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What are the most common DIY projects that you should not do yourself? What must be hired out?

Edit: Just to be clear, what we're looking for here are the things that a regular homeowner might think they can do, but should not.

Things that look easy but are actually hard. Last summer my landlord decided to put a new roof on the house. They removed part of the old roof, and then the the rain and wind started. It took them 3 weeks to finish. Much of their time went to securing tarps overnight or bailing water out of the attic. An expert crew would have done it in 2-3 days, and avoided all that hassle. (We're still finding nails in the grass!)

Things that have to be done right from the beginning and are hard to repair later. Like plumbing in a poured concrete slab floor.

Or things that could be dangerous in non-obvious ways. Like gas lines, where an overtightened fitting can fail, and the whole house burns down in a hurry.

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the landlord took 3 weeks to do the roof? eek. How big is it? I don't know what I'm doing, but it shouldn't take that long - I've worked on small roofs that we had finished in a day or two with just a couple guys (none were roofers). –  warren Apr 4 '11 at 15:31
    
@warren: The house was 1270 ft^2. It was cedar shingles, so maybe that accounts for some of the difference? I know they used a chop saw on the ground to cut the valleys, not a shingle hatchet on the roof. Once they got in to the bad weather, though, they spent most of their time chasing their own shadows. –  Jay Bazuzi Feb 9 '12 at 2:36
    
@Jay Bazuzi - cedar shakes definitely does make quite the difference :) –  warren Feb 9 '12 at 3:24
    
The roof example to me is an example of a diy job you should do more homework/planning on. It wasn't an inevitable part of the job that every pro expects, it was an unfortunate obstacle that any good pro would have anticipated--ie maybe don't start replacing a roof just before monsoon season, or, even a more common diy error that i make every damn time, don't assume an "easy" project will get done without a hitch and thus base your time-to-complete on how long it "should" take. –  Anthony Jun 2 '12 at 5:21
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19 Answers 19

Domestic gas piping. Seems like it's trivial to connect a stove to the pipeline in an apartment - buy a pipe and two thunks, play with a wrench - what could be easier?

Then you overtighten or undertighten some nut or use a wrong type of "thunk" and you've got a gas leak and possibly a devastating explosion. Saved 30 to 100 bucks but destroyed your own and others' property and possibly killed and injured people. Bad Idea™.

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In the UK you have to be registered to legally do gas work. The same sort of applies to major electrical work (new circuits), but at the moment you could do a DIY job and get it certified. –  ChrisF Nov 11 '10 at 9:33
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@sharptooth - What is a "thunk"? –  SamtheBrand Oct 3 '12 at 15:57
    
@SamTheBrand: Not sure if that's the right word, but I meant washer-like things that make different parts adhere to each other well. –  sharptooth Oct 4 '12 at 7:22
    
@sharptooth: Sounds like ferrules (US) / olives (UK) used in compression fittings on copper pipe. –  RedGrittyBrick Oct 7 '12 at 19:40

This reminds me of this question. Garage doors. The tension stored in those springs is pretty dangerous. Make a wrong move while tensioning the springs and it could take your arm off.

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The lady (yeah, a girl!) who replaced my busted spring last winter showed me how the tools she had worked for tightening down the spring, and then told me about a guy she worked with who had his arm broken in 8 places when the leverage bar slipped and the spring unwound. Yikes –  Jared Harley Nov 12 '10 at 4:11
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It is not only torsion springs that are dangerous. At least if they break on their own, they are still contained. We once found an extension style spring that had punched a hole through the back wall of our old garage when it suddenly broke one day. –  user558 Nov 13 '10 at 3:19
    
Not to mention the door rolling down by itself will take your head off, as I almost found out 2 weeks ago. Although, I did help my (subcontractor) father-in-law install one and it didn't seem so tough or dangerous. –  Peter Turner Nov 15 '10 at 16:44
    
When our spring broke a few years ago I found a place that sold contained units with a nut for a drill with adapter to turn to tension the spring. Seemed like it would have been to DIY, but we just shopped it out. A previous house had an extension spring that the cable snapped on and the spring did plenty of damage. –  Sean Reifschneider Dec 7 '10 at 15:04
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If you've got extension springs and there is not a safety cable through them, you should have one installed. They can be very dangerous when they let go, especially if they're oil-tempered wire as it tends to snap suddenly (versus hard-drawn and galvanized which may only stretch out instead of snapping). Torsion are very safe when left alone, but can maim or kill in an instant during installation if anything goes wrong. –  Brian Knoblauch Apr 5 '11 at 13:58

Brain surgery! Definitely a bad idea as a DIY project.

Seriously, I think there are few such things that can DEFINITELY be put on a non-DIY list or not. For one individual, changing a light bulb may be a stretch. For another person, tearing out a complete kitchen and redoing it, building the cabinets from scratch, is all a simple thing.

Years ago when I was faced with my very first attempt at a plumbing repair, I was worried I would burn down the house when I fired up the propane torch. So I did some research, talked to a few people with more experience. It went off without a hitch. The point is to do the necessary research in advance if you have no experience, and if you will be doing it yourself.

Of course, the presence of a mentor who can guide you through the tricky steps is incredibly valuable. This is one way that web sites like this prove useful. They offer a way to get that mentoring for a DIY newbie, from someone who has gone through the learning process already.

There is one other factor in the DIY scheme of things - the possession of the right tools for the job. For example, in my younger years I was willing to do things like replace the muffler on my car. After a while, I found that while this is something I am capable of doing as a DIY project, it simply is not worth several hours of my time, getting junk in my eyes while laying on my back underneath the car. A better choice for me is to pay someone to put the car up on a lift and do the job quickly, with better tools than I possess. Or, perhaps I might tell you of the miserable day I spent on a brake job on my car in the middle of winter, done in a windy parking lot.

What I learned was that I simply don't enjoy doing work like that, even if I am capable of doing it. I learned that for ME, a good DIY job is one that I have the skills to do, or where I can easily enough learn the skills needed. It is one where I have the tools I need, or the tools are inexpensive enough to buy or rent. A DIY job is one where I can do it myself for significantly less money than I can pay someone else to do it for me. And all of these factors will be different for every person out there.

My strategy over the years has been to learn my capabilities for such work, and what I like to do. Then as I need to do one project or another, to buy the necessary tools if I will use them more than twice. Use a tool once, I'll borrow it or rent it if I can. Gradually you build up the capability to DIY for many of the problems you will find around the house.

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Of course, anything that you are not legally allowed to do yourself is always off the DIY list. –  user558 Nov 11 '10 at 12:07
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@woodchips also anything that HAS to be done by a licensed professional. I.E. if you're selling a house and the house inspection turns up something to be fixed. Even if you can DIY you usually have to have the stamp of a licensed professional in order to pass the inspection. –  Scott Vercuski Nov 11 '10 at 12:23
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@woodchips ... why not brain surgery !?!? you have a power drill , some exacto knives and rubbing alcohol .... give it a go ! :) –  Scott Vercuski Nov 11 '10 at 12:24
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+1 for buying the tools as you go. Generally, if it is cheaper to buy the materials and the tools I need to do the job, I will do it myself. There are a few exceptions (roofing on my 2 story house, for instance). –  James Van Huis Nov 11 '10 at 14:20
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DIY brain surgery worked for Max Cohen in Pi! –  Doresoom Nov 11 '10 at 17:21

You should never do the stuff that's not fun to do. It took me a while to learn this, but unless you truly love hanging sheetrock, for instance, assume a pro will get that portion of your project done 10x faster than you ever would. That's well worth the money, IMHO.

I put roofing on that list. It's certainly a DIYable task, but a pro roofing team can redo your roof in one day. That's a good thing.

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I think one of the good rules for DIY is not to take on any projects where you can stop mid-way through to get a missing part or tool ... tearing the whole roof off the house isn't one of those. (although, I did re-roof my garage with my brother and a friend about 10 years ago ... and it took us a whole weekend, stripping one side and resheeting the other ... the professionals did my whole house in less time, and replaced all the gutters in that same time.) –  Joe Dec 1 '10 at 1:40
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@Joe, I think you mean "projects where you can't stop midway". This is an old rule from car repair, too. ;) ("Have a spare vehicle on hand." is harder to do with houses) –  Alex Feinman Dec 2 '10 at 19:05
    
@Alex : correct ... should've had a 'not' inserted in there. –  Joe Dec 3 '10 at 3:03

There are things you CAN do yourself, but some things you SHOULD NOT do even if you theoretically CAN. IMHO, major electrical is something you COULD do, but it's a lot smarter to have someone who knows what they're doing come in and at least check it out. also in this category for me are structural (load-bearing walls) and foundations, major plumbing and gas, and windows.

Just take the time to think "if I screw this up, but don't know I screwed it up, what could happen?" If the answer is fire, structural failure, major water damage or something else REALLY expensive (look up mold treatments), spend the money to have someone else do it.

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I guess everyone has their own opinion. I used to pay an electrician, but then I researched everything about it, starting from the main coming into the house, the circuit breaker, what all of the wires mean and how they are attached, the science behind it, the different wiring methods, how to read a wiring diagram, and finally picked up a copy of the national electrical code (NEC) and started small while checking myself and kept doing bigger projects. In my opinion I do not think it is worth paying for an electrician in my case, but I am far from certified. –  esac Nov 11 '10 at 22:03
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@esac - I think you're an exception then. Master Electricians do this thing for many years, including apprenticeships, and have certifications continual education. I think it's cool that you've taken the initiative to do that, but most people haven't/won't. –  dave thieben Nov 12 '10 at 15:52
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@esac, While I agree that basic house wiring can be learned easily enough the consequences of making a mistake must be considered. Back when I was an electrician (my first trade) I saw many potentially lethal situations caused by those who thought they knew what they were doing but got it wrong. You also need to consider things like whether or not insurance claims might be rejected if it is discovered the work has been done illegally (I don't know your laws), even if it had nothing to do with whatever caused the claim to be made. –  John Gardeniers Nov 13 '10 at 7:32
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I used to always hire out Electrical as I feared it. But after I had to fix a complete mess of a job from a pro I hired, I realized it's not all that complicated. There's not much room for opinion in this particular task and there's plenty of documentation out there. As long as you are paying attention to all modern codes and fully read up on the process, it's doable. Do get it properly inspected, though. In fact, where I live, HOs can do all electrical themselves provided it gets inspected just like the contracted work. –  DA01 Nov 26 '10 at 21:04
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@DA01: That is great about getting it inspected. Where I live, the work has to be done by a professional. What that means is I do the work myself and I never get it inspected. If I had the option do get it inspected I would. Stupid laws. –  esac Dec 1 '10 at 0:44

I'm a general contractor, and I make a living of correcting problems created by home owners trying to save a buck or two. Reading and researching online is great, but no substitute for experience and the proper tools for the job. The cost of fixing a botched job is always more than doing it right the first time, not to mention the agravation and possible safety hazards created. WHEN IN DOUBT CALL A PROFESSIONAL, or become good friends with a competent general contractor and ask for advice like my family and friends do all the time! lol

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I agree 100%. The challenge, unfortunately, is that in the trades industries, there are a lot of pros that are truly unskilled/uncaring. For every contractor that's had to fix a DIY mistake on my house (made by me or previous owners) there seems to have been a mistake that I've had to fix from a contractor I've hired. –  DA01 Nov 26 '10 at 21:01
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"WHEN IN DOUBT CALL A PROFESSIONAL" I agree, I'm a physicist and I wish electricians would call me before working with this electrical stuff that they don't even understand. –  mgb Jun 8 '11 at 17:48
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Competent being the keyword here. In my experience, doing sloppy work isn't limited to amateurs. So-called "pros" do a lot of sloppy work. Just because some guy has his name on the side of the truck and/or sits through the class the state requires for a license does not mean he is competent... –  bstpierre Jun 29 '11 at 16:37

I hear a lot about people trying to build their own decks which later failed, resulting in serious injuries and/or death. If you're going to build a deck by yourself, at least consult with a pro and make sure you get official inspections throughout the building process and upon completion.

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I'm a bit baffled by the responses here. Gas and Electric? Really?

The two things I can think of that should never be done DIY are things which inhibit your ability properly to react (auto-brain surgery), and things involving nuclear/toxic/infectious materials (and there's some leeway here if you really do your research).

There are many, many, many things which can be dangerous if done incorrectly. That does not mean they should never be DIY.

You can hurt or kill yourself with a toothbrush if you really try. Does that mean you should never brush your teeth? As long as you go into a project with informed of the requirements and consequences, I don't really see why you shouldn't attempt it.

Knowing your limits and skills is very important. However, your ability not being sufficient does not mean that a thing should never be attempted by someone else who is more skilled.

Maybe this is a national thing. I think the idea that people have to be licensed to wire your own house is nuts.

As long as you're not in a situation where your errors may burn down someone else's house in addition to yours, if you want to go kill yourself by being an idiot, it's your own prerogative.

In a communal situation (apt building, etc...), I recognize that having codes and requirements is necessary, but as long as the wiring is inspected, I don't see a problem.


Note - I'm distinguishing between never and generally here. I tend to think that nothing cannot be done DIY, if a person is properly motivated and informed. However, there are a lot of things which are generally out of reach of the common homeowner. The question title comes across one way, and the question body the other. My answer speaks to the never, rather than just the general.

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I'll clarify the question. (Welcome to diy.stackexchange.com. I think this could have been a constructive comment on the question, instead of a rant in an answer, and that would have been a been a better contribution to the site. ) –  Jay Bazuzi Nov 29 '10 at 11:54

I'll probably get skinned for this, but I believe nothing is a "never-DIY". I'm not a contractor, not an expert in home repair but I know two things: 1, humans have been doing a lot of this for a really, REALLY long time and 2, ask the right question to multiple people that do.

Most of the stuff I've done, I've done right (had others check it out) and that's strictly because I've asked 3 people that DO know what they're doing. If I price it out and find out someone else can do it for 15-25% more, they get the work ... except electrical and framing, I like doing those and I find them really really easy.

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Refinishing a bathtub in place. "It's just body work - I've done this a dozen times." Incredibly messy, hard to clean up, a ton of cramped work, and even with good ventilation - just an awful job. I saved my mom a few bucks, but never again.

On the other hand, I did try one of these paints on a bathtub I want to replace. It's been a year, still looks good. Gets horrible reviews though - I may have been lucky or used a different brand.

alt text

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I used one of those types of kits to redo the shower in the master bath - an epoxy based spray-on kit. The overspray was insane - I had to construct what looked like a Level 4 Biohazard plastic tarp shelter to keep the paint off everything else in the bath. Any part of my body not covered by respirator/suit ended up painted. After 2 years it still looks great - but I probably won't do it again. –  kkeilman Feb 13 '11 at 21:04

If you have the tools and can locate the how-to information, you can do anything. A DIY'er only gets into trouble when they enter into something where they have not done their homework.

The only cases where you should hire out are:

  • urgent things where you don't have the time to do the homework
  • the tools would cost too much
  • you hate or are physically unable to do the work
  • nervously, you've researched some contractors and are confident they could do a better/safer job
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I agree with this answer, but would add another bullet to that list- any time you don't feel comfortable with your ability to do the job right. For example, even though I am not an electrician, I have read, and understand our local residential electrical code, and am quite comfortable doing electrical work. For gas piping, however, while I have read the codes, and researched what I'd need to do, I am still not comfortable with doing the job myself, so I hire it out. –  MarkD Nov 12 '10 at 17:16
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@MarkD: I tried to avoid fussing about your reply, but then I remembered all the times I've been burned by letting others do my work. Why don't you trust yourself with the proper tools and knowledge over some bozo who may not care about your stuff? Risky business I say. –  Flotsam N. Jetsam Nov 12 '10 at 17:30
    
@Flotsam- my reply wasn't intended to cause "fussing." :) I guess for some things (e.g.- running a gas line), I put more faith in my ability to find/select a good contractor to do the job, versus my ability to actually carry out said job. As I tried to point out in the first comment, there may be something that you don't feel comfortable with, for a host of reasons (safety during the job, safety after the job, quality of the finished product, etc..), then it is probably best to hire it out. I use gas lines only as an example- for one person it may be drywall mudding.... –  MarkD Nov 12 '10 at 17:38
    
... for another it may be doing any electrical work. So I say, do your homework, read up on safety, read up on what needs to be done to finish the job safely, and correctly, and if you're comfortable with it, great, go for it. If not, there is no shame in hiring it out. –  MarkD Nov 12 '10 at 17:39
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@Mark: Ok, Ok, I'll stop fussing on one condition. If you do hire out, you better do homework on whoever it is you're trusting to do the job. –  Flotsam N. Jetsam Nov 12 '10 at 17:47

My experience has been that replacing existing things with the same or better items can be done DIY as long as it doesn't require more than 2 people and a lot of research is done.

The size of the job is also where you can get into trouble. I decided to remove the popcorn from my ceiling and make it smooth. It's been 4 years since I started the project, and I'm only now getting to a finishing point. I had people helping me at the beginning, but they all got busy. Doing it by myself has taken a long time due to having a job and learning how to do the work properly. I would never replace my own roofing for this reason. I also have a fear of falling off to my death.

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Removing the popcorn is to be done when you're OCD and just wouldn't sleep with another layer of drywall up there. The simple way to do it: attach 1/4" drywall over it. It's the only task that you'll need help with. Everything else you can do yourself at your leisure. Of course popcorn removal is something you shouldn't need any help to begin with. Wear a good respirator (not just a simple mask) -- the compound used with popcorn may have asbestos in it. Keep it wet while you scrape, and keep the scraped remains in a water-filled bucket until you bag them. Seal off the room. –  Kuba Ober Jun 13 '12 at 2:23
    
Getting the popcorn off is the easy part. All the home improvement shows show that step. It's the "making it smooth" part afterwards that they always skip that's the killer. –  Joseph Jun 26 '12 at 13:22
    
It's of course a killer the first few times you do it :) Drywalling is like dancing: you have to practice, and it hurts. It's all pretty in the end. –  Kuba Ober Jun 26 '12 at 13:55

Two things come immediately to my mind - gas and electrics, simply because both can be very dangerous when not done right. I'm always amazed to read about how much of each is done as DIY projects in other countries. In Australia both electricians and plumbers are licensed trades and their work may not be legally done by those who don't posses the appropriate license. That's not to say it isn't done of course.

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Granite slab counters are typically not a DIY install if you have any custom edging.

It can be done, but requires some finesse and skill working the slabs. Cutting out even sink holes, polishing edges and bullnosing and the like...

If you just have a basic pre-fab layout, it's easy enough to make straight cuts... but few surfaces are designed with this in mind. Also, hauling slabs is difficult.

Unlike something such as a tile install, screwing up the slab is an expensive mistake where screwing up a tile cut is pretty painless.

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As a staunch libertarian, I do not believe in govt preventing homeowners from doing any kind of work and leaving it open to be done by anyone actually betters the odds of getting more work inspected, which I see as the ultimate quality signoff. Conversely, illegalizing things like plumbing and electrical leads those who don't feel like forking out big bucks do it themselves to never get it inspected because the inspector won't even look at work not done by licensed professionals. That is bad news.

Now that I have explained my philosophical stance regarding the rules and rulers, let me say that it certainly makes sense to outsource some work even if you are in the top 2 percentile of handy enthusiasts. I believe the only things that are off DIY list are the things you don't enjoy and don't want to learn how to do or for some reason feel lacking capacity to do. I have, more or less, rebuilt my entire house and added a 100 sq ft shed (with power and electric), made a basement apartment [including dropping the floor by 8" (digging + new concrete)] almost entirely alone. Things include but are not limited to: framing, roofing, drywall, masonry (concrete AND brick), plumbing (gas too), electrical, the list goes on. The only kind of help I got was unskilled heavy lifting labor and, more recently, which fits in the category bolded above, finishing drywall. Mudding and taping drywall is just something that I have no desire to get good at. I will also get somebody to do my bathroom tiles (did the rest of bathroom all alone) as I am not the most articulated with very visual front-end work (lacking tolerance for tedium). I can say that I am more of a structural/backend guy, which is OK as front-end is cheap to outsource and I save big bucks on the things I am good at.

In six years, I have not had a single incident that involved FD or ambulance, the worst that has happened was realizing that I didn't get something right the first time and redo it (costing a few hundred $$ at the most).

But it takes a special kind of technically inclined person to do so. I see that you are a software engineer, like myself, so I am pretty sure you can analyze what it takes to do some kind of work. I cannot stress more the importance of being able to and having patience to analyze work, sometimes I will stand and stare at a job for an hour contemplating it and dissecting it into tasks necessary to get it done (as opposed to most blue collar contractors who seldom put much thought into projects and just do things by a learned and repeated routine).

Last but not least, keep in mind that what was off limits to DIY 20 years ago, due to limited access to information, no longer is thanks to the internet and forums like this one, connecting many helpful folk. I certainly would not have been able to complete a third of what I did without online help. The thing is, you need to know how to use that help and kindof get ahead in the craft farther than people who you get the help from. While this may sound arrogant, I do believe that having a foundation of critical and analytical thinking, as well as scientific method (which most contractors lack), trumps just knowing how to put two 2x4s together by sheer routine and repetitive action (which contractors do have). So you can take the trivial technical how-tos from them and supercharge them with your analytical finesse to get much farther.

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I suppose it depends on where you live, but in places I've lived, whether you DIY or hire someone, you need to have it inspected. –  DA01 Feb 14 '13 at 19:00
    
those are good places to own a home. cause there are places where doing some types of work are ILLEGAL unless you are a licensed pro. that, to me, is pure racket. –  amphibient Feb 14 '13 at 19:08
    
IIRC the only exception we had was pressure testing a gas line...that had to be done by a pipefitter. But all other electrical, gas, construction was all fine to do on your own (provided you still went with a permit and inspection). –  DA01 Feb 14 '13 at 20:08
    
it can be done with a simple gauge 3/4" fitting mounted on a T, if you have an air compressor (if not, you can use a bike tire pump). it is very simple –  amphibient Feb 14 '13 at 20:12
    
I have a ball valve as soon as the gas pipe enters the house. after that maybe a foot away is the T for the sole purpose of testing the entire system. i shut the entry valve off, mount the gauge, and pump it up (can't remember how many PSI but i think 3x the normal gas pressure) –  amphibient Feb 14 '13 at 20:14

HVAC work, particularly the internals of the system. A heat pump is one of the most complicated pieces of equipment in a modern home. And there's plenty of warranty issues involved if you are not an authorized reseller.

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Do you mean HVAC repair? What about HVAC installation? –  Jay Bazuzi Nov 14 '10 at 2:52
    
If you're not an authorized installer, good luck with the warranty! –  msemack Nov 14 '10 at 14:47
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What if it's out or warranty? –  Fake Name Nov 28 '10 at 13:09
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Interesting... A few years ago our heatpump fan failed and the place that installed it refused to call back (we had a butting of heads a year earlier, when I insisted that the $7,000 system they had installed the previous year should still be working, turned out to be a bad solder joint on the refrigerant line they installed). Anyway, the only thing that prevented me from repairing it was the fan motor was this 2 stage thing that I literally couldn't buy anywhere including the net, only available from the vendor, so we found an authorized dealer. –  Sean Reifschneider Dec 7 '10 at 15:13
    
The internals of an HVAC system are certainly less complex than the internals of a modern car, though, and people work on those all right. Modern HVAC is actually easier to work with in some respects, just like modern cars are. There are quite a few sensors that you can read out right on the intelligent thermostat panel (or a scanner on the car), unlike old models where it was bring your own test equipment or you're out of luck. You have to have some foundations of engineering to understand it, but it's certainly not magic. –  Kuba Ober Jun 13 '12 at 2:30

My very handy father completely rebuilt a house, doing absolutely everything himself or with family assistance (I recall tiling a roof) except for a couple of large repetitive do-it-right-first-time jobs which he could do himself but he knew an experienced professional team would get done much better and much faster: bricklaying and plastering.

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Homeowners should never do anything where they cannot list 3-5 ways in which the project could go wrong.

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Install tempered glass showers. I am a master jack-of-all trades who very rerely has to call a pro for anything. Tried installing a tempered glass shower, the glass exploded in my hands.

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Don't hit it on the edge. Beyond that, it's all good. –  Edwin Buck Oct 6 '12 at 3:29

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