“Do it right for less.” It’s “how doers get more done.” Besides the catchy slogans, there’s a reason Lowe’s and Home Depot are doing so well. DIY home repair is alive and thriving. Whether you want to save money, or you simply enjoy the satisfaction of working on your own home, it’s hard to resist the siren call of hammers, caulk guns and plumbing supplies.
There are also reasons—good reasons—to call a licensed, experienced contractor for certain projects. The trick is knowing what you can YouTube… and what you shouldn’t touch with a 10-foot ladder.
In general, be careful of home repair tasks that can endanger people or destroy property via fire, water, electrical shock or heavy objects. Outside the danger zones, every area and working system of your house has something you can repair. Let’s take a look.
It can be extremely gratifying to fix a loose banister or replace a rotten step on your deck. (Your first carpentry task might be mounting a shelf for all the tools you’ll start collecting!) Sticking doors can be sanded or planed down pretty easily, and squeaky doors or hinge pins can be lubricated. You can also change locks with enclosed instructions and some patience. But call a pro for bigger, trickier projects like replacing windows and exterior doors to ensure the tight seals needed to keep out drafts and rain. (Danger zone: water.)
Drywall & Caulk
For drywall repair, use a spackling compound to fill nail holes and smooth out nail pops when a nail has worked loose from the drywall underneath the paint. But use a pro to hang drywall. Because it’s big—a sheet is usually 4′ x 8’—heavy and awkward, it’s hard to achieve a professional-looking install without visible joins between sheets. (Danger zone: heavy objects.)
Caulk creates a seal to protect tub, toilet and sink surrounds from water. Caulk deteriorates over time and often picks up a bad case of mold along the way. Removing caulk with a razor is tricky, but a softening product can help you remove it with a putty knife. Be sure to clean the surface. Let both the surface and what’s behind it dry before applying new caulk—this means no showers for maybe a day or two. YouTube the application process, which is kind of fun; it’s a lot like applying thick toothpaste. (Danger zone: water.)
You can easily replace a light switch or connect a ceiling fan to existing wiring—just remember to turn off the power first. Find the right breaker or flip the master switch. Buy a voltmeter to test wires and outlets for power. Anything beyond Electricity 101 is a no-no; it’s too easy to burn the house down or suffer serious injury. Contact a licensed electrician who follows current building codes to replace wiring, circuit breakers and outlets. (Danger zones: fire, electrical shock.)
Gas Lines & Appliances
Fixing gas lines and leaks involves plumbing with an explosive instead of water. The gas has to be cut off and lines sealed tight before reconnecting. So, don’t try this at home! You can start your search for a pro by calling your gas company, which repairs leaks on their side of the meter. They often have licensed technicians who can work on your side of the meter, too, and connect and install gas appliances for you. (Danger zone: fire.)
You can DIY normal maintenance like changing air filters. Change out cheaper fiberglass filters about every 30 days, pleated air filters every 3–6 months. Make sure your battery-powered thermostat has a charged battery. Clean the vent covers in each room; while they’re off, check the air ducts for blockages and debris. (Limit the duct diving, though.) Clear plants and debris away from your outdoor units and remove debris from the outside of the fan cage. You can take things further with Google and YouTube, but since HVAC involves electricity and complicated territory, best to let your HVAC company do it. Use a licensed professional for periodic maintenance, repairs and emergencies. (Danger zone: electrical shock.)
The EPA estimates the average household leaks away 10,000 gallons of water annually; 10% of homes leak 90+ gallons a day. Common sources are worn toilet flappers, dripping faucets and leaking valves.
Things “outside the wall” (but inside the house) can be DIYed with parts at the big-box stores that make it easy to replace toilet flappers, faucet washers and the like. But valves that live inside the wall need a pro. Chopping through tile or sheetrock makes a huge mess that must be put back together afterward. Definitely don’t try to run new lines on your own or re-route old ones.
To work on sinks and toilets, use the shutoff valve to turn off the water. Every sink or toilet has its own valve. You can also use the shutoff valve for the entire house. If you don’t know where it is, find out for future water emergencies.
Unclogging toilets is a rite of passage for every homeowner. Keep rubber gloves in case you need to fish something out and a plunger in case you need to push something through. You can also pour a bucket of water into the toilet bowl to flush a blockage. A plumbing snake can help clear pipes as well. If nothing works and you’re brave enough to remove the toilet, it’s not hard but it’s heavy. (Danger zones: heavy objects, water.)
Roofs & Gutters
Hire someone to work on your roof. If you don’t regularly climb around 30 feet off the ground on a pitch of 45 degrees, it’s easy to fall, especially carrying tools. If you’re climbing up to take care of a loose shingle, at least have someone to hold the ladder or call 911 if you fall. (In 2018, 8+ million people wound up in the ER for injuries sustained in a fall at home.) Ditto on the ladder for cleaning gutters, which is pretty doable for DIYers. We have lots of trees in central Carolina that gum up the works, so plan on gutter cleaning every fall. (Danger zones: water and heavy objects—namely, you.)
Google up “tree cutting disaster videos” and you’ll be cured of the urge to take out that irritating maple on your own. Your safety and your property (and your neighbor’s) are too important to trust to anyone but a pro who knows how to 1) make just the right cut at the right place and 2) work with the unpredictability of a living tree. Inexperience + chainsaw + gravity = disaster. (Danger zone: heavy objects.)
To tackle home repairs, you usually need a little skill to start (beyond changing the odd light bulb). Take your time and you can learn how to do most DIY tasks. But remember… safety first. If you find yourself in a big-box aisle staring at a blow torch wondering whether you could weld copper pipes this weekend, the deciding factor should be safety—yours and your home’s.