When NOT to Do-it-Yourself
Updated: May 10, 2018
I’ve spend more than 30 years writing about DIY projects with the goal of empowering people to become more self-reliant, and encouraging them to release their inner do-it-yourselfer. However, when it comes to doing your own home repairs, there’s a thin line between being fearless and foolish. And I should know, I’ve crossed that line more times than I’d like to admit.
Now I’m not looking to shatter your DIY dreams, but there are certain home-repair chores that are better left to the pros. Some jobs require special tools or hard-earned skills, while others are just plain dangerous. Here’s a list of the top five don’t-do-it-yourself projects—followed by a bonus round.
Electrical Work—Listen, if you want to install dimmer switches or replace an old ceiling light with a new ceiling fan, go right ahead. Upgrading existing devices and fixtures is relatively easy and safe, as long as you remember to first turn off the electricity.
However, when it comes to extending existing electrical circuits or adding new ones, call in an experienced, licensed electrician. When homeowners start messing around with electrical circuits and running new cables, there are two likely outcomes and both are potentially lethal: electrical shock and fire.
All aspects of electrical work—from wire nuts to cable connectors—are governed by very strict codes. Violate even a single code and you’re asking for trouble. I recently saw a photograph of a homeowner-remodeled bathroom in Illinois that showed a wall switch mounted inside the shower. Now imagine the ramifications of standing in a wet shower while flipping a light switch. It’s a miracle that no one has gotten fried.
Plumbing Work—As with electrical work, there are certain plumbing jobs that any competent DIYer can tackle, such as replacing faucets and showerheads, installing toilets, and hooking up sinks and washing machines. And there are other jobs that require the expertise of a professional plumber.
A homeowner should never attempt to expand or modify a home’s water-supply lines or hot-water-heating system, which typically comprise copper pipe and fittings soldered together with a propane torch. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you could easily start a flood or fire. Try explaining either—or both—of those scenarios to your homeowner’s insurance agent.
And be aware that even a little leak can cause a tremendous amount of damage if it goes unnoticed even for a relatively short period of time. That’s why, as a general rule, DIYers shouldn’t tackle a plumbing repairs or improvements that are concealed behind walls, floors or ceilings.
Tree Cutting—Maybe it’s a guy thing, but there’s something irresistible about grabbing a chainsaw and cutting down a tree. Perhaps it’s the roar of the motor, or some innate urge to clear land, or maybe we just need to yell, “TIMBER” every now and then.
Regardless of the reasons, tree cutting is inherently dangerous. First there’s the chainsaw or axe with its ability to cut flesh as easily as a sapling. Then there’s the danger of the tree toppling onto a car, house or person. All of which happens all too often.
Two years ago, just a few miles from my home, a DIYer was in a tree with a chainsaw—a huge no-no—trimming branches for his son’s tree house. The limb he was cutting didn’t fully break away and it swung back and knocked him out of the tree 25 ft. to the ground. He’s now confined to a wheelchair and his prospects of ever walking again aren’t good.
Most homeowners can safely cut trees smaller than 4 in. in diameter and less than 20 ft. tall. But for any tree larger than that, especially one that’s close to a house, road or power line, hire a professional arborist or tree-clearing expert. The risk of loss, both personal and property, is simply too great.
Roofing—There’s no better way to meet an orthopedic surgeon—or an undertaker—than by spending an extended amount time on your roof. One small slip or misstep, and it’s a long way down to the ground.
Still, every year perfectly sane individuals decide to defy gravity—and common sense—by climbing onto their homes to nail down a new roof. I’ll admit that installing roof shingles doesn’t seem all that difficult, especially when you see roofing contractors using pneumatic nail guns. But climbing up and down ladders with supplies and tools, and scurrying across every inch of a roof is exhausting, dangerous work. Not to mention that it requires experience and skill to install a weatherproof roofing system, which includes flashing and vents.
So, leave roof installations to the pros and stay off of your roof, especially if it has a slope steeper than 4-in-12, which is about a 20-degree angle.
Removing Walls—In their zeal to “open up” living spaces and create a more spacious interior, an increasing number of homeowners are taking down walls between rooms. And that’s a great idea, unless it’s a load-bearing wall that’s supporting the floor or roof above.
Chopping out a load-bearing wall without adding the necessary support can prove disastrous and costly to repair. The floors and roof above can literally come crashing down, perhaps not immediately, but eventually over time.
Any time you wish to alter the framing of a house, whether it’s a wall, ceiling, floor or roof, always consult with a building engineer. He or she will be able to tell you not only if the wall is load-bearing or not, but also how to safely remove the wall, and how to add the appropriate amount of support.
Note that most towns require you to pull a building permit before removing walls, and the permit won’t be granted without an engineer’s report.
Bonus Round—Here are five bonus Don’t DIY tips that fall under the category, “I Really Shouldn’t Have to Tell You This, But…”:
1 Don’t cut your own hair, especially with electric hedge trimmers.
2 Don’t do your own dental work, unless your goal is to subsist on a totally liquid diet.
3 Don’t suture any body part with a staple gun regardless of your HMO co-pay.
4 Don’t attempt to yank out a tree stump with your wife’s minivan because I can guarantee that the stump will win.
5 Don’t try to impress the in-laws by carving the Thanksgiving turkey with a reciprocating saw. It’s disrespectful to the bird and bad for the blade. (Although it’ll surely be a holiday dinner they won’t soon forget.)