This post discusses something I think about often: when to DIY and when to hire a professional. I’m using refinishing our builder grade stairs as a case study in how I decide whether to buy or DIY for big projects. Converting carpeted stairs to wood: Should I DIY or hire a pro? This post also contains affiliate links. You can read more about that here. Thank you!
Refinishing builder grade stairs: Converting carpeted stairs to wood
Phew, I have been writing this post in my head for a while now. I’m happy to finally be putting pen to paper about something I’ve been mulling over a lot lately: DIY vs. hiring a professional and the value of money and time. And the subject today is refinishing our main staircase by converting it from carpet to wood treads.
The carpet on the stairs is about 3 years old, so not terribly old. But it’s the builder-grade-beige bottom-barrel carpet that gets matted and worn easily. Also, it’s an extremely high-traffic area—probably the most high traffic of the house. Even though we take off our shoes when we get home, it’s still busted.
Here are a few pictures of our builder grade carpeted stairs from two years ago. The carpet still wasn’t in too bad of shape since it was new when we moved in.
Taking out the garbage, two cats, and a busy life have made them very difficult to keep clean. Our special needs kitty also had some accidents on the landing area that were very difficult to get completely cleaned out, so I knew we needed something that was a more pet-friendly solution. Here’s what it looks like now.
Refinishing builder grade stairs: DIY options
Obviously, my first choice was to DIY the job. We have a pretty straightforward staircase—closed stringer-style with no spindles or open steps or funky railings to deal with. The easiest possible staircase to refinish for someone who’s never done it before.
I did a ton of research and watched easily over 100 YouTube videos about replacing carpeted stairs with wood treads. Hours of them, people. I feel like I’ve seen the whole of the Internet. And here’s what it boiled down to.
I figured I had four DIY options for refinishing builder grade stairs:
- Option 1. Sand and refinish what’s under the carpet
- Option 2. Sand and refinish the risers only—replace the treads with something beefier and nicer
- Option 3. Put new treads and risers over the existing treads and risers (so kinda like a bath fitter for stairs)—requires you to cut off the bullnose on the treads underneath.
- Option 4. Same option as 3, except using an approach that does not require cutting off the bullnose on the treads underneath.
Options #1 & #2: Nixed Already
I immediately nixed option 1 because I knew that we didn’t have anything worth refinishing under our carpets. I also quickly nixed option 2 because I’m not keen on potentially messing with the existing structural integrity of something like stairs. That left me with options 3 and 4. First I got to work CRUNCHING SOME NUMBERS on option 3, which I’m calling the totally DIY route.
Option #3: Totally DIY Route
I’m calling this the totally DIY route because it requires cutting off the bullnose on the treads, which adds a bit of complexity and time. The figures below are for 14 stairs (we have 13, but I’d planned to use one for the small landing’s bullnose) and 14 risers. These figures also include my state’s sales tax because I hate being surprised with the sales tax on a big purchase! I’m looking at oak options at Home Depot and Lowe’s.
First up was Home Depot.
Using a 48-inch tread and riser kit (48 in. x 11-1/2 in. Unfinished Oak Retread and Riser), the total was $593.13. These also had the benefit of being available in store, so I could inspect them before purchasing. The price seemed alright, but I wanted to know if getting 36-inch treads, which is all we needed and would decrease waste, would decrease costs.
To my surprise, Stairtek 0.625 in. x 11.5 in. x 36 in. Unfinished Red Oak Retreads ($388.81) and 0.75 in. x 7.25 in. x 36 in. Primed White Poplar Risers ($220.23) ended up being more than the tread and riser kit: $609.04. Not much more. But still more.
Next I ran some numbers with Lowe’s.
They also sell the Stairtek treads, so I ran those numbers. They were exactly the same—the Stairtek RetroTread 11.5-in x 36-in Unfinished Red Oak Stair Treads were $388.81 and the Stairtek 7.25-in x 36-in Primed Poplar Wood Stair Risers were $220.23 for a total of $609.04. Good news there.
The second option at Lowe’s was the RetroTread route. The RetroTread 11.5-in x 42-in Unfinished Red Oak Stair Treads totaled $474.44—much more expensive treads. But the RetroRiser 7.5-in x 42-in Primed Poplar Wood Stair Risers were only $117.63! So it evened out to $592.07.
All in all, the options were roughly similar. I had narrowed it down to either the 48 in. x 11-1/2 in. Unfinished Oak Retread and Riser kit from Home Depot ($593.13) or the RetroTreads from Lowes ($592.07). The cost was similar, so I took a peek at reviews.
Going the Home Depot route would have allowed me to inspect each piece in store, but I chose the Lowe’s route as the better of the two. That was because I could decrease the amount of waste I had by using 36″ treads instead of 48″ treads, and the risers at Lowe’s were already primed.
So I’m looking at $592.07 for the treads and risers. We have a nail gun, plenty of nails, a saw, and the tools necessary to remove the bullnose. So other costs would include the tread measuring tool, glue, stain, finish, wood for the landing, shoe molding for the landing, and probably some miscellaneous supplies I’m not thinking of.
I added in a bit of overage, which ALL big projects have, and settled on adding an additional $250 to my figure. For the ease of comparisons, we’ll say it would probably cost me about $850 to DIY my own stairs using the RetroTread method.
But that’s just in materials. Let’s talk about the value of time, which is so rarely taken into consideration. I am a big believer in saving money through sweat equity, but I’m also a busy working mom of a 1-year-old and need to maximize my time. Truth be told, if I didn’t have a kid, I’d already have that carpet ripped up without a second thought (for better or for worse).
But living in a construction zone is never fun, especially when it’s the main thoroughfare of the home and you have a baby and two cats who will track everything everywhere and drive me to depths of insanity that even Deebot can’t fix.
So how long would it take me? I estimated the following:
2-3 Days (carpet still down, all done in garage)
- Cut and stain treads and landing flooring—I’d trim and touch up stain later if needed
- 2nd coat of stain—I knew from my stain test I’d probably need two coats
- 1–3 coats of poly on treads and landing flooring
- 1 coat of paint on risers
- 2 coats of water-based urethane on risers for extra protection
1-2 Days (construction starts)
- Remove carpet
- Pull up tacks, staples
- Cut off bullnose
- Sand everything smooth
- Install treads and risers working from bottom
- Install landing and shoe molding
- Fill nail holes
- Touch up stain and paint
- Caulk where necessary
7 Days. And with two day jobs, a one-year-old, and everything needing to be done in the garage, this is ambitious. I’d probably have to take a day or two off work while the baby is at daycare and send her to Grammy’s over a weekend so we can plow through work. And even with that, we’re probably looking at 2 weeks as a more-realistic-but-still-
You guys, I have already put A LOT OF WORK into this project, and I still haven’t purchased anything and I still have my disgusting pee pee carpet. I’ve even tested stains on a piece of oak to see how close of a match I could get to our floors! (Big piece is our flooring, bottom right is the match I got using two coats of Varathane Kona.)
And we still haven’t touched DIY option 4: Put new treads and risers over the existing treads and risers using a system that does not require cutting off the bullnose. So a more plug-and-play solution.
Option #4: Plug-and-Play DIY Route
I’m calling this the plug-and-play DIY route because it doesn’t require cutting off the existing bullnose on the treads. You could do this by adding a space under the bullnose to make the treads and risers flush with one another, but there are building codes for staircases that—again—I don’t want to mess with. We want to sell our house one day and not have funked it all up in the meantime, and I don’t know what code is in my state.
I’d done a lot of research on a company that looked really neato called NuStair. They had a solution that met code requirements based on some measurements I admittedly didn’t totally understand, but they piqued my interest. I got an estimate via email from them, but they were pricey. And I’d still have to stain and paint everything, measure and cut everything, and pay for shipping.
I trusted that they were a fabulous product, and the reviews and before and after photos were stunning. But I didn’t know if I could justify the cost just to save some time not having to cut the bullnose off. I am not going to share the exact cost breakdown of the estimate I received because I respect the fact that NuStair does not put those online.
But I’ll throw out $1,250 for all of the materials I’d use. Plus about $100 for extra supplies since this kit would include all of the materials for the landing (yay!). I estimated that this method might shave off a day but would be significantly more expensive.
With this information in hand, the last piece of our stair-refinishing puzzle was to figure out how much it would be to hire it out. I found a smaller company with great reviews in our area, Min’s Flooring. Their work looked amazing, and after getting a range from them to make sure it wouldn’t be way out of our price range and thus a waste of time for them, I scheduled an estimate.
The Non-DIY Route: Hiring a Pro
This is a could vs. should debate. I could do this, but should I? Let’s consider the pro’s and con’s of ditching DIY and hiring a pro this go round.
- No stress on us.
- They could knock it out in 1 day.
- Their installers have seen it all and won’t hit any major bumps to stop progress.
- They are professionals—I have no worries at all about the quality of their work based on their reviews and photos.
- Cost. I’m a tightwad. The ballpark estimate came in around $1,500, the more detailed estimate came in at $1,600. One of the major cost drivers was the fact that they needed to order a box of flooring for the landing even though one box is more than we’d need. (Good to have some backups, though!)
- Pride. I just like doing things myself.
So let’s recap where we’re at with options…
(And again, the first two are best-case, ballsy options):
- RetroTreads and RetroRisers from Lowe’s: $850, 2 weeks
- NuStair kit: $1,350, just under 2 weeks
- Hire out: $1,600, done in under a day while I’m at work
So what did we choose for refinishing our builder grade stairs?
I won’t keep you in suspense. We hired it out. My handy pride will recover, and the extra money spent was worth it, to have it done in literally FOUR HOURS while I was upstairs playing with Tootie. And now I can get to work on my next project without fear of having too many things going on at once. (LOL yeah right, I’ll just add more to the list.)
So I guess that’s the morale of the story. You have to ask yourself, sure, I could probably do it. But should I? What is my time worth? If I drop the cash on a pro, will I recoup the losses elsewhere (e.g., starting on another project, taking a nap, playing with your baby, watching TV, whatever). Here are a few snaps of the new stairs.
What do you guys think? I am SO happy with the job. They look so so so good. I also re-caulked the seam between the stringer and the trim and the trim and the wall since there were some cracks. Then I gave everything a fresh coat of paint. It’s pretty beautiful. I really can’t believe we went from the before to the after in 4 hours. Those guys were good.
A note on slipping…we originally thought they treads would be really slippery, so I got some little carpet pads for the treads. But we were surprised that they weren’t actually slippery at all, so we returned the pads. Plus I hated covering the beautiful treads with carpet. It seemed…dumb. I figure we can get them again when Tootie is learning to use stairs. (Although we had wooden stairs growing up and I somehow lived, so, meh.)