What are the some tells of home improvement amateurs?
April 1, 2014 8:58 AM   Subscribe

Home improvement professionals and those with a critical eye for detail: what are the 'tells' of DIY home improvement? What separates amateur work from professional work?

I saw a comment in a home improvement forum the other day where the poster, some kind of contractor professional, was saying something to the effect that whenever they clicked on a photo album of someone's DIY home improvement project -- bathroom remodel, for example -- it always looks like shit to them because they can tell the difference between something done by professionals and something done by DIY-ers. They weren't being mean -- they were responding to someone's photo album with "and this time it doesn't seem that way. You have done professional-level work."

I'm assuming these tells go beyond ordinary obvious sloppiness like "the tiles were laid with inconsistent spacing" or "the sink is not level" or "that door is not at a ninety degree angle to the floor" or "those colors are an abomination". Maybe it's just a combination of many of these things.

So let's say I'm hypothetically completely redoing a bathroom, including floor and tiling, new sink and bath and toilet (the last two would be professionally installed). What are the details that escape the eye of non-professionals, but not professionals?

(Assume that *materials* are correct, i.e, not lining a shower with the wrong type of dry wall or failing to seal grout or that sort of thing. I am looking for cosmetic tells, although if there's something that everyone gets wrong I'd like to know about it. There is a lot of information about how to manage moisture issues and materials online, so that stuff isn't as ill-defined.)
posted by A Terrible Llama to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
DIYers tend to lay-down thick, irregular caulk lines, with conspicuous blobs in inside corners.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:04 AM on April 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Miters on trim work. It is tough to get right and takes real time even for professionals.
posted by bartonlong at 9:12 AM on April 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

Obvious seams in drywall.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 9:23 AM on April 1, 2014

Best answer: Hand-nailing trim with round heads is a dead giveaway, since almost any pro is going to use a power nailer and most basic DIYers don't have one. If a pro is meticulous enough to want to hand nail, there's no way you'll see the holes. That's not to say power nailing is better, just that if you see hand nails it's DIY.

Poor or absent filling of nail holes (including painting over) is a giveaway of poor finish work, but not always DIY.

Badly done intersections between different surfaces - how do the threshold, door jamb, and tile interact?

Paint line between ceiling and walls, if they are a different color. Is it wavy and thick or straight?
posted by true at 9:23 AM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

The "fudge" aspect. When you haven't done something enough to know how to do it properly (even after watching endless YouTube videos) and you do your best then fudge at the end to get it to look acceptable. A good professional wouldn't settle for acceptable, they would do it right. The fudge factor may disappear when you squint or see it from afar, but up close, it just looks like DIY rather than something done by someone who does it for a living. So I think it comes down to precision and experience.
posted by cecic at 9:24 AM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

As cecic said, the "fudge." It is quite difficult to get things to line up correctly from base structure to finish, and that's where it often shows. Corners should never be "good enough," trim shouldn't be "close".

Painting, particularly at the ceiling is a giveaway. Professional painters take a considerable amount of time prepping, taping, cutting, using sprayers, etc. DIY interior painting is hardly ever as good as an actual pro.
posted by shinynewnick at 9:31 AM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is not a cosmetic tell but a tell in the process of actually doing the thing. DIYers run into a snag or make a mistake or have to re-do something and get frustrated. Pros run into the same things (albeit less often) and understand that surprises and screw-ups are part of renovations.
posted by cmoj at 9:32 AM on April 1, 2014

Gloss finishes on woodwork trim. Professionals have a working understanding of paint flow, and can generally put down a gloss finish that looks almost enamelled.
posted by holgate at 9:35 AM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I always notice when things aren't at the right heights, or proportions are off. Also strange color choices, especially things that don't precisely match or are a shade or two off from standard.

That said, I'm not a contractor.
posted by Sara C. at 9:36 AM on April 1, 2014

For me it is always the caulking, the trim and the paint job that gives it away. People think painting is easy then get blobs of paint on their ceiling... It the finishes that give away DIY to me.
posted by saradarlin at 9:48 AM on April 1, 2014

Tiling up to the baseboards instead of removing the baseboards and replacing. Visible caulk at the baseboard-tile junction. Non-centered tile layout - full tiles at one edge, a sliver of tile at the opposite edge. Tiling up to the door jam, rather than cutting the door jam at the bottom and tiling underneath it. Grout that isn't smooth, mortar blobs in grout lines. Paint on lightswitch covers and fixtures.
posted by txtwinkletoes at 9:52 AM on April 1, 2014 [8 favorites]

Textured wall paint, or faux painted textures. Actually, anything faux done to save money stands out like sore thumb to me.

Failing to paint that very narrow space between the door jab and the wall.
posted by teleri025 at 10:13 AM on April 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Painting around rather than removing and then reinstalling light switch plates, electric plates, wall-mounted mirrors and lighting fixtures. And my experience was not a DIY, although in the end it looked like it.
posted by citygirl at 11:42 AM on April 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

A lot of it is practice. The examples you give in your question as being "ordinary obvious sloppiness" are not as easily preventable as you seem to think they are. The door's not at a 90-degree angle to the floor... or the ceiling... or parallel to the wall, because once you started in on the project, you discovered that none of your walls are at exact 90-degree angles, and the floors slope. That's the facts of life in many houses, especially buildings older than 40 years. The average YouTube how-to video doesn't cover that type of scenarios, but the professional has seen them 50 times before. Even their "fudge factor" looks professional, because they've learned how to do that.
posted by aimedwander at 12:11 PM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

As others have noted, it's the little things. Back when in college I spent a summer painting houses "professionally". Whenever we put electrical faceplates back on my boss had us screw them in such that the head was perpendicular to the floor.
posted by beep-bop-robot at 12:39 PM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For installation of things other than flooring or countertops you should not put too much trust in your bubble level or plum bob. No room is perfectly level and plumb, nor are the other things already mounted in there, and you're often better off going along with the existing "horizontal" and "vertical" references. A perfectly level TV or shelf hung right next to a slightly off-level wainscot or ceiling looks wrong and amateurish, however technically correct it might be.

For the finish stuff others are talking about here, a lot of it is mindset. If you're just putting it together for your own use and something is slightly off it's easy to shrug and decide it's not worth redoing hours of work for such a minor difference, then by the time you've decided that maybe it would've been worth it after all you've already put 6 layers of other stuff and fixing it is really infeasible. A pro is ruthless about criticizing their own work and will tear it out and re-do it in a heartbeat if there's a noticeable problem. This is because they know if they don't they'll just be forced to do it later, when the tile and trim and paint is on and it's much harder but the mistake is keeping their customer from paying the invoice.

So when you finish a step, pretend you're doing this for a hyper-fastidious customer who will squawk if they see any imperfections, then decide if it meets their standards (not yours) before proceeding. The truth is, doing it the second time is always much quicker and you'll end up with better results all around, not just in the imperfection you noticed.

Also, and maybe this goes without saying, but I've noticed that DIY projects very often involve beer while professional ones almost never do. This is probably a contributing factor to the "good enough" look often found in DIY projects.
posted by contraption at 2:29 PM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Two things specifically I remember from a bathroom remodel: One, he was much more careful about the tiling--that thing about making sure you're not ending on a tiny little bit of it, but also going through and sorting them by how the color variegated so that they didn't end up with one half the wall looking markedly more peach than the other. Two, the edges. Paint, tile, whatever, the edges were all perfect. All as straight as they could be, no weird bulges, a crisp line where paint met trim, so very tidy in ways I had not been able to manage no matter how hard I tried. Part of it, I figured out, was prep--he'd put far more time into making sure that the old paint was scraped away and the trim was sanded down and the wall plaster patched perfectly so that trim and wall met just so. I had been trying to make a straight line over a relatively bumpy surface.
posted by Sequence at 3:38 PM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've also seen some DIY work that looked rather nice: "You did this yourself? ... Looks pretty good, actually." You sometimes see this with clients who have some arts/design background.

Patience, research, planning, and more patience. As mentioned above by Sequence, the professionals put plenty of fussing into the early preparation stages of events, & etc.

As far as "those colors are an abomination", well that's a different question. The client picks the tiles, but do they really come together as an aesthetic effect? The easy solution is to copy a previous color design that you like. The complex solution is to come up with a bold unique personal color design. You only live twice, so go for it! Unless you are planning on flipping your house soon, then just copy a standard generic color scheme.
posted by ovvl at 5:05 PM on April 1, 2014

Best answer: Usually this is hidden by the drywall but if you see the electrical before it's covered DIYers are rarely as neat as an electrician. Even if the wire isn't a spagetti bowl the slack loops (if they exist) won't be a consistent size; the wire will be twisted because they pulled it off a spool sitting on it's end instead of unspooling on stands; Staples will be driven too far or not far enough; cables will be bundled in weird ways; wire in the boxes will be too short.
posted by Mitheral at 7:37 PM on April 1, 2014

wire in the boxes will be too short
Yeah, that's the one that always bugs me when I have to rewire something and there's just not enough slack to be able to work there inside the box. I copied a trick from a professional: leave the wires long, but have them take up less room by winding them around the shaft of your screwdriver, like the spiral cord on a phone receiver. It won't be as springy and revert back to a spiral shape after you've pulled on it, but at least it'll take up so little room you can leave the wires long for future rewiring work.
posted by aqsakal at 1:30 PM on April 2, 2014

My son, the contractor, has many choice words for DIYs that weaken weight-bearing walls or make structural alterations without knowing what they have wrought.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:49 PM on April 6, 2014

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