Home & Living

The Great DIY Debate

Know when to do it alone and when to call a pro.

With a weekend, some tools, and a little know-how, many homeowners can tackle a basic repair or remodeling project. As any seasoned do-it-yourselfer understands, working in your own home can be as empowering as it can be cost-efficient. There’s a point, though, when it can also be a little dangerous. 

“I had a customer once who told me that her husband was working in the attic and the roof was sagging, and asked me to come take a look,” recalls Joseph Smith, a principal at Owings Homes Services. Smith figured it couldn’t be that bad, but as soon as he arrived, he saw more than a foot of sagging in the roof.

“I took a peek in the attic and the husband had cut away all the roof trusses to make the attic into livable space,” Smith recalls. “I told them they needed to leave the house immediately and call a structural engineer.” 

Ask any electrician, contractor, or plumber, and they’re full of similar stories of project gone awry, from the guy who invited injury, death, or a house fire by splicing an extension cord and wiring it up to power his garage-door opener (he was lucky), to the homeowner who tried to fix his own roof but installed the shingles upside down and backward. And sometimes, the outcome is more than just embarrassing: A homeowner in Montgomery County died after being electrocuted while installing a ceiling fan.

Sure, sometimes a simple home update is just that—simple. But it can also turn into a monster project that sucks the lifeblood out of your wallet and schedule. We checked with Baltimore’s experts for guidelines on when the average homeowner can go it alone and when to call in a professional.

Be Honest

If you’re handy and have some free time, handling something like swapping out kitchen hardware or refinishing wood floors might be within your wheelhouse. In today’s shared economy, it’s more convenient than ever to rent tools or Home Depot pickup trucks to carry wallboard, but just because that part is easy doesn’t mean you should do it. Before you touch a tool, you need to ask yourself how far-ranging your skill set is and how capable you really are. The answer will vary from homeowner to homeowner and project to project. Installing a chair rail could safely fall into the DIY realm, for example, but if you have an old house where the walls aren’t plumb, or you just don’t have much experience with a miter saw, you could end up with a mess.

“It’s a little like cooking,” explains Dave MacLean, senior vice president at Hampstead-based Brothers Services Corporation. “We all go out to dinner and get a professional product and then you try to recreate it at home and it’s just not as good.

“There’s a learned craftsmanship that goes into properly installing trim and moulding. Does that mean only someone with years of experience can do it? No, but the nuances of dealing with uneven wall dimensions or drywall with an imperfect finish—that’s where the magic of experience comes in.”

He adds, “A lot will depend on the homeowner’s tolerance for imperfection.”

If you have a modicum of skill but need a bit of direction, reputable sites on the internet (like thisoldhouse.com) provide useful how-to videos. “YouTube has really changed the ability of homeowners to troubleshoot and fix things,” says MacLean. 

Safety First

Before you begin any project, it’s wise to know where your emergency shut-offs are—you never know when you might need them. The simple project of hanging a shelf can quickly go awry if you screw through a plumbing pipe and are suddenly rushing to figure out how to turn off the water to the whole house.

Doing something capably on your own also means following the rules of law and safety. Old homes can contain lead paint and asbestos, which must be remediated. A condominium will have different liabilities than a single-family home. And ignorance of building permits and codes isn’t a plausible defense against improper craftsmanship. If you are moving electrical lines or plumbing or adding a structure, such as a deck, it’s safe to assume you need a permit (possibly some drawings, too) and an inspector will need to sign off on the work. However, every jurisdiction has its own regulations, so contact your municipality if you’re uncertain about a permit. 


“There’s a certain satisfaction in doing something yourself and doing something with your hands,” says Jeff Rubin, owner of The Baltimore Handyman Company. He recommends starting simple with cosmetic projects like painting, picture-hanging, and easy, self-assembly furniture. Hanging shelves is a nice weekend project, too.

“There are also a lot of self-stick products available, like vinyl tiles and carpet squares, that are not hard to put down with proper surface preparation,” Rubin adds.

With a screwdriver, most homeowners can quickly give a kitchen or bathroom a new look simply by swapping out hardware like drawer pulls and cabinet knobs.

“Assuming some base of knowledge of tools, trim work, like wainscoting and moulding, is an impactful thing a homeowner can do with a saw, a nail gun, and some basic skill,” says Smith. “On kitchen cabinets, you can prime and paint and swap out the hardware and dramatically change your entire kitchen’s look.”

Think Before You Demolish

Who doesn’t love an open floor plan? No one, apparently. 

“Everyone wants to take down a wall to create the open floor plan that’s popular now,” says Smith. 

While this is not completely out of the realm of the DIYer, it is an area that must be approached with extreme care. If the wall is load-bearing—in other words, holding up part of the house, like an upper story—a professional is required. If it’s not a load-bearing wall, it’s possible a homeowner can take the wall down after verifying there’s nothing else important inside the wall, like duct work, electrical conduit, or plumbing.

“In my experience, there’s always a greater chance that there’s something in the wall than not,” cautions MacLean.

Don’t Go There

When it comes to areas that are for experts only, the pros are unanimous: plumbing, electrical, and roofing—and pretty much anything that involves getting on a ladder.

“Electrical is a life-safety issue, as is plumbing, if you’re dealing with a gas pipe,” says Rubin. “The downside of other plumbing work—having a leak or a pipe burst—to me the risk is not worth it.”

Even something that seams innocuous, like swapping out a faucet, could end up with a call to a professional if outdated supply lines need to be cut and the whole house water supply has to be shut down. Similarly, changing a dated chandelier for one that’s more current can seem easy, but end up downright dangerous. Fixtures that are improperly grounded are a fire hazard, as are those that overload the capacity of the electrical line. Of course, there’s also the chance of electrocuting oneself, which is a pretty good reason to call an electrician.

“It’s okay to stretch yourself a little on something that isn’t hazardous,” says Smith. “Homeowners just need to be aware of what they’re tackling and know their skills—and to get help when they no longer feel comfortable.”