Don't Do it Yourself: 5 Jobs You Should Sub-Out

By: Dan Cooper , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Home Improvement Tips, Old House Musings

Getting past “Look, Ma, No Hands!”

I no longer have to prove to myself (or anyone else) that I can be completely self-sufficient when it comes to restoration. I have executed pretty much every imaginable task involved with construction, from masonry to roofing to gas-fitting. You name it, and I’ve taken a stab at it. And sometimes it stabs back.

This can be painful and humiliating, but I’ve learned from the experience and improved where and when I am able. After 20 years of this process, I’ve also acquired the wisdom to know when to delegate; that there are certain jobs best left to professionals. While I’m about to incur the wrath of Building Inspectors and Union Tradespersons everywhere, these jobs, with few exceptions, have to do more with craftsmanship and aesthetics than they do with imminent death and destruction. I know I’m gonna get a litany of homeowner disaster stories from the pros in the comments section, but you can do a lot of this stuff on your own, with the proper research and practice.

But then there are the jobs you should sub-out:

Floor-sanding: It doesn’t matter how steady your hands are, we can tell you did the floors all by yourself. That ungainly beast of a sander you rented was a bucking bronco waiting to claw through your white oak, and the corner sander that accompanied it wasn’t much better. There’s a dip over by the fireplace where you avoided the hearth, and you did a mediocre job of scraping out the corners by hand. And your urethane is streaky.

Plastering: I don’t mean taping sheetrock; that should be in everyone’s repertoire. I refer instead to Plaster of Paris three-coat work or even skimming over blue-board. Ever wonder why home-made cakes never come out looking like they do from the bakery? Because you weren’t hanging around either shop since you were eight years old and they threw a spatula or a trowel at you and said “get to work”. These skills may not be genetic, but the touch that’s necessary and the familiarity with the materials is not something that’s developed over two or three projects. It’s a true craft and career.

Brick-laying: Yeah, we can all mix up a tub of soft lime mortar (you weren’t going to use modern, hard mortar on your old wall, were you?) and re-point some bricks into our crumbling foundation, especially where they will only be seen in the darkness of our cellars, but if you’re building a landscaping wall or face-bricking the chimney or exposed foundation, you really have to be pretty damned good to make it look professional. Even if you line up your courses okay, the pointing never seems as nice as the mason’s. And don’t think you can just smear the whole thing with more mortar; it’ll look like crap. I know; I’ve done it.

Tile Walls: Floors aren’t so hard, but walls are tough. They’re never straight, square or plumb and you’re fighting gravity the whole time. It’s very easy to go off-repeat as you progress around the room, and it’s very difficult to keep everything on a smooth plane. Case in point: subway tile. Ever been in a pre-war bathroom? The subway tile has flush, butted ends, not like today’s rounded corners; and the tile guy always managed to make it a smooth wall! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve beheld a new subway tile wall with the rounded corners, and it’s still bumpy and out of alignment. What’s the deal? I’m not saying I could do it better; I know I can’t! But if today’s pros aren’t as precise as those of a century ago, do you think you can do it better? Not me…

Tree work: Do you know what pros call that 14” thick pine tree that’s leaning against another tree and near a power line? A widow-maker. That’s because a civilian has no idea how heavy that tree actually is, and just how tricky it is to drop it with any accuracy. (But it didn’t seem that tall! I guess I shoulda moved the cars.) Felling a tree appears to be the most basic and primitive of the building skills; pioneers clearing the land and all that. It’s not; I’d rather work live on a circuit in a dimly-lit attic than deal with a runaway oak. Hell, it’s just a little shock, and that’s better than trying to dig your lawnmower and grill out from under your new lumber.

I’m sure there are other tasks that I haven’t thought of; feel free to chime in.


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  1. 3 Responses  to “Don't Do it Yourself: 5 Jobs You Should Sub-Out”

  2. Aug 29, 2011
    Great blog. All of those comments are valid to a degree. More people need to get in touch with their DIY side. Like you said in the tiling paragraph "But if today’s pros aren’t as precise as those of a century ago" And this is the reason we just shift our work onto somebody more experienced but if we did more work ourselves we would be able to do just fine alone. (just my opinion by the way)
  3. Aug 29, 2011
    I've got one for you! Today, while changing out old windows on a 1880's 2 story, we watched the neighbor and his "friend" next-door try to tuckpoint his chimney. It was a laurel and hardy episode complete with rope and bucket, swinging plank, hanging from gutters and crashing ladder. Not that some homeowners couldnt get r done, Im just saying dont try the high work yourself, unless you enjoy a little hijinks (sorry for the pun). Oh yeah, we have equipment to side a 3 story walk out complete with soffit and facia, gutters and any kind of siding, but the 6 foot ladder with the mended leg is the one we call "widow-maker".
  4. Aug 29, 2011
    This is a great post. We are not at the stage where we are working with tile or refinishing our floors as we are in the beginning stages of renovation. We were told that there were ways to save money on doing your own floors and walls but after reading this post, I am thinking twice about it. Thank you so much for sharing. Sincerely, The House Stupid Missus