Duct-tape disasters and other DIY no-nos

Real Estate Agent with RE/MAX Professional Associates

I really like this article from MSN...mostly because of the name.  Duct-tape is such an essential item!

Many homeowners opt to tackle home-improvement tasks themselves to save money and to have the satisfaction of getting something done. But a DIY job gone wrong may cost far more than bringing in an expert.

By Marilyn Lewis of MSN Real Estate

When homeowners strap on a tool belt or grab that roll of duct tape, they can get into a lot of trouble. Even the simplest-seeming projects can go horribly wrong. An entire YouTube category of "DIY disasters" bears witness to the world of do-it-yourselfers in over their heads - here's a compilation with ukulele music and a laugh track.

If you want to hear DIY horror stories, you have to ask the remodelers who rescue them, people like Fred Spaulding, owner of Quality Home Improvements in Houston. When asked about the worst DIY errors he's seen, Spaulding tells the story of being summoned to figure out why a home's circuit breaker kept tripping.

He tracked the problem to the attic. There, he found a ceiling fan dangling in midair, suspended from its electrical wires. The fan had been left hanging when the homeowner and his friends replaced the roof weeks before. They'd dropped it into the attic while stripping off old shingles. "This way they didn't have to disconnect it," Spaulding says. (Bing: How to repair a shingle roof)

They finished the roof and forgot the fan.

Meanwhile, the fan kept running, winding up the cable that held it, which wore the insulation off the wires. As the bare wires twisted and touched, they shorted, tripping the circuit breaker. Once the power shut off, the fan cord unwound, only to spool up again, wearing the insulation further, after the homeowners turned the power back on.

It's amazing, Spaulding marvels, that the mess hadn't sparked a fire.

Favorite shortcuts
When DIYers get stuck or are running out of time, it's tempting to take a shortcut and face the consequences later.

"Typically, they think, ‘I'll just knock that out in an hour,'" says Lawrence J. Heuvelman III. He owns One Home Cinema in Antioch, Ill., specializing in lighting and home theaters. He's also president of the National Association of Remodelers.

"Then they've got a whole weekend into it," Heuvelman says. "And then they take a day off work. The wife's upset with him because he didn't finish it on Sunday. He gets to the point where he doesn't know what to do next and has to go ask some buddies."

This happened to a friend of Heuvelman's, whose rushed home repair left a gaping hole at the spot where electrical lines entered the home. She covered the hole with plastic and stuffed it with insulation, but cold air was still leaking in. So she sprayed insulating foam into the hole from outside.

"Picture this," he says: "A 5- to 10-inch-square hole of drywall is missing around this pipe. So they just foamed the heck out of it."

His friend called for help when a large, solid, yellow bubble of foam broke through the drywall into a finished room in her home.

It may not surprise you to learn that a lot of the worst shortcuts involve duct tape. It's cheap, easy to use and sticks like crazy - at least at first.

Spaulding has seen duct tape used:

  • instead of glue to join vent pipes together (the tape loosens over time).
  • in place of the paper drywall tape on a home's interior (it lifted up under the paint, exposing drywall seams "all over the inside of the house," he says.
  • to install a shower head instead of the requisite wood blocks and metal plumbing straps (the shower head wobbled once the tape loosened and it had to be reinstalled).

"I think they know these are shortcuts. But they just don't think they'll ever get caught," Spaulding says of homeowners. "They think, ‘It'll last until I leave the house.'"

The real cost
Fixing a botched DIY job can easily cost more than the hoped-for savings. Tim Sweeney, owner of Sweeney Construction Corp. in Madison, Wis., said he was helping a client repair a self-inflicted catastrophe. Remodeling an upstairs room, the homeowner hired contractors for some jobs and did some himself, including installing a supply line between a second-floor toilet and the wall.

Maybe a component was defective, or maybe the owner made a mistake. Whatever the reason, the toilet sprang a leak while the house was empty. The family arrived home after eight hours away and found the upstairs bathroom flooded. A deluge was raining onto the first floor. The downstairs laundry and kitchen were destroyed, including cabinets and floors. The repairs cost almost $100,000, only some of which was covered by insurance.

Sweeney sympathizes with the DIYer, though. He has been in trouble himself, although it was minor. Having tackled what promised to be a simple wiring job in his home's bathroom, he finished and turned on the light - surprise! - the fan started up, too.

Sweeney is a second-generation builder, but he's not an electrician.

"I knew enough to be dangerous," he says, pointing out that all people, even pros, tend to be unrealistic about their skills.

Eddie Bourke, a remodeler in Anaheim, Calif., also spoke from the site of a DIY project gone south. A friend of Bourke's had finally cried "uncle" eight months into what he thought would be a three-month project, converting a family room into an in-law suite. The project, just half-done, already was over budget, so Bourke, owner of Bourke Construction Inc., agreed to rescue his pal. His first job: getting permits. 

DIYers can avoid some of their worst mistakes just by getting permits and submitting to city inspections, experts say.

Case in point: Spaulding, while working on an addition at a client's home, discovered that the homeowner had rerouted a natural-gas line to reach his swimming pool, hot tub and barbecue. He'd not only failed to vent the pipes, but he'd also used PVC tubing because it is cheaper and easier than steel gas lines.

But chemical odorants added to natural gas for safety can dissolve the glue used to hold PVC pipes together.

"It's a wonder he didn't blow his house up," Spaulding says.

The DIYer became angry when Spaulding explained he'd have to report the problems to the city.

Spaulding made yet another terrifying discovery at a different home when he opened the walls to solve a plumbing problem. He found studs that were made not from solid lumber but from patched-together construction waste. Three of the four walls supporting an addition to the home were supported by these "studs," which had been made by nailing three or four short chunks of wood together.

"It was very clever, but there was no structural strength," Spaulding says.

What's worse, several of the defective studs also had 2-inch holes so the washing machine's waste pipe could pass through on the way to a drain a couple of walls away. "I think the city's structural inspector would have had a heart attack," Spaulding says. "It's amazing that in the hurricanes, the addition didn't blow over." 

What do these and many other homemade disasters have in common? No permits.

"A lot of times, it's families with kids and they don't have the money to do it right now. It's not just that they blew it off," Heuvelman says.

But permits aren't usually a deal-breaking expense. The point is to save you - and others - from danger and expense by preventing structural errors. Also, your insurance company might decline to pay a claim if you can't show you had a permit.

"Here in Texas," Spaulding says, "they'll check the city office to see if a permit was pulled. If it wasn't, they're off the hook."

Still, plenty of do-it-yourselfers skip the permits and their work turns out just fine. The trouble doesn't start until they try to sell, says Jeff Jones, project manager at Olson & Jones Construction, in the Portland, Ore., suburbs.

He has been hired to cut open walls so city officials can inspect unpermitted improvements. The inspectors are alerted when title companies hold up a home sale after the inspection shows there were improvements and the seller can't produce the permits.

"It can be a nightmare," Jones says. "They'll have you open up the walls and say, ‘We want to see the structural for the span right there.' Or, ‘Let's look at the plumbing, or the wiring.'" The owner may be forced to rip out or repair the work.

"I have been personally involved in the take-it-apart scenario," Jones says.

The delays can ruin a home sale. And DIY frugality suddenly becomes the cause of a big expense.

What drives us?
Many projects have landed a DIYer in the hospital. Angie's List founder Angie Hicks writes that her "members have shared plenty of stories with us over the years about how they staple-gunned themselves to their siding, fell off ladders or cut themselves with chain saws."

Even so, when Angie's List polled members online last winter, 60% of those who responded said that they were planning home improvements. Nearly a third said they were doing the work themselves. Saving money was by far their biggest motivator.

"But one in five who did it yourself ended up calling in a pro to finish the job and - in many cases - undo the damage you did (with only the best intentions, of course)," Hicks wrote.

And yet, forces besides money draw us into these jobs. There's the fun when it's going well and the pride you feel when it's complete.

"There's great satisfaction in learning how to fix things," says Jeanne Huber, who writes about home repairs and remodeling. Her "How To" column in the Washington Post answers readers' questions about home-care problems.

"I think one good reason to do work yourself is that you gradually learn more and more, rather than just pay more and more," Huber says. "Also, if you install something, you know how to fix it."

Pride, unfortunately, is also why some DIYers bite off more than they can chew. And it's why they play down mistakes. As a young builder, Heuvelman learned not to ask, "Who installed your chair rail upside down?" Inevitably, it was the proud homeowner. 

"They'll never tell you," Spaulding says of DIYers whose work he's rescued. "They might have done it, (but) they're not going to say a word."

Looking for a home you can fix up yourself?  Check out the local properties here

Comments (6)

Jim Palmer
Chipola Realty - Chipley Office (850) 638-2777 - Sunny Hills, FL
Washington County, Florida

Those are some really great horror stories. Thanks for sharing.

But I still believe that duct tape will fix everything but a broken heart and the crack of dawn!

Nov 02, 2010 11:26 PM
Dan Edward Phillips
Dan Edward Phillips, Humboldt and Del Norte Counties, CA - Eureka, CA
Humboldt and Del Norte Counties, CA

Good Morning Amy, thank you for the great post this morning, excellent read!

Nov 02, 2010 11:27 PM
Trish Sarfert
Coldwell Banker Realty - Pensacola, FL
Serving military & civilian relocations!

I guess I'm lucky to have a handy husband who also knows his limits.

Nov 03, 2010 12:02 AM
Doug McLeod

Great Article, Amy.

Stop me if you've heard this one:

What does duct tape and The Force (Star Wars) have in common?

...It has a light side and a dark side, and it's what holds the universe together!


Nov 03, 2010 04:36 AM
Mullen Real Estate Team
RE/MAX Professional Associates - Worcester, MA
Broker, Realtor, CPA, MBA (MA & CT)

HA!  Yes Doug...I have heard that before :)

Nov 03, 2010 11:00 PM
Lenn Harley
Lenn Harley, Homefinders.com, MD & VA Homes and Real Estate - Leesburg, VA
Real Estate Broker - Virginia & Maryland

I discovered a useful use for duct tape some years ago.

To tape duct joints.


Nov 08, 2010 01:43 AM