How to Keep DIY Projects From Ruining Your Life

In the face of the current crappy economy, more people are willing to try to save money on home improvement projects by doing their own repairs…at their peril.

With time, persistence, and attention to detail, the average non-klutz homeowner can learn to be handy. But how do you determine which projects are worth doing yourself, and which projects require an expert? Consider the following factors before you roll up your sleeves.

Assess the Time Commitment — And the Cost

While home improvement stores like Home Depot adjust their DIY project schedules according to the level of expertise, those schedules still assume that the project will be completed without a hitch. Whether you are learning a new skill or trying to level up on an existing ability, make sure to pad your time estimate to give yourself enough wiggle room to fix mistakes. Often, an overly optimistic schedule is not only frustrating but costly, too.

For example, painting your own home is often touted as an excellent beginner DIY project. Yes, painting your own house can save you a lot of money. But when budgeting out the cost of your painting project, make sure to include the external costs. Will you have to pay to keep your furniture in storage while you paint? Will repainting your new apartment delay your move from your old apartment? You can (and should) wear a ventilator mask to avoid huffing paint fumes, but what about your pets? Can your dog go to grandma's house while the paint cures, or will you have to pay kennel costs?

Do You Have What It Takes to Get the Job Done?

No. Not mentally. Do you have the right tools for the job? My neighbor spent over two hours on a wet bathroom floor trying to tighten the leaky connection behind her toilet with a pair of pliers. Damp and tearful, she finally went to the hardware store for advice. Although she was offered no counsel for her plumbing aggravation, the store clerk did send her home with a $6.00 basin wrench. Armed with the proper tool, my neighbor was able to tighten the hard-to-reach nut in less than 10 seconds.

Although my neighbor only lost 300 minutes of her life and $6.00 to her broken toilet, many projects require more costly, and high-tech equipment. There is a steep learning curve for many power tools. If you don't know how to use a floor sander, you might permanently damage the hardwood floors you are trying to salvage. Even worse, if you are a newbie to home repair, you might not think to buy ear protection. An expert might be able to repair a bad sanding job, but no one can repair your hearing.

Can You Afford to Make a Mistake?

I bought a well-reviewed tankless water heater that my plumber then nixed because he'd seen that model fail too many customers. Even though I returned the water heater in its factory sealed, unopened box, I was still charged a restocking fee by the store. Custom items like granite countertops are not returnable, so one wrong measurement can be very costly.

Trimming Trees Can May Mean Big Fines

Beyond the obvious extreme height + chainsaw = danger involved in tree trimming, amateur lumberjacking carries huge fines in many municipalities. The average cost of tree removal in Los Angeles is $779 per tree. That's expensive! But the fine for chopping down an oak tree, even on your own property, starts at $6,000 and can include jail time. Homeowners in other cities who only trim heritage trees such as oaks and sycamores without the proper permits can be charged hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

DIY Demolition Disaster

When I remodeled my bathroom, I saved $300 by doing my own demolition. In addition to getting a solid workout by swinging a sledgehammer, knocking out three layers of old tile and lathe was weirdly stress relieving. One of my neighbors also loved doing demolition. That is, he loved doing demolition until he knocked out a load-bearing wall while renovating his kitchen without a permit. His kitchen is now renovated, but not how he envisioned it. He blew his entire renovation budget on a very expensive and hideous support beam to keep his house from collapsing.

I should also note that before I began my bathroom demolition, my contractor physically outlined the electrical and plumbing lines on my bathroom walls with a Sharpie before I ever picked up the sledgehammer. Replacing accidentally broken plumbing is one of the least sexy ways to spend money.

Play It Safe With Roof Repair

Reconsider doing your own roof repair for safety reasons alone. Likewise, if your home is over one story tall, consider getting a professional to clean your gutters. Or, at least, use a shop vac or gutter vacuum that you can operate from ground level.

Don't Blow Your Budget on Rental Renovations

I always rented places that I could repaint to my liking. Of course, using your own money to spiff up a rented space isn't smart financially. It's not your house. You just live there.

If you are like me, then a little money is worth the price of turning another person's house into your home. However, if you are saving up to buy your own home, or just want to sock away more cash for retirement, education, or travel, it's smarter to treat your rented house as a crash pad where you sleep and store your things. Any DIY projects you do to improve your rented space is money and time you will never recover.

Death by DIY Pest Control

As a beekeeper, I am always getting calls from hysterical homeowners about "Angry Killer Bees." When I arrive at a client's house to do live bee removal, I always ask diagnostic questions so I can assess the safety situation for the client and their neighbors. Here is a sample diagnostic question: "Were the bees angrily chasing you around the backyard before you sprayed their hive with hairspray and then tried to light it on fire with a tiki torch?"

Many over-the-counter pesticides for home use are also effective pet and people killers. Before laying down any kind of poison in your home, do some research and follow safety protocols to the letter. Although it seems counter-intuitive, professional exterminators have safer, less toxic methods of pest control at their disposal than consumers.

Leave Utilities to the Professionals

Doing your own gas, water, and power work is a really good way to damage you and your home. Even the smallest gas leak can lead to an explosion or carbon monoxide poisoning. Each year, thousands of people are injured or killed due to electrocution or electrical fires. Leaky plumbing can cause water damage and mold, potentially making your home unlivable and unsellable.

Beware Those Nine Dreaded Words

"While we are at it, we might as well…"

Mission creep is the super villain of DIY. Replacing the disgusting, damaged vinyl flooring in my kitchen with new linoleum will take me two days total. I've replaced two kitchen floors already, so I know I can do this job, over a weekend, all by my lonesome. Of course, this two-day schedule does not include moving out all the appliances, transferring my frozen foods to a neighbor's freezer for safe-keeping, or repairing the baseboards. Nor does it include the time and money involved in repainting the kitchen walls — a project that can only be done with the appliances removed — that's also on my to-do list.

Just Because You Can, Doesn't Mean You Should

I know how to hot wire a 1965 Nova using just a flat head screwdriver. But, just because I know how to rip an old car, does not mean that I should take the Chevy to the levee — even though the levee is dry — at every opportunity.

According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International, there are 37,000 nail gun injuries every year in the United States. If the thought, "Maybe this is beyond my skill level" flickers through your mind even once, you should consider consulting an expert.

Losing Frugal Credibility Has a High Cost

It's 11 p.m. and I am painting my dining room, myself. I am an excellent painter. Martha Stewart would hire me. Painting my own dining room cost me just $100 in supplies.

Unfortunately, I have had to work the dining room redo around my actual paying job schedule, so it's taken me six months of intermittently stripping paint, sanding, caulking, priming, painting, painting, and repainting to almost finish my newly spectacular dining room. My ceiling is silver leafed. Guests gasp when they behold the decorative finish on my china cabinets. I am so pleased with my work. My husband, however, could care less how magazine-ready the dining room looks. After months of eating off a drop cloth-covered dining room table, he's tired of painting without ever picking up a brush.

So, while I won a frugal remodeling battle by renovating my own dining room, I have lost the frugal war. My husband now doubts that we can scrape, repair, and paint the exterior of our house in one month. He wants to pay a professional painting contractor $17,000 to do this job.

The true cost of painting the dining room myself: $16,900.

Don't be me.

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Guest's picture

Very good article until the end. The last point really angered me. The author's husband wants to pay someone to paint the exterior based on how long the dining room took when HE DIDN'T HELP!?! I won't pretend to know how their marriage works but I will say this would not fly in my home. My husband would like me to add he feels if a man doesn't help with something, from diy projects to an aspect of child-rearing or what have you, that he no longer has an opinion on that subject. We are "old-fashioned" but this bothered us both deeply.

Max Wong's picture

Hi Guest!

In defense of my husband, who does pretty much 100% of the housework, he offered to help me paint, but I don't like the quality of his paint job. I am a far superior painter and super nitpicky. (I really have OCD. That is not just a cute explanation of my behavior).

But, thank you so much for being grumpy on my behalf! I appreciate that you and your husband took the time to discuss and comment. I totally agree that their should be an equal division of house labor between spouses.

Guest's picture

Great article! With enough education, most things can be done on your own, but I agree that there are some projects just not worth messing with. Or, some things are just too dangerous to try and do yourself.

I have found that there are certain jobs, within an area of expertise, that you CAN and SHOULD do yourself. Take pest control for example; you most definitely can and should be doing the general spray treatment around the outside of your home every few months. The cost to do it yourself is a fraction of what is costs to hire an exterminator. I buy supplies from and have had MUCH SUCCESS! There are other areas of pest control, like serious termite infestations, where you will need to call in a company.

In the end it usually comes down to how much research you are will to do.

Max Wong's picture

Hi Guest!

I agree. Education is key. Alas, you don't know what you don't know. A lot of people who start on DIY projects have no idea what could go wrong, until it goes wrong, (for example, my neighbor who knocked out the load bearing wall), so they are clueless that research is the first step for any DIY project!