Things Best Left to Professionals – When DIY Doesn't Work
by Albert Fontenot
"Do-it-yourself projects are rarely as easy as they seem, and all too often it ends up costing you."
~Angie Hicks, founder of Angie's List
As a Charleston landlord, you have come to realize that you can save thousands of dollars if you perform as many of the routine maintenance chores and repairs on your rental properties as you can yourself, rather than paying an expensive outside contractor.
Mowing the lawn, changing the carpeting, painting on the interior... It seems like over the years, you have actually done it all, and the money that you have saved has really added up. Even better, each completed project gives you more confidence and practical skill to tackle the next repair/renovation project.
But… when is that confidence and skill misplaced? Are there times where you should just forgo doing it yourself and hire a professional instead?
The stubborn part of you wants to say no. After all, you've been doing the work on your properties for years, and nothing has gone wrong yet. Why should you give up your hard-earned money to some contractor when you are perfectly capable of tackling any needed repairs or renovations?
But the smart part of you needs to admit that there are in fact certain projects that look easy enough to do, but are best left to experienced professionals. On these projects, just suck it up, look in the Charleston Yellow Pages, and find someone who's just a bit more qualified than you are.
If you're like most landlords, you probably carry adequate liability insurance. But what you may not realize is the fact that property liability insurance and warranties do not typically offer protection for any work you do on your property, unless you are certified or use manufacturer-approved installation methods. In other words, if any mistakes are made, the entire burden is yours alone.
Contractors, on the other hand, usually have insurance that covers liability for their work. If you pay them and they make any error that damages your property, they are liable for the additional repairs.
There are three main questions you should ask yourself whenever you're trying to make a choice between doing it yourself versus hiring an outside contractor.
#1 Is It Safe? – This is the most important question you should be asking if you are considering a maintenance, repair, or renovation project. According to the United States Department of Labor, one out of every five workplace-related deaths in 2013 was in construction.
To be totally safe, you need the required levels of both skill and experience, and you also need the right equipment for the right job. If you don't have all three already at your disposal, then let a professional take care of this job for you.
#2 Is It Legal? – You would be surprised how many times landlords get into trouble because they did not ask themselves this question. Try to circumvent regulations and permits, and you could find yourself facing hefty fines. Try to cut corners and as a result, the property is not up to code, once again, hefty fines. If someone on your property gets injured due to your faulty work, you are liable.
#3 Do I Have the Time? – The old adage "time is money" is actually true. If you are a retiree or if being a landlord is your full-time job, you might think that it does not matter how long it takes for you to complete a project. You would be wrong.
If it takes you days or even weeks to do one a repair that would take a professional service contractor a fraction of that time, what did you actually save? Were there any other productive tasks that you could be doing? How much inconvenience did your tenants suffer?
If the property was occupied while you were taking too long on your project, that inconvenience may affect tenant retention. If the property was uninhabitable until the work was done, then you may have cost yourself occupancy. Either way, you actually cost yourself money – and time! – trying to be penny-wise and pound-foolish.
This is a list of those renovations, repairs, and maintenance tasks that are best handled by trained and qualified Charleston contractors. If any of these are on your "to do list", then you probably need to make a few revisions.
Anything to Do with a Roof
Why Not? Falls are the #1 cause of death for work-related instruction that in 2013, accounting for over 36% of all fatalities. Besides the risk yourself, if you make any mistakes during your repair or installation, you also run the risk of causing major water damage to your entire home during inclement weather. In addition, a faulty installation could void your roof's warranty.
Do this instead – Inspect the attic and the interior ceiling throughout the house telltale water stains or other signs of a leaky roof.
Anything Subject to the Asbestos Abatement Law or the RRP Rule
If your rental property is an older home that was built pre-1980, there could be a distinct possibility that it might contain the presence of either asbestos or lead-based paint, both of which have been identified as hazardous materials by the Environmental Protection Agency.
While the mere presence of asbestos or lead-based paint in a home is not hazardous, any work that disturbs these substances can create dust that is extremely dangerous.
In both cases, very stringent legislation was passed, setting forth strict guidelines about how either material is to be contained and disposed of when Repairs, Renovations, or Painting occur. Failure to comply can be fines of up to $37,500 per day per infraction.
If a contractor is working on a home older than 1979, that contractor must be officially certified by the EPA that they are knowledgeable of and will comply with the regulations. Landlords are held to the same standard.
In Charleston, the presence of lead is a real problem. Just five years ago, Charleston was the only city in South Carolina to receive a federal grant to remove hazardous lead paint from some of its homes. The grant was for $3 million, and it was the maximum amount awarded anywhere in the country, according to the Post and Courier.
Do this instead – If you are going to undertake any projects of any sort on your older property, first have the specific area where you are working professionally tested for the presence of lead or asbestos, and maintain that documentation. If lead or asbestos is found, then you definitely must hire a certified contractor.
Major Plumbing Repairs/ Gas Appliance Repair
The problem with doing either one of these repairs yourself is the fact that if there is any kind of leak, however small, both water and gas will find it. A home may have several appliances that run on gas – hot water heater, oven, and clothes dryer, for example.
You may feel that replacing a hot water heater is within your capability, and during the project, you may feel that you've taken every precaution, but as an "unprotected contractor”, you have no margin for error. A water leak can cause significant damage to the rest of your home, while a gas/carbon monoxide leak can actually be hazardous. In the United States, more than 400 people a year are killed by accidental carbon monoxide poison.
Do this instead – If you pay the water bill on your property, save yourself a ton of money and make your tenant happy by replacing a leaky or clogged shower head.
Cutting Down Tree Branches
On the surface, trimming unruly tree branches would seem to be a pretty straightforward task, and for low-hanging branches, that assessment would be correct. However, if the branch is in question are higher than you can reach from the ground, it's a much better idea to hire professional tree trimmer. Professional tree service contractors, also called arborists, will be properly trained and have the correct equipment to safely reach the higher branches.
To ensure that you are dealing with professionals, rather than unqualified amateurs, you can vet the tree service companies in Charleston by asking for proof that they have an ISA Certified Arborist on staff. The South Carolina Forestry Commission's Community Forestry staff recommends going to the website of the International Society of Arboriculture to find listings in Charleston.
Being a self-reliant and thrifty landlord has served you well over the years. However, part of being smart means knowing your own limitations and when to be cautious. By knowing which projects to tackle and which projects should only be handled by real professionals, you will protect yourself, your tenant, and your investment.