“How hard can it be?” is the first question a daring do-it-yourselfer may ask when approaching a perceivably easy home repair. And many have found out the answer to this question the hard way. The DIY craze has been in full swing in the United States for a while now. With the Internet as our guide, it seems as though no job is too large for our capable hands. Virtually every kind of repair or renovation is explained in full online, many times with step-by-step video to go along with it. And in a time when every penny counts, paying a professional could mean dipping into your staycation fund. There are many home repairs and renovation jobs that someone with modest experience can try to tackle. So how do you know when you’re being penny-wise versus pound foolish?
Ask any DIY enthusiast about the fun of a self-styled home renovation, and you’ll likely be peppered with horror stories of cracked walls and wobbling floorboards. But walls that aren’t plumb and floors that aren’t level are far different than leaking ceilings or sparking outlets. Attempting certain repairs can be dangerous to your house and harmful to yourself.
Here are five jobs that you’d be better off to leave to a professional.
One thing can be said about water — if there’s a way out, water will find it. The very smallest leak can lead to thousands of dollars worth of damage if it’s not caught in time. If you’re a capable do-it-yourselfer and there’s existing plumbing in place, you can probably manage some minor repairs like changing a shower head or replacing a faucet. Even installing a new toilet is within the realm of a capable DIY-er (just make sure you have a tight seal). Where you can get into trouble is if you try to modify your plumbing system — extending hot water lines or re-routing your sewer pipes. Working with hot water means copper pipes, and that requires a blow torch. Unless you have some serious welding experience, it’s best to leave the torch jobs to the professionals. While this isn’t as dangerous as electric work, plumbing problems can get out of hand fast and lead to an expensive and wet future.
Wires can be incredibly dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Any projects involving electricity should be approached with extreme caution. Like plumbing, you may be able to pull off minor repairs like changing a light switch or installing a ceiling fan — as long as you make sure that your power is turned off before you start. You can test the switch against the breaker so you’re positive that there isn’t a current, or you can just turn off your master switch to be super sure. You should also invest in a decent volt meter so you can test wires for power. But if the repair goes beyond a simple fixture, it’s best to call a professional electrician. In some instances, you have to have a permit to get the work done, and a professional will be your only option. Extending or replacing circuits is dangerous business if you don’t know what you’re doing. One wrong move could burn your house down, and a shock could result in injury or death. There are also building codes that are mandated for safety purposes; not being up to code may not affect you now, but it will if you ever try to sell your home.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral and has been used for years in older homes and businesses for its insulating properties. It’s resistant to heat and electricity and is a good acoustic barrier as well. Unfortunately, asbestos was found to be toxic, and most of its uses were banned in the United States in 1989 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The ban was overturned in 1991, allowing trace amounts of asbestos in certain products, but the days of using it in large amounts as an insulator were over. While this stopped the mass use of asbestos, there were no provisions for the homes and businesses that already contained it.
Asbestos abatement teams are typically hired to rid commercial properties of the toxic insulation. While it’s possible to perform a DIY asbestos removal, it’s not recommended. Aside from the inherent dangers of toxicity, there are many laws that govern the removal of asbestos because it can pose a danger to those in close proximity — like your neighbors. So what’s a homeowner to do? Hire a professional.
Repairing a roof isn’t recommended for a do-it-yourselfer for one reason — it’s easy to fall off of. Repairing a roof shingle or two isn’t the toughest job in the world, but it’s getting up and down and carrying your tools with you that pose the risk of injury or death. It’s also very tiring work, and when you’re tired, you’re more prone to make a mistake. Just a quick slip is all it takes to send you over the edge of a second-story roof.
If you live in a one-story ranch and your slope is less than 20 degrees, you can probably get away with gutter work and minor shingle repair. Your roof may even be low enough to do it from the ladder. But these minor fixes still can be dangerous, and you should never attempt any of them when you’re home alone. At the very least, you should have a spotter in place to hold the ladder and be there in case of an accident. Aside from the danger involved, roofing work also requires experience to get it right. If you bite off more than you can chew, you may end up with a leaky roof and expensive water damage.
Gas Appliance Repairs
A typical home may have several different appliances that run on gas. Your clothes dryer, oven and hot water heater are a few. It isn’t always a repair that leads people down the path of danger when dealing with gas. Sometimes, it may just be necessary to move the stove because of a floor tiling project or to move a dryer away from a wall that needs painting. Some homeowners feel like a hot water heater replacement is within the realm of their capabilities, and this is when accidents happen. Like water, gas will always find a leak. So while you may have done a good job in cutting off the gas supply line and moving the stove, you may not have been as careful when hooking it back up. The end result of what you thought was a simple fix could lead to accidental carbon monoxide poisoning — something that kills more than 400 people per year in the US.
The latest entrant – Pro.com – is emerging today with top-shelf investors and a particularly ambitious business plan.
Pro.com aims to simplify the process of pricing home-improvement projects, finding a contractor and scheduling an appointment to get the project started. The goal is to get this all done with a just a few clicks, making the process easier and more transparent for customers.
Homeowners click on the projects they need done, enter their zip code and a few details and are presented with a menu of typical labor costs – dubbed “Prestimates” – for each project. They also receive a list of vetted service providers, with moderated ratings, and available dates and times when the work can be scheduled. Contractors can list their services for free but pay a commission on completed jobs provided through Pro.com.
For the last five months the company has been operating in stealthy test mode as SeattleHomePro.com. Today it’s launching nationally – though still in beta mode – as Pro.com. In regions where it doesn’t yet have contractor listings, the company offers to gather a list of possible service-providers, a service that’s done by employees in Seattle. So far the scheduling feature – which it calls “direct booking” – is only available in a small group of cities, including Seattle.
The company’s customer-centric approach is heavily influenced by Amazon.com, where Pro.com Chief Executive Matt Williams worked for 12 years and first began exploring ways to simplify the purchase of local services.
Williams said the platform for pricing, selecting and scheduling services may be extended in the future.
“The vision of this company is to price and book reliable local services in under a minute and that goes beyond home improvement,” he said. “Long term we want to build this out across many categories.”
In the meantime Pro.com will face off against a new wave of companies trying to digify home-improvement, a huge but unwieldy market that’s been repeatedly targeted by online ventures since the dotcom era.
The current generation includes Seattle’s Porch.com – a fast-growing startup that’s also building off a database of project and contractor details – and Zillow, which offers pricing estimates and referrals on the “Digs” service that it launched in February 2013.
Williams said this time around there’s a better chance to automate the industry because smartphones are ubiquitous. Owners of service businesses can run complex applications and schedule on the fly, moving their companies toward an “on demand” model.
As for his cross-town rivals, Williams said he has “a ton of respect for the team over at Porch” but his company is “playing in a very different space” with its pricing approach.
“It’s a little bit different but the bottom line is the space is enormous,” he said. “Any of us will take years to make any kind of a dent or inroad in this industry. But I think the right customer experience will lead the company down that path.”
Pro.com may also benefit from Amazon fairy dust floating around South Lake Union.
More than half of its 30 employees are Amazon veterans and the company deliberately chose an office in Amazonville, to be close to friends and former co-workers. It’s temporarily working from the former Enterprise car rental office near Whole Foods, behind covered-up windows and chipped paint that belie the presence of a home-improvement venture.
Pro.com has $3.5 million in seed funding from Jeff Bezos and a handful of venture capital firms, including early Amazon investor Madrona Venture Group plus Andreessen Horowitz and Redpoint Ventures.
A chunk of the funding was spent acquiring the Pro.com domain from a Belgian tech company that reserved the name awhile ago but hadn’t been using it, Williams said.
Williams – who comes from a family of Seattle-area entrepreneurs including a father who started KUBE radio, left Amazon in 2010 to become chief executive of Digg.com. After the online news and discussion site was sold in 2012 he became an entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen Horowitz before starting Pro.com.
When hanging wallpaper yourself…make sure you know where your kids are!