The anemic housing market and weak economy has forced many homeowners to take on home improvement projects on their own. But even if you’re handy around the house, there are some things better left to the professionals.
We checked in with contracting experts nationwide to find the home improvement or renovation projects you should not attempt without the help of an experienced contractor.
When it comes to tiling, “everything is about the details,” says Mark Williams, president and founder of RSU Contractors in Murfreesboro, Tenn. “You don’t want to be figuring things out as you go.”
One of the main pitfalls with tiling is laying out the patterns, explains Williams, and it’s not uncommon for interior walls in houses to be “out of square. ” For example, one side of a wall could be 60 inches, and on another it could be 62, so when you get to the other side, you can end up with a two inch gap with no tiling. “It’s going to look horrible,” says Williams.
Another thing the average homeowner might not look for is an uneven floor--or uneven tiles.
“Sometimes you can have tiles that are various widths or thicknesses, or a floor that is pitched slightly off,” says Williams. “In that case you have to build up a floor with prep work, or add an underlay to correct as much as you can.”
Homeowners should also be aware that not all grout is created equal. For example, tile in the shower requires a different type of grout than tile for the kitchen or exterior of the home.
“We see a lot of people mess up with the trap underneath your sink,” says Williams. “People think that because they can see the pipe, they can fix it themselves, but if you don’t get the connections put back just right, you will develop a slight leak.
And that slight leak, according to Williams, can turn into a disaster if left unchecked, prompting wood to rot and mold or mildew to develop. If the leak occurs behind the wall it can be virtually impossible to detect until serious structural damage has occurred.
Even if people think they’ve got their pipes in working order, it is possible they could make something loose somewhere else that they can’t see.
“Wiring is a whole other ballgame,” says Frank Rudy, owner of Rightway Home Improvements in Babylon, New York. “We have opened up walls where there is wiring just hanging there with no electrical tape, and they are live. With older houses, these things happen.”
Wiring can pose a great risk to homeowners; although most appliances in the home are only around 110 volts and won’t kill you, items like a stove will have more power, gas lines can also be a big concern, warns Rudy.
Today, there are regulations prohibiting home builders from burying live wires in a wall or ceiling, but you can’t depend on work that may have been done years ago, said Rudy.
Kitchens are by far the most complicated location for wires, with different circuits for counter-top appliances and refrigerators, etc.
“You really need to hire a professional electrician,” suggests Rudy, “These guys know how to deal with the worst case scenario.”
Window and Door Installation
If you don’t install windows and doors according to the manufactures specs you can have water or air seep through, warns Rudy. “You could also end up with rotten structural framing because termites or carpenter ants are allowed a way in.”
Most people don’t realize a header must be placed across a window and a door to transfer the weight from one end to the other. If not put in place, doors can get stuck and windows can sag--or worse--break.
“A lot of people don’t realize it’s not just a matter of putting in a couple of boards for stabilization. You have to transfer weight across the top of the opening,” explains Rudy.
When placing the window or door, make certain the area is stable and the surrounding wood is not already rotten or damaged. If it is, that part of your house will need to be replaced before a new installation.
Ceiling Fans or Chandeliers
“It’s not something you want landing in your Christmas turkey,” says Rudy. “If it’s not installed properly, it will fall down.”
Ceiling fans get heavier when they are running as the downward pressure of air adds more weight when the fan spins. Special installation boxes are needed to stabilize and allow the fan to turn, according to Rudy.
Chandeliers often require extra support blocks and opening up the ceiling to find rafters to make sure it doesn’t rip off your ceiling—a process most homeowners can’t handle.
“It’s impossible to know if a wall is structural or load-bearing until you really take a look at it,” says Barbara Kavovit, author of “Invest In Your Nest: Add Style, Comfort, and Value To Your Home.”
If you’re thinking of opening up a room and you don’t have blue prints, it’s best to get a professional to come take a look, says Kavovit. Columns are often structural, but even if they aren’t, they could house something like ductwork for heating and air conditioning.
Typically, interior walls that separate things like bedrooms are just space dividers, but you need to consult architectural plans before you make a mistake. “It’s never good to just assume,” cautions Kavovit.
“It might look easy,” warns Jeff Kaliner, co-founder of Power Home Remodeling Group in Chester, Penn. “You go into the big box stores and they show you how simply the pieces click together, but there’s so much more to it than that.”
One of the most difficult things about installing siding is the prep work, Kaliner said. The existing wood or siding on the home must be removed and disposed of properly. This means a homeowner would need appropriate licensing and perhaps even a dumpster on-site to prevent stray nails and boards from piling up in the front yard.
Once the installation process begins, there are lots of “work-arounds,” Kaliner said.
“There are so many things you have to cut around, like vents, dryer ducts, windows and doors,” Kaliner said. “If you don’t do it right, you’ll end up paying more to have someone come and repair everything after the first big storm.”
Proper installation of siding requires lots of specialized equipment to get it right. If not done right, leaks can occur that will rot the wood underneath.
“It’s a hard job,” warns Kaliner. “You’re totally exposed to the elements up there, so you can be burning up, it can be slippery, or you can be freezing to death. The professionals know how to handle any conditions.”
Often when homeowners attempt to repair their roof they cause more harm than good.
“A repair is more of a Band-aid that can disguise more damage,” says Kaliner. If you patch a hole, you can just be redirecting the water to run down between the singles and into the attic.”
Another thing that professional roofers know to do is the application of an ice and water shield, as all the thawing and freezing of a roof can cause significant damage if it’s not treated properly.
If you’re approaching the roof from underneath and going in from the attic, then there are even more hazards to consider, Kaliner says.
“You’ve either got to put plywood down and walk on the rafters or you’re going to fall through.”
If you are confident in your construction skills and looking for a challenge, there are some projects that can be done solo, but experts warn: proceed with caution.
“It’s something everyone thinks they can do,” says Williams. “It’s a paint brush and a gallon of paint, but if you don’t know what you’re doing you’re just going to have to start all over.”
Prep work is at least a third of the job, and tends be something people skimp on. Lack of preparation can be a killer, as trim must be prepped and sanded and sometimes caulking must be used to fill in gaps.
“If there’s a big crack or space you don’t fill, you can put 10 coats of paint on it and it’s always going to be a substandard job,” says Williams.
A good painter can hold a straight line with any type of brush, while other people may have to tape things off and the end product never quite ends up like it should, Williams says. When that happens, you have to either start from scratch or live with something you’re not entirely happy with.
Cleaning the Gutters
“First of all you should never be on a ladder without someone standing there in case you fall,” advises Kavovit. “When things are uneven, like the turf in your front yard, that can throw the ladder off.”
Many homeowners aren’t proactive when it comes to cleaning the gutters and wait until leaks form. Having it done two or three times a year should prevent any major last minute catastrophes during a rainstorm
“Don’t wait until you notice leaks occurring in your basement or you look outside and see your gutters filled with water and leaves,” Kavovit said. “It’s dangerous getting out there and fixing things during bad weather.”