When Sara Kate Gillingham decided to install an outdoor pizza oven at her Upstate New York house, she didn’t call a specialist. Gillingham, who is co-founder of the Brooklyn cooking school the Dynamite Shop, considers herself handy, and she liked the sense of ownership and accomplishment that would come with making the oven herself — especially in time for her 40th birthday party.
Gillingham “nerded out” on wood-burning ovens, reading books and watching countless YouTube videos, she says. “There’s so much information online, it’s kind of dizzying.”
A few sites suggested that with the help of a few friends, an oven could be built in a weekend from a “put this in quotes,” she says, “kit.” The components, including fire brick, perlite and the oven dome in four pieces, would be delivered on a pallet, ready for assembly.
That turned out not to be the case. She discovered that the oven needed a two-foot-deep foundation. In April, two months before her birthday, “we went out and started digging with shovels, in sneakers,” Gillingham says. After hitting roots, she decided to hire a professional. And though she wanted to maintain a sense of having completed the oven herself, putting the pieces together was so difficult Gillingham brought in a mason to help finish the job.
“I love it, so I can’t complain,” she says. Still, “I had all these dreams of an outdoor kitchen. Eventually, we’ll do that, but this thing stopped me in my tracks.”
The Internet — and cable television — increasingly makes DIY seem like NBD (no big deal). YouTube is packed with videos on everything from tiling a backsplash to building your own tiny house for under $2,000. And in most cases, they make it look easy. On many home-improvement shows, hosts turn shambolic buildings into stylish abodes in 22 minutes flat.
Little wonder that Americans are increasingly finding DIY appealing. With some time and sweat, homeowners can save money, learn new skills and (theoretically) ensure their project turns out exactly the way they want it to. They even get the bragging rights that come with designing their own deck or redoing the kitchen.
But there’s a reason some people say DIY really stands for “destroy it yourself.” Countless homeowners have had to live with projects that didn’t turn out as they’d hoped, spent much more time or money than they anticipated, or had to hire someone to take over. Worse, some people have unwittingly caused major damage to their homes, made modifications that violated building codes or put their safety at risk.
A shocking experience
Even careful, experienced homeowners can unwittingly put themselves in harm’s way.
In the early 1990s, Laura Sampson bought her parents’ three-bedroom house in the town of Palmer, Alaska, about an hour north of Anchorage. Built in the 1930s as part of the New Deal, the house had been made over in the 1970s. “It was shag carpets, wallpaper, paneling,” Sampson says. She and her husband have spent years remodeling it themselves, including removing a suspended ceiling and building out a second bathroom.
“We’ve gotten more gutsy over the years, especially with the advent of YouTube,” Sampson says. Most of their work has been a success — including the range hood they made by steaming and bending wood over a frame. But a few years ago, when they decided to install additional outlets in a bathroom, things went awry.
“I thought we had turned off the applicable breakers,” she says. “But when he touched it, ‘BSHEW!’ It’s become one of those stories you tell in the family that’s funny, but it was scary. He could have died.”
Professionals around the country say they’re seeing an uptick in requests to help with — or fix — DIY projects.
“It is definitely a phenomenon we’re seeing more and more,” says Greg Antonioli, president of Out of the Woods Construction & Cabinetry in Waltham, Mass. One reason for the DIY surge, he surmises, is high real estate prices: Home buyers are trying to figure out ways to save money.
You might assume that pros are keen for bigger, more complex jobs, but the reverse can actually be true. “It’s a nightmare when . . . now it’s at the point where they call you,” says Marco Radocaj, general manager at HVAC service company Temp Control in Vero Beach, Fla. When a licensed professional has done the work, you can assume that everything was done correctly, he says. There are no such assurances when a homeowner digs in.
Though 90 percent of air-conditioning fixes are simple, if done wrong, the cost can easily double, Radocaj says. One common — and costly — mistake he sees homeowners make is to install an air-conditioning system that’s too large for the house, which can dramatically elevate humidity levels. “When drywall is starting to mold, you’re looking at thousands of dollars’ worth of damage and you have to replace the air conditioner,” he says.
Kelley Williamson, owner and operator of She Fixed It, a San Diego-based handywoman company, recalls a client who bought an older house that was a little drafty. He decided to remedy the problem by filling his crawl space with expanding foam. “That stuff expands to 200 times its original size,” Williamson says. In his case, it expanded to the point where it made the ceiling collapse.
“YouTube is great for what it is; I even use it for a resource when I get in a bind,” Williamson says. “But I think a lot of people see the shows and videos and they have this super, hyper-confidence that they’ve got this down.”
Like Radocaj, Williamson thinks HGTV is even more to blame for DIY mishaps: “All of the remodeling shows — or even when they do it on ‘Queer Eye’ — it’s like, they have these ideas and boom it’s done and it looks amazing. But you don’t even see all the workers that have to do it in a day.”
A few years ago, Antonioli’s contracting firm took on a job for a tech executive who had signed a contract on a house in Arlington, Mass. When the buyer conducted a permit search, he learned that the owners before the current ones had done a DIY kitchen and attic remodel without getting a building permit — or meeting safety standards.
The contractor was tasked with pulling out the kitchen cabinets and gutting the walls to examine the work. “The wiring, it was absolutely atrocious,” Antonioli says. His original contract was for $66,000, but “after finding major structural issues and very scary wiring, we ended up at a total of $93,000.”
As a result of the problems, the seller agreed to accept $100,000 less for the house.
Michael Byrne, director of inspectional services for the town of Arlington, says his office is getting more requests for DIY permits — and seeing more problems as a result of unpermitted work. One local engineer removed the main support post for his house, causing the roof to start to cave in. “Undersized lumber, it’s almost a given on DIYers, because a two-by-three is cheaper than a two-by-four,” Byrne says. “People think they’re saving all this money by not taking out a permit,” but they may be chancing major damage to their home.
Of course, some home-improvement projects are riskier than others — more likely to look like a scene from “Home Improvement” than HGTV.
Experts say there are several kinds of projects that amateurs would be wise to avoid.
“Electrical or plumbing should not be done without somebody that has a license,” Williamson says. Electrical mistakes can be deadly, and plumbing errors can lead to leaks and floods — and the resulting damage.
Andrew Helling, a Nebraska real estate agent and owner of REthority.com, an online resource for real estate professionals and their clients, says roofs are wise to leave to the pros for similar reasons. Falls can be serious, and even a tiny hole can cause a destructive leak.
Aaron Bowman, a real estate investor in Windsor, Conn., has relied on YouTube for several DIY projects, including guidance with replacing windows at a rental property. “There have been other projects that didn’t go as well, even after watching a YouTube video,” he says. “This one time I had a gas furnace with a pilot light that would not stay on. So I figured out what needed to be replaced and ended up having the wrong settings and almost blew myself up.” He no longer messes with gas.
Kitchen remodeling is popular but often requires a building permit — and a project can easily violate local building codes, Helling says.
Experts offer a few tips for deciding whether to undertake a DIY project. First, consider the worst that can happen. Finish carpentry is a good option for amateurs for this reason, says Antonioli: “You really can’t end up hurting somebody down the road.”
Consider whether special tools are needed, and whether you’re willing to invest in them. Look into whether a building permit is required: If it is, think twice. Finally, DIY for realistic reasons.
“I wouldn’t say DIY saves you a ton of money — it depends how you value your own time,” Laura Sampson says. “A lot of time you have a project that takes four or five weeks longer than if you had just hired someone.”
Though her family has been able to travel with some of the cash they’ve saved with DIY, what’s even more important is the stamp they’ve left on their home.
“We have all these things that we’ve done that we love so much,” she says. “If we’d gone to the box store, bought it and slapped it up, we wouldn’t love it the way that we do.”
And, she adds, the fuse box is completely labeled now.