Home Improvement

Email Answer: Second Guessing A DIY

Question: Are there any projects that you wish you hadn’t DIY-ed? I’m in the middle of one that’s not going smoothly and I’m second-guessing my decision not to hire it out. – Holly

Answer: This question comes up fairly frequently – it even popped up during the Q&A portion of our talk at the Richmond Home & Garden Show earlier this month. The truth is that we both have trouble recalling a project that we got to the end of and said “man, I wish we hadn’t DIYed that one.” Maybe it’s that post project rush of victory, the relief of completion, or the joy of saving money? Or maybe it’s like childbirth and you forget the pain in hindsight? But there definitely have been PLENTY of projects that have elicited a major “what were we thinking?!?” moment mid-way through. I’ll even cop to shedding a few tears over one. Okay, maybe two.

So I thought I’d break down four projects that nearly broke me down and share what each one has taught me (spoiler: it’s not to stop DIYing, it’s just to DIY smarter).

#1: The Bathroom Demo. I was still working my 9-5 at the time and Sherry was pregnant with Clara, so I carved out a Saturday to smash out all of the existing tile in our first home’s only full bathroom. This was my first major reno project and I just totally underestimated the time, strength, and endurance it would require as well as the gigantic mess it would make. You can practically feel the exhaustion in the words of my post from back then.

Lesson Learned: Seemingly simple projects like removing the old stuff can be just as taxing and time consuming as installing the new stuff – especially in an older home where you’re dealing with mortar and metal-mesh behind every last tile. But learning this the hard way means that we’ve become better at accounting for that step in our planning moving forward, and renting equipment that makes it easier (like the demolition hammer that saved me at the end of bathroom demo). So now, whether it’s removing old carpeting or clearing the land for our deck (this is foreshadowing, btw) – we go into it expecting it to take time and energy, instead of blindly saying “we’ll have that done in an hour, tops.” In some cases it has even lead us to hire out a demo step, like removing the beams in our home’s sunroom for $200, so we could get to the fun stuff faster and save our aching backs.

#2: The Patio. This was a project that we actually contracted out at our first house, but decided to tackle on our own at our second one. The crew at the first house knocked it out in a day, but we knew better than to expect any sort of speed for ourselves. We did rely on a local stoneyard to help us calculate and deliver materials, but somehow in ordering three tons of gravel we didn’t quite the connect the dots that we’d later be manually moving and spreading three tons of gravel into place. So despite our best efforts to manage expectations, it still turned out to be a back-breaking job that had me and Sherry crying for mercy more than once (though not literally crying – that one comes later).

Lesson Learned: Moving materials from point A to point B can be a lot harder than it sounds, so take advantage of any help you can get – whether it’s having supplies delivered to your site (which we did) or having a few extra sets of hands around when it comes time to haul something (which we didn’t). There isn’t much glory in hauling or lifting stuff, so it’s something we’ve become more willing to pay for in dollars, instead of paying for it in lost time or aching muscles.

#3: The Deck. If I weren’t going in chronological order, this is the one that would probably top my list of Most Second Guessed While It Progressed projects. And it took virtually forever to complete, so there was a lot of time to freak out. Oddly enough, in the end I have great pride in completing this project – and I gained lots of new confidence in my abilities – so I don’t wish I had contracted it out at all. It truly is one of my proudest accomplishments to date. But there were a few times that I was on the brink of turning the project over to the professionals.

It was a perfect storm of some of my least favorite things about any project:

The one element we were sure to eliminate from the story was a time crunch. We didn’t give ourselves a deadline, which is the only thing that made all of those “hiccups” (that’s putting it gently) bearable. And again, it’s probably the project I have the most pride in completing – probably because it was my toughest. Oh yeah, and it totally made me cry once thanks to being totally exhausted and then falling and hurting my back. Still not sure whether it was the exhaustion or back pain that brought on the tears.

Lesson Learned: If all else fails, try to eliminate or reduce the time pressures of a project or loosen up a super strict budget if you can. Giving yourself the gift of a more flexible deadline or a budget with a little more padding can really turn those “how will I ever recover from this mistake??” moments into an “I can get through this” Rocky-music rally moment. And oh yeah, make sure your next house already has a deck so you don’t have to build one again. (I’m kidding. Kind of.)

#4: The Hardwood Floors. This one makes the list because we totally disregarded the lesson that we learned from the deck: don’t rush yourself. When our second house sold much faster than we expected, it caught us by surprise… and suddenly gave us a deadline for removing all of the upstairs carpeting, painting all the trim and doors up there, and installing the hardwoods. While we owned the house for a while before moving in, the priority had been to get our second house ready for sale. Then when our old house sold before even hitting the market (as opposed to around 6 weeks later, which is how long our first house took), suddenly those six weeks that we thought would be built into the process were gone and our closing date was looming a few weeks away, with all of that carpeting, trim, and hardwood flooring to deal with.

We did our best to learn from our previous projects by carving out time for demo (i.e. carpet removal) and enlisting my parents to watch Clara a few times so we could have two sets of hands doing as much as possible. But we still found ourselves racing the clock at the end, which translated to some super long and tiring days of under-pressure floor laying. This one made me shed tears of frustration more than once, and this time I can’t deflect blame an injury. I was just dead tired and ridiculously ready to be done with laying plank after plank, day after day, in every seemingly endless room, hallway, and closet. And Sherry was right there with me. We were like a couple of cooks cutting onions. At midnight. While laying floors.

Lesson Learned: Even the best laid plans can blow up in your face. So by now we just do our best to expect at least one or two project derailments (and sometimes four or five) while reminding ourselves why we’re DIYing something in the first place. Maybe we’re saving money (which we definitely did with the floors). Maybe we’re learning a new skill (which can propel your whole house-journey forward and allow you to tackle bigger and better projects down the line). And maybe at the very least we’re proving something to ourselves about perseverance and determination (there’s nothing like dusting your shoulders off when you’re done, both literally and figuratively).

But if those things aren’t the in cards, perhaps you’ll decide that you’re dealing with a job that’s best left to the professionals – and there’s no shame in handing it over. Especially if you did a little bit of the up-front stuff before realizing it was best left to an expert (every little bit helps, so that supremely annoying realization probably comes with some money-savings from the stuff you did before hiring someone). In a strange way, as our DIY know-how has grown, we feel more comfortable with calling in a pro. We’ll gladly contract out work like our bathroom plumbing issue, our yard-leveling adventures, and larger electrical or load-bearing jobs that are just plain out of our skill set. After all, when you know just how taxing certain jobs might be, there’s definitely a tiny thrill when you get to watch someone else take that off your plate. Especially if it leaves you enough steam to tackle something else on your list at the same time…

PS: If you want to read more about how we decide whether or not to tackle a project ourselves before starting, check out this post which bullets some of the evaluation criteria that we use before diving in. 



Leak Lessons: Volume 2

Lemme tell you, our master bathroom’s wallpaper wasn’t its only problem-to-be-remedied recently. So brace yourself while we weave a little plumbing tale that spanned over the last few weeks (in fact it just wrapped up a few days ago). You know how we solemnly swear to share the good, the bad, and the ugly? Well, this one can be filed under “the bad” and “the ugly” with a side of “the gross.” So for everyone’s sake, we’ll leave out the graphic pictures.

During the process of buying this house we noticed a very small, dried out water stain on the ceiling in the living room, right below where the master bathroom was. We and the inspector concluded it was likely from a toilet overflow from long ago, since the stain was only about 3″ wide and long dried up. So we weren’t too alarmed and just figured it was solved decades ago, so a little primer and ceiling paint were all that it needed. We never even photographed it, but here’s a hint as to where it was.

Then this fall, the toilet started to act up. Namely in that it would occasionally clog (this is your first hint to put down your breakfast) and when we attempted to plunge it, well, it would back-up into the shower. If that first hint didn’t work, something tells me you’re putting your breakfast down right about now.

Yeah, it was gross. And since a certain half of this relationship was already queasy from growing a tiny human, I was the only one on duty (a little pun to lighten the mood). Usually a bit more plunging and maybe a bit of snaking would fix the issue. I say “usually” because this happened more than once. And before you start judging our gastrointestinal prowess, I should note that this sort of back-up sometimes happened when the toilet wasn’t even involved  – maybe after a shower or after I shaved in the sink. We googled for answers and contemplated calling in a pro, but the “incidents” were few and far enough between that we figured we could hold out ’til we remodeled the room.

But last month came the back-up that plunging could not conquer.


And in all of my furious plunging, I managed to create a new water stain in the ceiling below. I’d later learn that all the pressure of such vigorous plunging had compromised the wax ring and water started leaking again. That was our cue to call in a pro. He removed the toilet, ran an 150 foot snake and dislodged what he concluded was “years worth of paper build-up” way down in our pipes somewhere. Phew! Problem solved.

Except it wasn’t. Fast forward another week and the shower starts to back-up again. In fact, it happens as I’m using the tub to fill up the steamer during may latest wallpaper removal spree. So not only was that process miserable on its own, I was doing it with a less than fresh-looking (and smelling) shower nearby. Not to mention that we’re both beyond frustrated that our first call to the plumber didn’t solve the problem. So yeah, clearly the picture below was taken before the back-up happened. Just look at me all footloose and fancy free.

Remember when I called this post-wallpapered look: “gas station bathroom.” I was really thinking it was more reminiscent of that scene in Trainspotting. Yeah, you know the one. And if you don’t, well, I highly suggest that you NOT google it right now. Okay, maybe our bathroom wasn’t that bad. But it was bad enough that I was embarrassed that this was the state the plumbers would see it in.

Then again, things didn’t get much prettier once they arrived. Now that I think about it, I guess they’ve pretty much seen it all.

The plumbing company sent a different guy this time and, after explaining the series of events, he had a pretty solid theory. But it meant cutting into our ceiling to confirm it. Welcome to our crash course in two-story home issues. Kinda made us miss the days where virtually everything was visible from a crawl space or attic.

His hunch was correct. All of the master bathroom plumbing was configured wrong. And it had been for 30+ years since they built this house. A key element – the slope of the main drain pipe – was incorrect. So rather than having gravity to help water leave the vicinity, it was actually sloped uphill – so water and sewage that should have been flushed down and out of the house would collect and pool and eventually back-up into the lowest opening in that bathroom (i.e. the shower). In the words of Clara: yuckaroo.

The only solution was to cut a bigger hole in the ceiling and have the experts replace all the plumbing. It even meant cutting out one of the load-bearing joists and reinforcing it with a new one so the new pipes could be configured at the right angle, so it was nothing that we dared to attempt ourselves.

Did we like having our house torn apart? No. But we were pretty relieved that the root of the problem was finally getting fixed. And I’ll admit that we were pretty entertained by the view through the floor.

It only took them a day to complete the task (they came back a few days after their initial diagnosis to get it done) along with a somewhat painful $650 check, but we were relieved that this hidden-behind-the-walls issue that had plagued this house for over three decades was finally solved. Which meant we could finally get back to our little bathroom update. And hey, while the toilet was removed, we were able to strip that small swatch of wallpaper that had been hiding behind the bowl, so that was kind of funny (very marginally at the time, but more so now).

But we were still left with that gaping hole in the living room ceiling well after the bathroom was trimmed out and painted.

We went back and forth about drywalling it ourselves – which basically involves mudding, taping, sanding, re-mudding, and re-sanding. Smooth ceilings are especially tricky (imperfections are a lot more visible up there) and we knew any remaining dents or seams would have bugged us forever, so we finally just pulled the trigger and called a highly recommended local drywall guy.

He fixed it flawlessly in a few hours for around $100, and was also very nice (he said Sherry looked like Topanga from Boy Meets World, which pretty much made our day). So now all we’ve got to do is prime and paint it.

Update: A few folks have asked if our home warranty would have covered this issue (that actually ran out before this fiasco) but it most likely would not, since this was an “existing condition” (the plumbing didn’t break after we moved in, it was configured this way for 30 years, so that’s not something typically covered by a home warranty).

These unplanned homeowner curveballs never feel good (especially when we’d rather be spending that money on fun updates that we can actually see and enjoy) but it’s nice to have things all put back together again. The irony is that we have another “oh the joys of home ownership” story unfolding (it’s still halfway-solved, so we’ll wait for the full resolution before crying on your shoulder). Please tell us we’re not the only ones. Regale us with some of your tales of woe in the plumbing/heating/other house systems arenas. We’re all in this together. Right?

Psst- The “Volume Two” part of this post’s title is thanks to this original leak lesson that we dealt with a few years ago at our last house. Best thing about that one is that it was something we could solve ourselves (read: zero benjamins).