DIY stupid mistakes: tamer than on TV?

Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | February 18, 2014

Admit it. You watch reality TV to see other people screw up worse than you ever could. Sit back, see perfect strangers make perfect fools of themselves, and smirk with self-satisfaction that you -- you would never be that stupid.

Good news: you're probably right. The general consensus of an informal survey of contractors in business at least 20 years reveals that most homeowners call for help long before their DIY stupid mistakes have burned down, flooded, or otherwise demolished their homes. We are not as dumb as we might appear. Are you listening TV executives?

Probably not. Stupidity sells.

DIY minor mistakes

Ed Malone, a stone mason since 1985 in Ludlow, Mass., says he was called in by a DIYer who tried to install cultured stone -- only to have it fall off. Malone says it's a common problem for do-it-yourselfers who attempt masonry projects, and it has to do with the mortar. Homeowners usually buy their supplies from a big box store. It's a lower grade than what the professionals use. DIYers also may make the mistake of adding too much water, which was the case with the homeowner whose stonework fell off. He advises buying pre-mixed mortar. Although it's harder to work with, the stones have a better chance of staying put.

How much of a disaster was this project for the homeowner?

"He gave up and called me for help after two stones fell off," says Malone. "Most homeowners are smart enough not to attempt the kind of work we do." Repairing a chimney, for example, requires a professional mason. Brickwork is not for the average homeowner either, but many DIYers, he says, can install their own pavers as long as they rent the right equipment and do the excavation properly.

"I had a friend who wanted to do pavers himself and took off a week from work to have enough time. We went over and taught him how to do it -- some tricks of the trade -- and with three of his friends helping, they finished the project in one day."


Tim Stoops with Argyle Construction in Spring Hill, Fla., has been a licensed contractor since 1993. In those twenty years he also has not seen any real disasters caused by incompetent DIYers, though he has certainly seen shoddy work and some questionable attempts by homeowners at electrical wiring. "People think they can put any kind of wires into a wall," Stoops says. Sometimes he's been surprised they didn't burn the house down. "There is a reason we have to follow codes." He has also seen DIYers saw through walls to cut a new doorway without checking whether there is wiring behind the drywall. "It makes a helluva spark," he says.

Even something like wood framing has to be done according to code. Because of the humidity and water in places like Florida, framing requires pressure-treated wood. He once had to repair a stilt home where the owners enclosed the stilts and used non-pressure treated wood between the columns. "All the wood was riddled with termites," he said.

Let that be a warning

When asked, what was the worst disaster he ever had to repair, Stoops said it was actually a tile job in a home he owned and rented out. The renter, he says, must have fancied himself a great tiler. When he moved out, he left behind incomplete tile projects in nearly every room. In the master bedroom, for instance, the grout lines between the tiles varied by at least an eighth of an inch. "It looked like a grade school child helped him," says Stoops. The kitchen, however, was the worst. No loss of life or permanent damage occurred, but Stoops still shudders to this day when he recalls what it looked like…

tile disaster

…bad enough to have kept a picture of it to this day.

The DIY-catastrophe reality shows perhaps serve a purpose after all.

About the Author

Iris Price is a single Baby Boomer whose antidote to a lack of retirement funds was to launch a long-delayed career as a writer. While others her age concoct bucket lists and travel the world, she bought a new-construction home and obsessively creates lists of must-have home improvements and personal realization goals. She specializes in writing about home services and self-motivation.