TV home makeover shows give "DIY-ers" false confidence in renovation ability

Tom CorbettThe makers of home improvement shows like This Old House and Extreme Makeover have a lot to answer for. These programs give the impression that you can transform that plain-looking den into an amazing guest room in the space of half an hour, and that installing granite countertops and snazzy new cabinets is easy.
The home renovation craze has been further ignited by the growth of real estate as an investment vehicle, and with good reason: a $30,000 renovation may add $60,000 to the value of a single-family home.

But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to do damage control for a do-it-your-self enthusiast who has watched too many TV programs and wreaked havoc on his or her house.Â

The problem is most prevalent among condo owners. A lot of people buy inexpensive condos thinking they can renovate them and then “flip” the units – sell them for big profits. What they often don’t realize is that much of their units’ space is defined as “common,” or shared by all the condo owners in the building. Mess up the renovation and you can expect your neighbors to retaliate with a hefty bill or a lawsuit.

Where do condo owners go wrong? Below are some mishaps I’ve encountered recently:

The plumbing ace. I was enjoying a coffee at the home of a client I’ll call “Fred” as he was telling me about the new bathroom he had installed upstairs. While I was there, Fred needed to use the bathroom and, unfortunately, I got to witness the fruits of his labor, so to speak.

As I chatted with Fred’s wife, Jennifer, a few drops of liquid fell from the ceiling in the area of the upstairs bathroom. Needless to say, I didn’t finish my coffee. It turns out that Fred had used an epoxy to connect the tub and the toilet to the vertical toilet pipe. But he failed to adequately prepare the surface of the pipes, and the epoxy didn’t bond, resulting in a leak. Some of that leaky water seeped through to another unit downstairs. The condo board sent Fred a $3,000 bill to cover the water damage and repairs to the pipe, which is a common element.

Shortcuts with hardwood floors. My client Mary had bought a condo on Lake Shore Drive and decided to install hardwood floors. She enlisted the help of Boris, a friend of a friend who had a reputation as a handy man but wasn’t a qualified contractor. Boris didn’t read the building’s regulations regarding renovations, which stipulated that a quarter-inch of cork must be installed beneath hardwood floors to attenuate sound. Without the insulating cork, Mary’s heels transmitted every sound, like the body of a violin into the condo below her. Her neighbor could also hear Mary’s golden retriever and Irish setter playing in the unit at all hours of the night.

The basement hog. Before purchasing his first-floor condo, this guy apparently struck a deal with the developer allowing him to convert part of the basement into a living room. The problem was that the blueprint for the building that the developer already had filed with the city didn’t specify that part of the basement as a habitable space that belonged to his unit. Two years later, a Tomacor inspector needed to access the building’s cold water main on behalf of another condo owner. The main was located in the basement, amid the shelving and closets of the man’s “living room.” A court upheld the contents of the original blueprint, which stated that the space was a common element, owned by all. The man’s insistence that the space was his cost him money in legal fees and the goodwill of his neighbors. The moral of the story? Always check that the developer’s blueprints match your condo documents before you try to extend your unit and renovate it.

In fact, the moral of the whole story is this: enjoy watching the experts on This Old House, but when you decide to undertake a major renovation, hire a professional contractor. Or if you really want to go it alone, get properly educated. A number of companies and institutions, including Tomacor, offer classes in home renovation.

Thomas Corbett is president of Tomacor, Inc., (312-475-0835), a property consulting company that specializes in commercial and residential property inspections and expert witness work. E-mail your home renovation and construction questions to Tom at

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