When DIY goes B-A-D

Don't end up like this do-it-yourselfer, who landed in the emergency room after shooting himself in the hand with a nail gun. (Photo courtesy of Matt Taylor)

Don't end up like this do-it-yourselfer, who landed in the emergency room after shooting himself in the hand with a nail gun. (Photo courtesy of Matt Taylor)

So your attempt at a DIY project went awry? Are we talking stick-your-finger-in-a-light-socket wrong, or more your garden-variety foolishness that will serve as fodder for future family gatherings? Take heart, fair reader — you’re not alone. Experts say some 43 million homeowners a year attempt a do-it-yourself project, and even if these DIYers are not among the estimated one in five who suffer an injury, Angie’s List reviews suggest they can sometimes invest long hours only to realize they’re in way over their head.

Still, it’s a risk that handy and fearless homeowners are willing to take. The ones profiled here say they learn a few lessons even when DIY goes B-A-D. And when it goes well, their success can be defined both in terms of dollars saved and the sense of empowerment that comes from good, old-fashioned achievement.

But whether it’s that painting project you always wanted to tackle or those hardwood floors you’ve decided to refinish, before tackling projects on your own, members and experts advise it’s important to define your limits and understand when it’s best to call in the pros.

Hepworth says her door-painting DIY project ended badly after she failed to use primer and an oil-based paint. (Photo courtesy of Allison Hepworth)

I can tackle that!

Allison Hepworth’s husband, Ben, has such certainty in his wife’s prowess as a do-it-yourselfer that he texted her “LOL” after she sent him a photo showing the wall she’d torn down one day. “He has confidence in me,” the Austin, Texas, resident says. “I’ve proven to him that I am not going to tackle something that I’m not confident doing.”

Attacking projects comes second nature to Hepworth, who grew up helping a craft-minded mom and build-it-yourselfer dad who did whatever came to mind. “My dad built a shed,” she says. “I think I was like 12 years old with the air compressor nail gun putting shingles on the roof of it.”

With a DIY blog backed by advertisers and a Pinterest page boasting thousands of pins from fans who love Hepworth’s decorating ideas, she’s no dilettante. While fearless, she’s also had her share of missteps. She painted a mantel black to give it a rich, sophisticated look, then decided to repeat the effect on her home’s interior doors. After completing the first door and encountering no problems, Hepworth finished 10 doors and reveled in the stunning results. Until … “One of my kids bumped into one of them and I thought, ‘It’s just a nick,’ ” she says.

But the scrape quickly turned into far-too-tempting peelings that the kids couldn’t help but strip away. Before long, the six hours or so of work that had gone into painting those 10 doors was reduced to a blog post Hepworth titled, “Most epically horrendous DIY disaster to date.”

DIY Don'ts

Don’t settle for temporary fixes
Skipping steps or forcing things together may provide temporary solutions to short-term problems, but they don’t last. Research the equipment and supplies you need before you start, then allow yourself enough time to complete the job properly.

Kids, don’t try this at home
Rewiring your home may make you feel like you’ve accomplished something, until you electrocute yourself or position your home in such a way that it can’t be sold because it’s not up to code. If the job requires a license, it’s best to leave it to the pros.

Don’t be afraid to get your feet wet
Be cautious and prudent, but DIY requires some fearlessness. Start with small projects and work your way up. You may need to bring in a pro to fix your mess, and you’re out some time and money, but so what? It’s a learning process. Start small and enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done.

Don’t be scared to ask for help
Many contractors say they’re willing to consult on DIY projects. If you’re unsure of what the work entails, find a contractor to walk you through the job. It may be a bigger job than you thought.

More tips: Follow these safety tips if you start a DIY project.

A sense of humor kept Hepworth somewhat sane. “After I quit crying … I took a deep breath and said, ‘Okay, what do I do to fix it?’” Reflecting on the steps she took, Hepworth had a light-bulb moment. Despite knowing better, she painted all 10 doors without priming any of them, and used a water-based, rather than oil-based, paint. So though the results of her hastily executed project sent Hepworth sobbing into tissues, she squared her shoulders after a couple days of malaise and had a good laugh.

“After you do these projects so frequently, you start to get maybe a little lazy and a little arrogant because you think, ‘I know how to do this.’ It was a good reality check,” she says. “Even though I’ve done this a long time, I need to approach every project like it’s my first time and follow the proper steps.”

Hepworth says she stripped the paint off all 10 doors and by the time she was ready to paint again, the family learned they’d be moving — so she restored them to their original white. Still, she says she learns best by trying and occasionally failing, within limits. “I generally have a rule of thumb: If it deals with electricity and is more than just changing out a light fixture, that’s something I’m not messing with,” she says. She also hires a pro for jobs that involve the risk of serious physical injury.

A strong DIY proponent, Hepworth urges homeowners to learn from her experience and show educated fearlessness in the face of a challenge. “What’s the worst that can happen? If you mess something up, you call somebody to fix it,’ she says. “Take on a project. Everything is a process. You just have to take it step by step.”

I can save money

From priming and painting to tiling a floor and replacing miles of wood decking that nearly circles his home, L.F. Eason’s not one to shy away from a home improvement project. “I’ve always been a person who figured a screw was there to take out,” says the Cary, N.C., member, adding that over the course of owning his homes, he’s jumped into all kinds of jobs and projects of varying skill levels. Even when he inadvertently creates the repair job needing to be done.

L.F. and Cathy Eason now hire pros to do tasks like installing their kitchen tile. (Photo by Ray Black III)

“One of the biggest laughs my wife still has on me, long ago, we gave my son a TV for the first time,” Eason says. “I had to run a cable the length of the house, and instead of calling someone, I knew I could do it myself.” A good plan, except Eason forgot that the flooring in the attic, where he was working to get the cable strung, didn’t extend past the heating ductwork. He wound 
up falling Chevy Chase-style through the floor. “My wife walked into the bedroom and there I was hanging out of the ceiling. … The money I saved on the cable guy ended up costing us to repair and replace Sheetrock.”

Still, he remained undeterred. As other wants and needs arose, including power washing his deck, Eason kept diving in, though he readily admits things didn’t always get done in a timely manner. But when he noticed a leaky shower 
base, Eason called in highly rated Elite Tile Systems to fix the problem. 
“They were able to replace just the bottom foot of the shower wall, which saved us a considerable amount of money,” he says.

Member L.F. Eason shows off the bathroom tiling job that he hired Elite Tile Systems to complete. (Photo by Ray Black III)

Michael Yazbek, project manager with Elite says they do a fair amount of work for homeowners who start a project and don’t finish. Yazbek says Eason’s showerpan leak is common, and the result of improper installation.

Eason says they were so impressed, they hired Elite to fix another bathroom shower that didn’t drain properly. And, he says, he had them come back again to finish a backsplash in his kitchen with materials that had been sitting in boxes in the garage for more than a year.

Though Eason says he can still do the work, as he started getting a little older, he realized he had better things to do than home improvement projects. “I think my time is worth more to me now,” he says. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned over the years is that if you have good recommendations, and you value your time, you come out way ahead by hiring someone who knows what they’re doing and who you can trust to do the job.”

It looked easy on TV

Legions of homeowners can appreciate member Tobi Voigt’s well-intentioned sentiment when she decided to tackle refinishing her own hardwood floors. “I’d never done it, but I’d seen it done on HGTV and they made it look easy,” says Voigt, who lives in the Detroit suburb of Berkley, Mich. So after reading DIY websites and educating herself by talking with home improvement store employees and reading product information, Voigt says she felt up to the challenge.

Member Tobi Voigt started to strip the paint off of her hardwood floors, but soon realized it was too big of a job for DIY. (Photo courtesy of Tobi Voigt)

Voigt discovered her first surprise in her spare bedroom. “The carpet was so gross,” she says. “I pulled it up and found that before [the previous owners] put the carpet in, they painted one layer of flat white paint all over the floor,” and it was damaged. Setback, true, since it was an additional complication she hadn’t anticipated and would require more work to correct, but Voigt remained undeterred. “I went to Home Depot, and the Bob Vila website, and they had great advice for removing the paint,” she says. “It looked easy.”

With chemical stripper in hand, Voigt returned to her white floor, poured it on and watched as the paint began to bubble. “I realized a quarter of the way through I was in way over my head,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’ve just created a mess. How am I going to get this up?’ ”

So Voigt turned to the List and says highly rated Functional Floors and Finishing saved the day. “It was an answer to my prayer,” Voigt says, especially when the projected three-hour job she purchased with a Big Deal coupon took the professionals six hours. The total cost: $175. “It would’ve taken me five weekends to finish,” she says, adding that she no longer desires to do DIY. “I have two other bedrooms in the same condition that will need help. When the time comes, I will contact Functional Floors and gladly pay full price.”

I can do it myself … with help

Knocking out a wall to open up the view from the kitchen proved easy enough, says member Chris Barron, and he knew he could install the new reddish brown cabinets contributing to a modern but warm look with no problem. “I wanted to remodel my kitchen and do as much work myself,” says Barron, who lives with his wife and their two young children in St. Paul, Minn.

From installing new cabinets to razing a wall, member Chris Barron worked with a handyman to redo his kitchen. (Photo by John Molene)

The avid DIYer says he recently put in a boulder wall and paver patio in the family’s backyard. In their previous home, he painted, remudded plaster walls, performed extensive wood repair to deal with rot, made minor plumbing repairs and replaced old faucets. But given the extensive nature of the kitchen redo, Barron decided to enlist A-rated carpenter and handyman Scott Register of Houlton, Wis., to work alongside him.

Together, he says they reframed the remainder of the wall, abutting the new cabinets; relocated and extended wiring; relocated a gas pipe; and installed drywall. Register also installed the exterior vent for a new range hood while providing up-to-code guidance throughout the monthlong project for about $2,500, along with some materials. Barron spent a total of $11,000 on the redo, including quartz countertops installed by Home Depot — well below the $30,000 contractor estimates he received to do the entire job, he says. “I’ve never minded working with homeowners,” Register says. “They have a passion for their house. They want to do a good job and I want to do the same.”

Though not all contractors share Register’s zeal, Barron says he appreciates the handyman’s willingness to partner with him on the project, which allowed him to do hands-on work he enjoys and provided a learning experience he can build on in the future. “Somewhere down the road, I’m going to be remodeling a bathroom, and [this] makes that prospect a little more doable,” Barron says.

Call a pro when they just won’t go

DIY isn’t just a buzzword for Nora member Victoria Whaley and her husband, Doug. The Whaleys say they typically enjoy tackling small home repairs and maintenance items on their own, but after getting stung repeatedly this summer while trying to rid their home of a wasp infestation, they say they’ll call in a pro a little sooner the next time.

Indianapolis-area homeowners Victoria and Doug Whaley eventually hired an exterminator after unsuccessful DIY efforts to evict wasps from their back porch. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Whaley ).

As temperatures rose over the summer, Whaley noticed wasps near her front and back doors. Initially, the pests didn’t bother her, but when their numbers multiplied quickly, she started getting complaints. She first heard from the UPS delivery man, who told her that leaving packages at her door had become dangerous. Then her 150-pound Irish wolfhound started barking anytime he approached the door. “He’d jump everywhere and try to bite them,” Whaley says. She quickly learned not to disturb the wasps. “If you went anywhere near them, they’d sting,” she says. “They got me about 27 times,” adding that the wasps stung her husband so many times they stopped counting.

To add insult to injury, the wasps near the back door continued to multiply, and within a few weeks Whaley says she relinquished control of her patio to the flying insects. “There were just so many, we couldn’t use our patio all summer,” she says, noting they turned to the Internet for solutions. Since the wasps made their home inside the siding, some websites suggested sealing up any holes so the wasps couldn’t escape or get back in. However, she says when she tried to do that, the wasps easily found a way out and left her back at square one.

Feeling increasingly annoyed, Whaley purchased wasp-killing chemicals from a local hardware store. Her husband put on a long-sleeve shirt, pants, gloves and a hat and approached the wasps at night, when they are less active. “It was nerve-racking because you had to get so close to their hive,” Whaley says. The Whaleys continued using the sprays for weeks, but she says nothing worked. “We kept thinking they’d go, but we couldn’t get rid of them,” she says.

Exasperated and ready to reclaim her backyard for an upcoming party, Whaley found a Big Deal on Angie’s List for 50 percent off stinging insect pest control offered by A-rated Arrow Pest Control on the Northeastside.

For $167, Whaley says the company eliminated the wasp problem. “We spent way too much time and effort with DIY solutions, which didn’t work,” Whaley says. “With stinging insects, calling a pro is the only way to go.”

— Additional reporting by Lacey Nix and Michael Schroeder


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