hundreds or thousands of dollars.

For those who plan to push ahead, injuries are a real concern. Even if you're doing something mundane that may require you to climb a ladder, mow the lawn, or swing a hammer, the chances that you'll get hurt are higher than you might think.

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A new survey from insurance and financial product provider Guardian says that 20% of Americans who take on a DIY home improvement project experience injuries serious enough to require medical attention. And 5% of respondents say they were injured so severely that they required long-term care, or multiple follow-ups with doctors.

The most dangerous projects, per Guardian's analysis, involve carpentry, fixture installation, and landscaping.

"The data shows that 77% of Americans take on DIY projects," says Mike Estep, vice president of group products and worksite leader for Guardian. But in the event that you're injured on a DIY project, you may be reluctant to use health insurance to cover the costs, often because their deductible is higher than the cost of care.

The average emergency room visit costs more than $2,000, according to an analysis from UnitedHealth Group, for example. Meanwhile, for people with high-deductible insurance plans, the average deductible is nearly $2,500.

So even if your health insurance policy does cover the expenses of receiving care for an injury, the costs of using it can be prohibitive.

A possible solution: Accident insurance

A good rule of thumb for DIY projects: If you feel that a project or task puts your physical safety at risk, call a professional. One way to gauge whether a project will require a professional is by checking to see what permits or permissions are required. Generally, experts recommend leaving projects involving electrical work, plumbing, and structural construction to the pros.

"My rule would be: If you need a permit, you need a professional," certified financial planner Carolyn McClanahan, director of financial planning for Florida-based Life Planning Partners, recently told Grow.

If you're confident in your ability to tackle the task, though, you may want to look at accident insurance policies, which would pay out benefits to help offset the financial fallout of an injury. The specific benefits and payouts would depend on your plan, but in the event that you're too hurt to go to work or are worried about paying a high deductible during an emergency room visit, it can act as a safety net.

Accident insurance policies cost, on average, around $20 per month, Estep says, and are often available through your employer. They can be purchased as supplemental policies. In effect, accident insurance would work in tandem with your existing medical insurance, similar to disability insurance. 

Experts say the idea could be worth exploring, especially if you plan on doing a lot of work around the house. "Understanding how your benefits can work together is obviously a good idea," Tracy Watts, senior partner for U.S. Health Policy at benefits consulting firm Mercer, recently told CNBC Make It.

This story has been updated to reflect the accurate costs of average accident insurance policies.

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