Updated on 04.15.13

The Do-It-Yourself Dilemma: When Things Go Wrong

Trent Hamm

For the most part, I prefer doing home maintenance tasks myself rather than hire someone to do the tasks for me. It saves on labor costs and I often learn a new thing or two during the process. But I also know that different projects require varying levels of home repair experience — when do you rely on yourself vs turning to the professionals?

Yesterday, I attempted to replace the leaky faucet on our kitchen sink. This is a process that’s pretty simple in theory – I watched my father change one in a jiffy before and the steps seemed simple. I even had the manual from the previous faucet, which made it pretty clear how to remove the old faucet.

So my wife and I selected our new faucet, took it home, and prepared to install it. I basically started going in reverse through the directions of installing the old faucet to remove it and at one point I broke a piece of it. No big deal, I thought as I kept going. The faucet is just going to the slag heap anyway.

Eventually, I crawled under the sink and started unscrewing bolts. Then I made a very foul discovery: the bolt attaching the faucet to the underside of the sink was on extremely tight – I had no leverage. So I headed to the hardware store to pick up a basin wrench to make things easier. I came back – still no budging. I finally began inspecting the bolt in detail and I realized that the original owners had mis-installed the faucet, making it very difficult to remove without either removing the entire sink or damaging things.

So, after burning an hour and a half and buying a basin wrench that I didn’t entirely need, I wound up on the phone with a plumber. The task had spiraled into something that was far beyond my comfort level for home repair, particularly considering it meant no kitchen sink in a house with a toddler and a newborn – not a good thing.

Net result: I wasted an hour and a half and potentially the cost of the basin wrench. I may be able to use the wrench in the future – my wife eventually wants a new faucet in one bathroom for aesthetic reasons – but it’s not useful for the purpose it was bought for.

This left me with a big question: did I make the right move in attempting at all? I’ve successfully completed lots of little home maintenance tasks like these, but I had never attempted a faucet before. Should I have called anyway?

Even though it was a failure, I think I made the right overall choice in not immediately calling for help. Self-sufficiency saves money – if I billed myself for that hour and a half at a plumber’s rate, that time was definitely worth my money. I did most of the work (and loud grumbling) while my wife and children were all napping, so it didn’t disrupt any family time, either.

This bad experience didn’t discourage me from trying other home maintenance tasks. I just need to keep a sense that if I get in over my head, I’m willing to call a professional, and that this type of thing is why I keep a home maintenance fund.

In fact, I’m already willing to tackle that bathroom faucet, even after this failure. With my wrenches in hand, I’ll get right under that sink.

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  1. Eric says:

    I got married earlier this year so I have a few thoughts on this.

    First, I agonized over who to send invitations to because it almost felt like I was soliciting for money and not just inviting people to come to our wedding or reception. I have felt the same way about graduation announcements in the past. I don’t want anyone to feel obligated to bring gifts.

    Second, we had a small wedding and large reception so we got a lot of gifts. Most were cash and some were from a registry that we started at Target for kitchen items and such (wife had a shower). With about $3000 in gifts and $6000 in cash our favorite gift was a handmade cookbook from an aunt and uncle. Don’t undervalue the time and effort that goes into a handmade gift. Money is nice and it helped us buy our house but it is not a memorable gift.

  2. Eric says:

    The above comment was apparently entered into the wrong post. Sorry about that.

  3. Geoff says:

    We all face the DIY dilemma at some point. My own response is too:

    1 Undertake a little internet research. Really helps in scoping out any project;
    2 Ask myself if I have 2 hours to complete the project. With kids and normal commitments that about the length of free time I have;
    3 Do I have all the necessary tools. No buying tools!

    If I cannot answer yes to these questions, its time to call in the professional.

  4. Elaine says:

    You can always return the wrench.

  5. Susy says:

    We always tackle home improvement tasks. Sometimes we are very ambitious (installing hardwood floors throughout the entire house in one fell swoop), but we always get it finished, and we’ve learned a lot in the 6 years we’ve owned our home. We sometimes don’t get it right the first time, but we have a great time and we learn a lot about each other and home improvement during the process (right now husband is fixing dryer vent that was improperly installed by previous owners).

    That being said if you don’t want to take the time to do it right, don’t do it, you might risk damage to home and potential problems down the line! Not the mention headaches for future owners.

    My husband sometimes takes adult ed. classes at the local career center to learn more about a specific topic. This fall for $110 he’s taking a basic plumbing class, it’s 20 hours of instruction that will more than pay for itself when we finish our attic and install a bathroom up there. Look into these classes, they’re often cheap and provide a great education.

    Another option is to find someone you know that has knowledge in the area and ask if they’d be willing to teach you (in exchange for a favor from you of course, no taking advantage of friends). My dad came over for a day and taught my husband how to run gas lines throughout the house, in return we helped paint their living room. This is a great way to learn and build a relationship in the process!

  6. Marsha says:

    I think it’s always reasonable to attempt a DIY if you truly believe you have the skills. The test of a good decision isn’t the outcome but rather how it was made – whether it was made based on good information and risk assessment.

    As for the wrench, if you can’t return it, can you sell it on CraigsList?

    Related observation: I once bought an older home that had some beautiful updating and remodeling. Unfortunately, all those custom updates meant higher repair costs later on. That would have been fine if I’d realized that when I bought, but I didn’t, so those costs were a surprise later. Just an FYI for prospective home buyers in your reading audience.

  7. Zach B. says:

    I generally do DIY projects if:
    1. Have researched it thoroughly both on a theoretical and an actual situation basis.
    2. I have the available tools or can get them easily for little cost. There is bound to be an acquaintance that has one of just about any tool you can think of. Or rent if it’s something specialized like a torch or tile cutter you don’t think you’ll use more than a couple of times.
    3. I don’t undertake anything that might lead to major damages if I screw up. This includes most plumbing because water damage is hugely expensive to fix. Far cheaper to get a plumber I know is going to do something correctly the first time, or at least be insured if they don’t.
    If I can’t meet these requirements, I usually see if I can barter with friends/neighbors. I got some free live wire work from the electrician down the street for cleaning all the spam & spyware off of little Jimmy’s computer.

  8. justin says:

    Chances are you will use the wrench in the future.

    Most tools end up being used, eventually.

  9. Rui says:

    That sounds like me, whenever I try to do new things myself, something always seems to be missing, need to go out buying extra stuff and so on…

    Its funny we see it as “easy” when somebody does it, but when its us doing it…puff

    Kinda like looking at maths exercises resolved (it looks soooo easy), try to do the exercise without the resolution near and all hell breaks loose.

    Nevertheless even when things do go wrong or aren’t perfect (and are they ever ah)I try to accept that I’ve learned something in the process and get a small sense of accomplishment.

  10. Larry says:

    Watch what the plumber does to remove the old faucet fixture. Learn from what s/he does and the tools used to get the job done, then decide for yourself if you could do it on your own in the future. I use a 15 minute rule on jobs like this, if I don’t make any progress then I call for professional help. I called a plumber last week to clean out a plugged drain, my snake wouldn’t go anywhere, he worked for over an hour. Money well spent. BTW a good trick for stubborn faucets is to remove the whole counter if possible and work it upside down. That’s how many of them are installed in new construction.

  11. brent says:

    learning your limits is a success. a true failure would have been to punk out and call the plumber before you’d even failed – particularly when, as far as you knew, it was going to be an easy job.

    keep the wrench.

    and, contrary to what someone else posted – ALWAYS buy the tool. Tools are what seperates us from monkeys

  12. ruthie says:

    I have 2 comments. My husband is a builder who has won multiple awards. He can build or fix anything. So he is frequently called upon to assist with home improvement projects (small or large) among friends & family. With this particular crowd, I am sure I don’t have to say this, but I am going to anyway. If a person is going to ask for assistance to help them fix something, always return the favor. (A meal is usually sufficient.) In addition to having your problem solved, you will learn a great deal from the experience.

    My husband would return the tool.

  13. Mrs Monkey says:

    My husband tackles projects rather frequently. He hates it and/or enjoys it, depending on the level of difficulty and outcome. I think projects go with the territory of home ownership unless you’re relatively wealthy because a) contractors are not inexpensive and b) all stuff has a lifespan and it looks like we bought this house in one of it’s Camille phases. He has a solid collection of tools he’s bought over the five years of our home ownership, primarily because of projects. Some get used, some not. Sometimes we return, sometimes not (depending on our money situation).

    I think it’s good to try to tackle problems within reach. He has the Time Life encyclopedia of home repairs and some other books. We too had a faucet that needed addressing, two in fact, and neither one was as easy a fix as we had anticipated. One faucet was situated VERY high up and behind a cabinet and extremely difficult to get to. And the other was frozen and also very high up behind the cabinet. In one case, my husband successfully replaced it, in the other, he installed it but couldn’t tighten it sufficiently to remain tightened, so we ended up having the plumber tighten it when he came to do another job. We saved a lot of money on those projects and the others we’ve tackled over the years. You can’t ignore problems. They ALWAYS become worse and they often impact other areas in the house, creating even more problems that can cost a lot of money.

    We each do what we can to improve and upgrade our home and save money. Often we succeed but sometimes we do need to have a professional finish the job because it’s just too big. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.

  14. I agree with trying first – if you have the time to spare, why not? As long as you don’t mind the pro rolling his eyes as he repairs your mistake. And sometimes, I think you can cut time off the repair by being able to tell the pro exactly what you learned in your research and attempts – that was the case with a furnace repair we had last year.

    I blogged about the plumbing-fix issue (and overpaying to hire the pro) this summer – http://cheaplikeme.wordpress.com/2007/07/25/un-deal-of-the-week-hit-me-hit-me-hit-me-with-your-stupid-tax/

  15. laura k says:

    hahahahahahahaha……sigh. I can utterly and completely relate to this scenario! I need to learn to double the time it takes to do a project, then maybe double that. I live in a 100+ year old house, so I know that if I do anything, especially if it involves breaking into the walls, I will find 5 other things that need to be fixed.

    That said, I love taking on home improvement projects, and so far I haven’t done anything that can’t sit for a couple days while I’m waiting for someone to come bail me out of the mess I’ve gotten myself into. And I, too, disagree with Geoff. As a new-ish homeowner, my tool box is not yet fully stocked. I buy tools as the projects present themselves.

  16. Jason says:

    I found a great way to learn DIY skills by accident. I needed a summer job and I like to work outside so I got a job as a “park aide” at a state park. The pay wasn’t great and I got dirty everyday, but parks have limited budgets and do everything themselves. The park rangers that I worked with were very knowledgable and they’d send me off to do things that I had no experience, with the expectation that I’d figure it out, If I got stuck I had a radio and could call them up. Of course I ended up breaking a few things, but that’s to be expected when you hire cheap temporary labor, and I always learned from it without having to break my own stuff. Downside I spent about 2 hours out of every shift cleaning bathrooms, and occasionally the project for the day was kind of backbreaking, or cold and wet, and I got a pretty bad spider bite once that left me without the use of my right hand for a few days. Overall a good free education, especially in plumbing, building and power tool/vehicle maintenance.

  17. lorax says:

    DIY projects can be quite fun, as long as there’s no pressure! Just think of it as a challenge, a brain twister.

    A side effect of calling a pro is that you can watch them work, and hopefully learn something.

  18. jen says:

    My husband is a big DIY-er. And I am totally supportive in most situations. But I do consider the “back-away” whenever he starts something. What if this totally goes wrong? Where are we left? And whenever that “back-away” is grim — as is almost always the situation with plumbing — I insist on either calling a professional or making him wait until I’m out of town with the kids.

    I’m much less apt to argue about scheduling and DIY vs paid pro when it’s a paint/plaster project or something in the basement or garage.

  19. steve says:

    Trent’s post reminds me of the time I had a job to do, not on my house, but my car, which taught me something about the value of not skimping too much on tools:

    I decided to replace my clutch master cylinder, knowing it was well within my interests and abilities, and that I would saving about $130 in the process. I got stuck at one point because i couldn’t reach and get enough leverage on a nut.

    I kept bulldogging in and got nowhere,but was frustrated and not thinking straight so I kept trying for like 2 hours various different ways. finally I stopped in frustration, put it off for a couple days, came back to it, again made no progress.
    FINALLY I went and bought a complete extension set for my ratchets.
    After I had them, that job was done in like 15 minutes and I was SO happy!!!

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