With contractors and repairmen in short supply, many homeowners are turning to do-it-yourself videos, with mixed results.

Michael McKinney needed a new backyard fence.

Nothing fancy. Just a sturdy wooden fence to corral family gatherings.


Surely he could install it himself.

McKinney said that he considers himself handy. He knows how to follow directions. “YouTube is like a Bible. You can learn how to do everything,” said McKinney, 43, a South Side resident and lifelong Chicagoan who runs his own moving and distribution business.


And after all, it was just a fence: a few holes, a few posts, a bunch of boards in between. Was it really worth the bother of chasing notoriously difficult-to-hire contractors? When he needed it now?

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He soon found out: Yes. Yes, it was worth the bother.

A few weeks ago, McKinney tackled the fence project with one eye on cost savings and the other on online tutorials. When he was partway done, he realized that somehow, the vertical boards weren’t actually vertical. YouTube was silent on the topic of straightening out a half-built, crooked fence.

Stymied, he stopped. And called Sam Moore, who runs Semoore Fencing, which serves the metro area from its base in southeast Chicago.

In mid-2018, Moore translated decades of experience as a building materials sales rep to his own fence installation company. In the past year, his business has tripled. Misfired do-it-yourself projects are a relatively small but highly lucrative market segment.

“I have run into many people who think they can do fencing themselves,” Moore said. “But you don’t realize how hard it is to dig a three-foot hole in the ground until you have to do 30 of them. And what if you hit a gas line or cut a cable line? You can call the gas company and they’ll fix it, but if you take out the neighborhood internet, that’s a problem.”

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Moore’s team uprooted McKinney’s out-of-kilter posts and boards and started fresh. McKinney concedes that the $5,200 he paid Moore was worthwhile, especially for a highly visible exterior project.

A shortage of labor, parts and supplies during the pandemic has resulted in weekslong waits for contractors and home repair professionals, and some homeowners are taking matters into their own hands. Rather than wait, and spend the money for a professional job, they’re turning to do-it-yourself videos and taking on the work themselves. But DIY projects often sour, especially when homeowners run into the same supply chain congestion that’s slowing down professionally managed projects. And real estate agents and architects say DIY misfires can undermine the value of a house and even inflict after-the-fact fees and fines when homeowners neglect to get necessary permits.

With contractors and repairmen in short supply, many homeowners are turning to do-it-yourself videos, with mixed results.

An online tutorial typically outlines the basic materials, tools and steps, but it doesn’t fill in the details that spell the difference between DIY success and DIY humiliation, contractors say.

“There’s a certain type of lumber you have to use for an exterior project, and if you aren’t using rot-resistant lumber, the right nails, the right bolts, it will cost you more,” said Scott Savel, an Elgin carpenter who specializes in restoring vintage porches. “When you’re talking about anything that’s structural, you really need to assess your confidence.”

When homeowners call on him to fix projects they’ve unsuccessfully pursued, he said he often has to tear out improperly installed materials and throw them away, wasting time and money. And, it’s hard to take out enthusiastically but erroneously installed bolts, screws and nails embedded in strong new wood, he added.

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“People say, ‘I went on the internet and I read up on it,” Savel said, “But you can’t get experience off the internet. You can get instructions, but not experience.”

Plumbing and electrical infrastructure, along with the structure itself, are the most risky projects for homeowners to tackle with a link and a prayer, according to a list of DIY don’ts compiled by financial service company Hearth, which provides working capital to contractors. Anything involving water — from fixing a sink to replacing a toilet — can quickly inflict a flood. Installing major appliances and heating and cooling systems often invokes a devil’s intersection of plumbing and electricity — hardly a safe playground for inexperienced homeowners.

Seattle resident Rob Kenney became a YouTube sensation with his “Dad, How Do I?” tutorials on home maintenance and common-sense adulting advice. But his overarching Dad wisdom is to know your true capabilities and be wise enough to know when calling a pro saves you time, money and hassle. “Replace a beam? There’s no way I’d do that,” Kenney said.

There’s also the matter of time, and whether or not homeowners can realistically finish the projects they embark on. Teak Barton, who founded and runs Glenview-based Macnon Builders, a home renovation firm and real estate brokerage, recently encountered a living room littered with lengths of wood molding, discarded badly cut pieces, and a half-completed floor installation. “It’s clear that’s never going to get finished,” Barton said.b

It’s the DIY errors that homeowners cover up that make Barton and other professionals shudder. Northbrook architect Michael Menn landed a new client when a homeowner heard a cracking noise and ventured from the kitchen of her vintage house to the living room. A fissure was spreading across the ceiling.

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“Twenty years ago, somebody remodeled and did it wrong. They took out a supporting beam — 100%, that was a do-it-yourselfer.” Menn said. He rallied his go-to contractors and reinstalled the structural support required to keep the master bedroom from collapsing into the living room.

Menn and Barton agree that homeowners must obtain permits and have all work subject to municipal inspections approved. Skipping the permit and inspection processes could boomerang if the work subsequently fails and sparks damage, Menn pointed out, especially as unimpressed inspectors have the right to apply fines and fees retroactively. And literally papering over sloppy work could ricochet financially if a subsequent owner gets stuck fixing improvements that the seller implied were done in compliance with building codes, Barton said.

“If you represent the work as being permitted and it’s not, you could find yourself in court, and the courts usually side with the buyer,” he said.

Even the experts know their limits. Moore, the fencing company owner, said he’d never bother patching a roof, because replacing a few worn shingles often causes more leaks than it fixes. And he vows that he won’t touch tile.

“I’ve tried to do tile work myself. I thought you could cut tile with a regular saw and you can’t. And when you try to lay them down, the first one is straight and the next one is crooked,” said Moore. “I will never do that again.”

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