A Home Inspector’s Guide for DIY Projects

Doing It Yourself, or DIY, is a huge industry. The Wall Street Journal Reports that Home Depot’s revenue rose 23% between May and July of this year. In other words, a lot of folks have been taking pandemic time at home to tackle some projects around the house.

Every tool tells a story. These say, “please clean us up”.

Even before Covid 19 opened the door for an unexpected assessment of what is broken and outdated in our homes, DIY was big business. According to industry researchers, home improvement centers are a 170 billion dollar-a-year industry; and let’s not forget about HGTV, that magical place where well-groomed hosts transform even the most humble hovels into high-class habitations in half an hour.

Home Improvement is a hit. Why not? Most of us see DIY projects as a way to add value to our homes and demonstrate our self-reliant prowess. Who doesn’t want friends and family stop by to fawn over a fantastic new family room or a beautiful new bathroom?

“This looks amazing. Who did you hire?”

“Oh, I just threw a few things together. I kinda turned out.” [Declared with off-handed disinterest while rolling-up the sleeves of a flannel shirt.]

Know Your Skill Set:

Some musicians are so über talented that with mere moments of practice they can play just about any instrument under the sun. Paul McCartney: bass, drums, guitar, piano, even brass instruments. Dave Grohl played all the instruments on the Foo Fighters debut album. A number of sources note that Prince played more than twenty-five instruments. That’s nuts.

An appropriate analogy can be made to DIY skill sets. The fine folks who are equally comfortable roofing as they are repointing or plumbing as they are painting can be found, but they are few and far between. Most of us have a skill or two where we really excel, a few where we’re competent, and others we where we should throw the keys to qualified professionals.

If you are thinking about renovating or flipping a house this is a very important dynamic to keep in mind.

Why? Well a key difference between music and skilled labor is safety. If a band has a bass player who can’t keep time, they may not find themselves playing sold-out shows. However, someone learning to use – say – an acetylene torch on the fly could cause serious harm to themselves or others.

Being honest about what you can and cannot do is a strength, not a weakness.  

Play to Your Strengths:

The great new is that you don’t have to be DIY virtuoso to be effective and successful. As far as I know, Ringo never tossed his drum sticks to John and took a set off, yet we all know John Lennon as one of the foremost song writers of the last century.

Play to your strengths.

Below are a couple of systems to avoid unless you are trained to work on them as well as a number of ways to effectively improve a house without extensive training and with minimal safety risk.

DIY Don’ts:

Electrical

  • No electrical work. Don’t do it. Don’t even think about it. The potential for fire or shock is too high. I couldn’t even tell you how many houses I have inspected that reflect exceptional work in one area and just enough knowledge of electrical systems to do something really bone-headed. Take the house with trim work that would have made Louis the XVI drool and a grounding wire tied to a metal pipe that no longer went to ground.
A rusty junction box with no cover, featuring cloth wrapped, ungrounded wiring.

Don’t drink and drive, don’t eat lead paint, and don’t start wiring things unless you’ve had the proper training. Hire an electrician. Just because something works initially, it does not mean that you haven’t created a monster lying in wait: over-heating components, faulty switching, exposed connections, etc.

Structural Components

  • Do not alter any structural components. Not sure if something is structural or not – well, that should give you your answer as to whether or not you should start swinging a sledge hammer. Structural components, those that bear weight, are designed by either engineers or licensed pros who have years of experience working with the materials and dimensions relevant to a given project. Yes. Open-concept modifications are still burning across network TV DIY shows like a raging forest fire, but don’t start knocking down walls: some interior walls are load bearing and some aren’t. To further complicate matters, some walls that weren’t originally load bearing in older houses now are because of later modifications and renovations both professional and amateur.

Plumbing System Design

  • Do not change your plumbing system. Huh? Let me explain. Changing out a given fixture can be a great way to update a space and – worst case scenario – it leaks and you have to shut off the water and call a plumber. Making modifications to the design of the supply-side or drain-side plumbing, however, can leading to systemic problems: poor drainage or water pressure, and the potential for slow, insidious, undetected leaks is greater. Furthermore, lay off the water heaters. These units are where either electricity or gas/propane and water meet. Call a pro.

HVAC

  • HVAC – Much like plumbing a sharp DIYer can really improve the look and even the function of a house by swapping out old, beat-up registers, maybe even repairing or reconnecting duct work. That said, leave the parts of heating and cooling systems that use electricity, combustible fuels, or pressurized refrigerant be. The reason should be obvious.

Honorable Mention: Roofing. Most folks talk themselves out of this one, but, yeah, don’t.

DIY Dos:

Painting

  • Paint. Nothing livens up a given space like a fresh coat of paint. In the world of DIY, the safety risks are pretty minimal. Have the right size ladder and use it safely. Ever been awake at night wondering if your ladder use conforms to Department of Labor standards? I’ve got you. Click here.

Most professional painters will tell you that the keys to good results are patience and prep. Surface preparation often involves scraping old paint and priming. Priming a surface is important as well. More here.

Painting plants: low rate of success.

Planting

  • Planting: Even if your yard is a scant square foot or two, vibrant colors and healthy plants add instant curb-appeal. Some aspects of landscaping should absolutely be left to qualified professionals: grading, below-grade drainage systems, retaining walls etc. This doesn’t mean that a few Saturdays of planning and planting won’t transform your yard into something spectacular. I get it, you might not see gardening as sufficiently self-reliant as sawing through 2x4s or pouring concrete. That said, growing your own food or fresh flowers that can be used to brighten your home also demonstrates skill and attention to detail. Nowadays you can download an app to help you plan a given space.

Cleaning

  •  Clean. What? This isn’t a DIY skill, you say! Oh yes it is. I have absolutely been in houses that could have commanded a higher price point were it not for gobs of grease, tarnished toilets, and crusty carpeting. Channel your inner Snow White. It might surprise you how dramatically well washed windows, power-washed pavement, and a thoroughly scrubbed tub improve the overall feel and perception of your house. Cleaning can actually make your home a safer place as well. Cleaning vents, be they for dryers, bathrooms, or kitchens, can prevent fires!
Lest you thought I was kidding.

And don’t forget that decluttering is first cousin to cleaning. I go into a lot of houses where the use of a given space is hindered by storage. I’m thinking of bikes that haven’t been ridden since 2008 because it would take a front-end loader to get to them and guest rooms that have evolved into a cabinet of curiosities where cherished childhood toys clash with clothes that don’t fit anyone currently living in the house and stacks of hard-copy media that rival a record store in the 1990s.

There are folks who have made careers out of telling clients to get rid of their junk. I’m not that charismatic. Suffice it to say that if you can’t get somewhere or get to something it is time to declutter.

The Takeaway:

As I have said before, commercials for the big box home improvement storage are a pretty good measure for the average DIYer. What do I mean? Well, what do you typically see people doing in these commercials? Planting, painting, maybe tiling. What don’t you see homeowners doing in these commercials? Sub-panel installation, roofing repairs, structural masonry. A few weeks ago, I was really surprised to see a commercial that featured a homeowner replacing a cover plate for an outlet. Someone at corporate counsel must have been asleep at the wheel when that commercial got reviewed.

Of course if you have training and experience in a given area, put your knowledge and skill to work. You should absolutely add to your skill set as well. Too many houses tell the story of homeowners who put the cart before the horse. They bought the tools but didn’t take the training course or learn from established pros with the know-how. Knowledge and experience are tools themselves.

Finally, nobody is qualified to do everything. Know this and know when to call in someone who does have the know-how.

  • Joe