Local Experts Urge Homeowners: Only Tackle Projects You Can Handle Safely
Pat McCarthy recently had an eye-opening experience when he checked out the home of a new client. They’d previously DIYed an extensive renovation, and were upset because the ceiling was sagging dangerously low.
“When we checked it out, the homeowner had actually taken out the home’s load-bearing wall,” says McCarthy, owner of Pat McCarthy Renovations. “Not only that, but they’d installed a big soaker tub above where the wall had been.”
A filled soaker tub weighs thousands of pounds. Without a support wall, the floors had cracked and popped – causing the entire second floor to sag.
“We had to bring in engineers to install new joists, and make sure everything was safe again,” says McCarthy. “Whenever you’re dealing with a structural component, you want to bring in the experts to make sure it’s done properly – and that no corners are cut.”
Paul Pettipas, CEO of the Nova Scotia Home Builders’ Association, says it’s a matter of knowing what you can do – and what you can’t do.
“When something is outside of your capabilities, then it’s important to hire a professional,” says Pettipas. “You need the right person for the job – someone who is certified, and has the qualifications and training.”
Before hiring a renovator, Pettipas says homeowners need to check a candidate’s references, ask to see photos of their previous jobs, and make sure they have proper insurance. Homeowners also must secure a signed contract that includes the quote, a breakdown of costs, and the project scope.
McCarthy says a professional renovator knows exactly who to consult in any given situation – whether that’s a sub-trade, a member of a city planning department, or a structural engineer.
He explains that some of the most important aspects to a renovation are the items that people don’t see.
“An aspect of the project may not seem pretty, but it’s critical to the safety and integrity of the house,” says McCarthy. “The most important thing is that the home is structurally sound, and that’s what professional renovators do every day.”
McCarthy says he’s witnessed some “pretty sketchy” renovations in various homes, but adds that the issues are not always intentional.
“Something may look perfectly fine to the average homeowner, because they don’t realize it was a problem to remove that part of the wall, or cut out that area of the floor,” says McCarthy.
McCarthy says it’s a good idea to find renovators with experience working on the same types of projects, so you can feel confident they understand the process.
“If you’re hiring someone who usually only does bathrooms to do a full renovation of an addition, they won’t have the same expertise,” says McCarthy. “You want to make sure they don’t miss any steps, and that they organize themselves properly, and that’s what a professional will do.”
Gordon Smith of G & I Smith Home Improvements says a common problem is range hoods and bathroom fans that are vented through the attic – rather than directly outside.
“That leads to moisture in the attic, and moisture brings mould, and mould creates poor indoor air quality,” says Smith.
He says it’s also not uncommon to see junction boxes buried in a wall – with the live wires still attached!
“We’ve seen junction boxes with live wires buried in the walls of bathrooms – right behind the shower, all tiled in!” says Smith. “Often, the homeowner has no idea, because they are unaware it is even there.”
One of the most dangerous issues Smith has seen is when a homeowner or inexperienced person cuts or removes a home’s load-bearing walls or structural beams.
“A homeowner might just want to cut through the beam to run a pipe, so they can move the toilet from one side of the room to the other,” explains Smith. “But if it’s a load-bearing beam, that can have a serious impact on the integrity of the home.”
Like all aspects of construction there are building code requirements for decks, spans, attachments, etc. Smith adds that we know that there have been news articles about decks that have collapsed because of improper support or attachment to the house in the past. The consequences of the above are not issues homeowners should have to deal with.
One of the benefits of hiring a professional renovator is that they bring in skilled sub trades as required – like electricians, plumbers, and heating and ventilation specialists.
“Experienced renovators bring with them the knowledge to work with other qualified trades to ensure the safety and structural integrity of the finished product,” says Smith.
If homeowners are going to attempt renovations, they need to familiarize themselves with the building codes and requirements and required inspections, says Smith.
“Building codes are there for a reason – they’re there to help you, and protect your home your family,” says Smith.
A renovator’s reputation is critical, so Smith says a true professional would never take shortcuts that could hurt a client – or jeopardize their good standing in the industry.
Of course, that’s not to say that all DIY projects wind up putting a homeowner in a dangerous situation. Smith says there are many excellent projects completed by skilled homeowners with the knowledge and the proper tools.
Dan Monk of Monk Renovations has seen some interesting quick-fixes over the years – especially in bathrooms.
“We’ll see people who have used electrical tape or duct tape to stick garbage bags against a wall in their bathroom as a ‘waterproof’ solution,” says Monk. “What happens is that the water still seeps behind the garbage bag, and they’re encouraging mould to grow.”
“People will have rot or water damage, and rather than dealing with the issue, they will just patch over it,” says Monk. “You need to trace the problem back to the root, and address it, or else it’s going to keep coming back.”
Monk says a homeowner will spend $20,000 or more on a renovation and simply ignore a leaky roof or plumbing or drainage issues – but it will come back to haunt them, every time.
“The finished renovation might look great, but that underlying problem is going to continue to fester,” says Monk. “It might have cost you a few hundred dollars to fix it at the time, but now you’ll have to rip everything out to do the repair – and it’s going to cost a lot more.”
Monk says homeowners sometimes find themselves in a sticky situation if they’ve purchased their home from a “house-flipper” – someone who bought a home, quickly fixed it up, and turned around to sell it again.
“Flippers are trying to make as much money as possible, so they often do most – or all – of the work themselves, and they may not know anything about construction,” says Monk. “It’s a huge challenge, because people who are buying the home often don’t realize it’s been modified by someone who wasn’t really qualified.”
The idea of adding a basement bathroom appeals to a lot of homeowners, but Monk says if you don’t know anything about plumbing, you probably shouldn’t attempt it.
“It might seem expensive to have a professional add a shower or build an entire bathroom, but it’s worth it to have someone who knows what they’re doing,” says Monk.
There are dozens of renovation TV shows that make projects look easy, but Monk says they “never show the hard parts.”
“People think something’s going to be very easy, and then they muddle it up because they don’t understand what they’re doing,” says Monk.
He jokes that “YouTube University” also gives people a false impression that a project will be simple.
“It can be a very effective way to watch an instructional video made by a supplier, for example, but it also gives people the idea that they can tackle projects beyond their skill level,” says Monk. “If your only source of knowledge is a YouTube video, you definitely want to go a little deeper.”
“Explain what you want, and have the renovator describe the scope of the project and everything that’s involved,” says Monk. “Then you might say ‘OK, I can handle that,’ or you might realize you need to hire a professional. It may be too big to handle on your own.”
“If you’re sick, you’d call a doctor,” says Monk. “So when it comes to a serious renovation that requires calling a professional renovator, why wouldn’t you want to call a professional instead of trying to handle it yourself?”