When it comes to home maintenance and repairs, you sometimes don’t know what you don’t know — that is, until you’re standing in your flooded basement, wrench in hand, wondering where you went wrong.
Take, for example, one of my most recent mishaps. I would consider myself pretty above-average when it comes to home repairs — after all, I basically live and breathe this stuff for a career. My husband and I have been restoring our 1800s colonial ever since moving in last year and, in most cases, have experienced great success when doing things ourselves. That is, until I made an attempt at some casual electrical rewiring one weekend (Never do this, please!) in order to swap out a few light fixtures. Spoiler alert: Wiring in walls that are 100-plus years old doesn’t necessarily follow all those common electrical codes and wire color codes. Before I knew it, I had shorted out the electricity to our entire house, and we had to splurge on an electrician to fix the problem fast, which ended up costing us way more than it would have to just hire someone to install the lights properly in the first place. My takeaway? Some things are always better left to the pros.
I’m not the only one who has learned some important life — or, at least, home repair — lessons the hard way. These eight other homeowners are sharing their mistakes, too, so you don’t have to experience the same.
Know when to say no to DIY fixes.
“I’m a new homeowner, and I try to do as much as I can for my 100-year-old Baltimore rowhouse myself. I took a plumbing class last fall, so when it came time to replace the wax ring on my toilet, I was prepared to do it myself! Everything went according to plan until the valve to my toilet broke and I had a hose spewing water all over my bathroom. I had to sprint down two flights of stairs to turn off the water to my house and then pay a plumber to replace the broken valve. I’m glad I tried it, but I’ve learned where to draw the line and hire a professional.” —Elizabeth K., Baltimore, Maryland
When buying, don’t be afraid to snoop during walk-throughs.
“I learned the hard way to always check closets and any walls that face plumbing. Our home had some of the wall removed in the closet so that the inside of the wall, plumbing, and more were just a giant gaping hole, perfect for bugs and vermin to enter through. I had no idea this existed until our final walkthrough because it was staged with a rack full of clothes in front of it! … To sum it up, trust no one — and double-check!” —Katrina R., Kansas City, Missouri
Hire a really good inspector — and pay close attention to what they find.
“I just bought a home for the first time with my boyfriend that was built in 1927. He had a family friend that was a real estate agent, so we used her. There were a few red flags from the start, but everyone assured us we could trust her. I had seen all those TikToks about inspectors finding things that people cover-up, so I really wanted to hire a good inspector. However, she was insistent we use a company she has a long history with — and that ended up being my biggest regret. My stepdad came down after we already bought the house and pointed out numerous issues — the floors are sinking so bad, the electrical was not up to code, and the plumbing was all messed up. A lot of these things were in plain view to a professional, and it’s going to end up costing us over $50,000 that we were not necessarily prepared to spend.” —Meg R., Atlanta, Georgia
Remember it’s not just your home you’re dealing with.
“I once bought a heavy-duty drain snake to unclog the pipes under the kitchen sink in my condo, figuring it would save me money compared to hiring a plumber. A few hours post-my ‘repair,’ I ended up getting a knock on the door from my downstairs neighbor. Water was leaking through some of their ceiling light fixtures. I immediately called a plumber — luckily, my overzealous DIY plumbing project hadn’t actually ruptured any pipes, but I was definitely in over my head with the severity of the blockage! The pro got it cleared up right away.” —Blake S., Washington, D.C.
Set up a slush fund or contingency budget for repairs during renovations.
“I feel like this should be a no-brainer, but I didn’t do that! I thought I did. We did talk about budget, but there were so many things that ended up costing us extra that we didn’t expect. We had to reframe walls, we found black mold, there was a leak from the upstairs bathroom. I would advise anyone starting out to set themselves up to be flexible with small things that go wrong.” —Jennifer B., Temecula, California
Take a beat to learn more about a repair before proceeding with a solution.
“The sunroom in our home needed major help when it came to the screens — they were way too loose (and blowing like crazy) and had numerous cracks and holes in them. This was peak pandemic, so we were really looking for a project we could be proud of accomplishing. We decided to rescreen the whole room ourselves, but had no idea that mesh size was actually a thing. Turns out, we chose screens with a mesh size that was too large — as we quickly learned during our first night out there admiring our work, only to be inundated with bugs and mosquitos that could get in. Needless to say, we had to do the whole thing over again.” —Kim B., Jupiter, Florida
Forecast your own timeline.
“When a contractor says it will take six weeks to complete your job, manage your own expectations with that estimate. It may seem really exciting to have the end of your project in sight, but keep in mind that that’s the ‘happy path.’ More often than not, outsourced resources like electricians have their own schedule and now, with shortages, materials are delayed. Chances are it’s going to take longer, and you don’t want other parts of the project (or worse, move-in dates) impacted by a delay you didn’t see coming. People often talk about adding 20 percent contingency onto your budget — I suggest you do the same with time.” —Sam F., Massapequa, New York
Don’t repair at the expense of even more damage.
“Our new home came with a strange banister that ‘fenced’ in our kitchen. Not only was it unsightly, but many of the pieces were broken or sticking out. We figured it was best to just remove it altogether, but didn’t realize how firmly it was attached to the flooring below. Our small ‘fix’ ended up creating a huge flooring problem that we now have to have addressed by a professional. I wish we just had someone who knew what they were doing remove the banister in the first place!” —Sue H., Southington, Connecticut