Your DIY home renovation project may actually lower its value. 10 things to know before you start the work.
When it comes to misguided do-it-yourself home improvement projects, William Decker has had enough.
“I’ve seen most of it, and most of it I’d like to forget,” said the owner of Decker Inspection Services, based in Skokie, who has been checking out houses for over 20 years.
Homeowners wield hammers, wrenches and brushes for the satisfaction of completing the work and to save money, usually hoping to bolster home value in the process. And two out of three isn’t bad — until it’s time to sell.
We asked Chicago area inspectors, lawyers and realty agents for their DIY don’ts and how to fix (or avoid) misguided projects.
1. Don’t assume that DIY projects build home value.
When home inspectors come across evidence of one botched DIY project, they know that there’s more to discover. With every badly done project, a homebuyer adds one more item for the “fix or discount” list for renegotiating the sale price. Cosmetic work might be subject to dispute but dangerously wrong plumbing, electrical and structural work is non-negotiable: The house must be brought into compliance with local building codes. Buyers are not interested in purchasing liabilities along with a house.
“The seller will compare their DIY house to a gut rehab down the street that was done by a licensed contractor, so the seller thinks, ‘I’ll get the same price, and I’ll make more money because I saved money by doing it myself,’ ” said Jeff Merritt, a Chicago home inspector who runs Homestead Inspections.
“But some DIY leads to more. It’s the domino effect. Just because it was good enough for your family doesn’t mean that it’s good enough for someone else.”
Fix the fix: Be sure that all work — DIY and professional — is completed in compliance with local building codes and inspected accordingly. Keep copies of all municipal inspections and proof of fulfillment of codes so you can show a potential buyer that the house complies with code.
2. Don’t confuse code compliance with quality of work.
Municipal inspectors confirm that work in process is up to the standards set by the building code, explained Decker, but code compliance is no guarantee of final quality.
For example, inspectors agree, a municipal inspector would visit a bathroom remodel that includes a walk-in shower when the walls were open to see that the shower pan and plumbing was completed properly to that point. But the next stage of work would call for closing the walls with appropriate water-resistant finish materials, such as wallboard, tile and grout, and properly sealing all the joints to ensure that water did not seep into the wood structure. If the tile was done poorly, water could infiltrate the wood framing, inviting mold and rot.
Fix the fix: Know how to confirm the quality of work at each stage so that you can confirm that work done by you or subcontractors is up to snuff.
3. Don’t mistake online videos for actual training.
“They look at something on YouTube and it’s totally not related to what they want to do, but they apply what they see to the project anyway,” said Merritt of overambitious homeowners.
An all-too-common mistake is to follow an online tutorial about installing a bathroom sink to become a kitchen sink, or vice versa. Turns out, a sink is not a sink is not a sink.
“The hot water is always on your left and the cold is always on your right, but when you’re lying on your back underneath, they look backwards, so people install the hot on the right and the cold on the left,” said Merritt.
The corresponding error for electrical work is to literally cross the wires. “It works backwards or not at all,” he said.
Fix the fix: If you must DIY a plumbing or electrical project, follow a tutorial that illustrates exactly what you want to do. Check with additional sources to confirm industry standards for the project so you can confirm that the completed work functions properly.
4. Don’t mistake enthusiasm for skill.
How hard could it be to paint and tile? After all, enthusiasm trumps skill in all those television fix-up shows. A survey conducted by the National Association of Realtors found that homeowners who did their own work on their houses were happier with the results.
While some amateurs do good work, shoddy do-it-yourself projects are counterproductive, said Michael Gobber, president of the Mainstreet Organization of Realtors, which represents suburban Chicago agents. “People can see the circles on the floor where you sanded and they can feel the tiles that are uneven when they walk on the bathroom floor,” he said.
Fix the fix: Only do it yourself if it really needs to be done and if you can do it right. Sellers often assume that they must update finishes for a polished presentation and to justify the highest price, but that’s not always so, said Gobber. “You should focus on decluttering and cleaning, and a few items, like professionally refinished floors and painting, if it needs freshening,” he said. “Don’t do big projects like renovating the kitchen guessing at what buyers want.”
5. Don’t assume your basement is an easy project.
What you can’t see in a DIY finished basement is where the problems lurk, said Decker. “If you’re not doing the proper work, you’ll get dampness, puddling and seepage. And any time you have water and cellulose together, you’re going to get mold,” he said. Sure signs that a moldy or damp basement has been covered up include newly replaced wood and new paint, he said.
Fix the fix: Learn the norm for the neighborhood before embarking on a DIY basement project or buying a house with one. Insurance agents can likely pull the history of flooding and water damage claims for the area. It’s unlikely that one house will escape a neighborhood-wide problem, said Decker. Document remediation with drain tiles or other professional solutions.
6. Don’t blow off air quality and venting.
It’s amateur 101 to vent exhaust fans and appliances into attics or garages instead of the great outdoors, said Decker. Directing warm, often moist, air to an enclosed space sets up a mold farm and can foster wood rot. As well, using the wrong filters for air flow and furnaces can trap toxins and dirt.
Fix the fix: Make sure that air goes outside, where it belongs. Sealing vents at the roofline may require professional attention. Always confirm that you’re using the correct filters and attachments for heating and cooling systems, according to the manufacturer’s directions.
7. If you are buying a DIY–improved house, don’t assume that the listing and disclosures are accurate and complete.
“The agent may not lie, but they might not tell you the whole truth,” said Corey B. Stern, a partner in the Lisle-based real estate law firm of Chitkowski Law Offices. Listings are sales tools designed to spark attention, not indicate the quality of the work, he said. Aside from the typical hyperbole, expect to check out descriptions and claims.
Fix the fix: Homeowners should keep detailed documentation of the materials, receipts and permits relevant to all improvements and maintenance — DIY and professional. Create a paper trail that backs up the quality and value of the work, said Stern. “Make sure that what you brag about is documented,” he said. “If the house has been on and off the market, look at the prior listing sheets and see if there’s new work.”
8. Don’t expect new and shiny to distract from old and rusty.
Often, homeowners will concentrate their DIY efforts on new finishes and appliances and ignore aged, if functional, heating, cooling and water systems.
“They think that it’s working so it’s OK,” said Joan Sandrik, a Park Ridge agent and chair of the Chicago Association of Realtors professional standards committee. “But if the furnace and water heater and air conditioner are old, the buyer will assume that they’ll have replacement costs soon.“
Fix the fix: If the mechanicals are functional, “there’s nothing to disclose. If they’re in operating condition at the time of sale, there’s no problem,” explained Sandrik. That’s why it’s even more important that buyers should rely only on licensed home inspectors, and should require a written report about the age and condition of the furnace, air conditioner, and other mechanicals.
“If a homeowner can show they’ve been taking care of it, that can quell worries,” Sandrik said. First time buyers are especially concerned about expensive infrastructure, so offering a home warranty can placate their concerns, she added.
9. Sellers, don’t believe your own marketing.
Smart buyers are rightly skeptical of hyped DIY efforts. Once they get wind that the seller — whether a homeowner or investor — has put in more sweat equity than cash, they will double down on inspections and might expect to deduct the cost of correcting problems in a post-inspection negotiation.
Fix the fix: A professional inspection in advance of listing can document the exact condition of the house and narrow the negotiation parameters. “A third party report can show the buyer exactly what they’re dealing with,” said Gobber. For instance, if an element of a house is in iffy condition — say, a roof might need to be replaced in just a few years — it’s better to pay for an inspection to outline the cost of replacing the roof, instead of leaving the matter up to the buyer’s imagination.
Or, show the buyers the pre-inspection with documentation that the problems flagged in the report have been professionally fixed, advised Gobber. “Find out in advance what the problems are and address them. No surprises,” he said.
10. Don’t assume that just any house will sell in a seller’s market.
No, buyers aren’t so desperate that they’ll buy a bad DIY job, said Becky Kirchner, an agent who operates primarily in McHenry County and who is president of the Heartland Realtor Organization.
“Your DIY might look good in photos but people will see right through it,” she said. She recently toured a house with eager buyers who were dismayed to see that new drywall was off-kilter with existing trim and saw another house with a remodeled kitchen that had such an oversized island that adjacent living space was effectively eliminated.
Fix the fix: Don’t lose sight of the overall layout and functionality, said Kirchner. Don’t try to rethink the whole house in an attempt to read the minds of today’s buyers. Give yourself a reality check with Remodeling magazine’s Cost. Vs. Value report, which offers a current snapshot of how much money you are likely to get back from common home maintenance and improvement projects, and plan your efforts and investment accordingly.
Joanne Cleaver is a freelance reporter.