Lessons learned from DIY disasters: ‘We watched YouTube videos ... things didn’t go to plan’

While social media may be full of dazzling DIY experts, effortlessly converting flatpack furniture into design gems, the reality, for many of us, is somewhat different

As any homeowner knows, there are always jobs that need doing around the house – whether it’s fixing a leaky tap, replacing some tiles in the bathroom or giving the living room a lick of paint; the list of tasks never ends.

Of course, in an ideal world, we would all have either the time to stay on top of these DIY chores ourselves, or the money to pay someone else to do it. But life isn’t always like that, and, more often than not, we will undertake a job which we are ill-prepared, under-skilled or don’t have enough time (or all three) to complete successfully.

‘Learned the hard way’

Sharon Kenny has long been a keen DIY aficionado.

“I’ve never been afraid of DIY and used to live in an old house where I did everything from tiling to wallpapering, as I enjoyed the feeling of achievement I got from it,” she says. “I even painted the top of that house in a cherry picker – the wall was about 70ft high, but I was strapped in correctly so knew I was safe, and ended up saving myself around €6,000.”


However, she says that she has learned the hard way by making her own DIY mistakes, including “ruining a bright space with paint which was too dark”. But now she has learned to take the time to plan any decorating, not to attempt anything too ambitious, and if the job is out of her skill set, to shop around for the right professional.

“My best advice with regards to DIY is to splash out on getting the right product as if you use something cheap, you’ll have to redo it sooner rather than later, which will waste both time and money,” says the mother of three who runs dating agency The Matchmaker.

“Also, although I’m braver than ever when it comes to tackling jobs at home, I know my limits. So my advice would be to stay safe and leave the harder parts to a professional, and get at least two quotes.”

But even this doesn’t always work out; Kenny also has experience of poor workmanship when the professional messed up and she had to redo the work herself.

Now living in a new modern house, two years ago she hired someone to paint it at a cost of €4,000.

“But the house is [a] wooden frame, and he filled in the cracks with the wrong filler, which made the situation worse as wood filler expands with hot and cold but caulk filler doesn’t, so it was creating more cracks in the paint.

“I got in touch with him to tell him (that the job on the top part of the house wasn’t acceptable) but he disappeared and I never saw him again. So that was annoying, but I decided to fix it and did all of the lower wooden frame myself. I had to scrape out what he had put in and do it again with the right filler, then seal it up and repaint it again. Not only did it work out great, but I saved myself €2,000.”

‘Botched attempt’

Kevin and Oonagh O’Sullivan know how important it is to do a job right. They decided to redo their bathroom themselves in order to save money. But they didn’t have the best track record at decorating.

“I will hold my hands up and admit that I have never been much of a DIY expert,” says the Dublin man. “Sure I can do the basics, like painting a wall, hanging pictures or even a curtain rail, but when it comes to anything more, I’m just not that handy. My wife will be first to admit that neither is she as after an attempt to paint the kitchen a few years ago, she didn’t prepare the walls and there was a big grease stain, which didn’t go away when painted over and in fact looked worse. But because it was covered in paint, it couldn’t be cleaned. So we had to paint that wall a darker colour [to] try and hide it.

“But our main bathroom had been needing a revamp for years and we had ignored it while our daughters were living at home, as they always left it in such a mess, so decorating it seemed pointless. Then, when the youngest went away to college last September it seemed the perfect time for an upgrade as there would be no one in it for a while.”

The father-of-two, who works as an accountant, found someone to do the job and agreed on a price, but his wife believed that it was a waste of money and that together they could “figure out how to do it”.

But things didn’t go to plan, and they underestimated the level of skill required – resulting in them having to pay an expert to come in and fix their “botched attempt” to “pimp up” the room.

“Oonagh was convinced that it would take nothing more than watching a YouTube video for us to learn how to tile the bathroom and had decided that the money saved could be put towards a nice holiday,” he says. “I didn’t feel confident about our abilities but she was adamant that it could be done, so I went along with it.

“There weren’t that many tiles in the bathroom, so removing them wasn’t too difficult and we were very proud of ourselves when we got started on the next part of the job. The bigger tiles on the main wall were fine and fairly easy to put on, but we didn’t notice until we had finished that some of them were misaligned as it was really difficult to ensure they were straight. It was frustrating to say the least – but there was nothing to do at this stage but carry on.”

The biggest problem for the couple, however, came when they were trying to tile behind the bath and the shower.

“We couldn’t cut the tiles ourselves, so we took them to the tile shop and they did them for us. But we must have got the measurements wrong because some were too short and some too long. But we put them up anyway in a bit of a jigsaw-type pattern, and if I’m being honest, the end result looked awful. And to make matters worse, when we were tiling the shower, I had to stand on a stepladder to reach the higher parts of the wall and ended up cracking the shower tray. It was a bit of a disaster to say the least.”

Fixing the problem set the couple back more than it would have cost to pay a tiler from the outset, as they had to have the tiles redone and get a new shower tray.

“I was reluctant to take on the job ourselves and unfortunately I was proved right,” says Kevin. “Now, apart from painting a wall, there is no way that I will do any home decorating jobs in the future. We all have our own trades and careers, and just as a decorator or tiler probably wouldn’t want to take on my job, I have learned to leave theirs alone as well – it’s just not worth the headache.”

Interior designer Kristine Hayes agrees, but says that most of us can do a good job of painting our homes without having to hire a professional.

“Changing the colour of the walls is one of the most impactful and inexpensive changes you can do to your home, especially if you do it yourself,” she says. “Be brave, go bold, try out your wildest idea. You might fall in love with your home all over again – and if you hate it, you can repaint.

“My advice would be to use water-based paint and a wax-covered drip cloth to protect floors and furniture from paint speckles. Also, use a big roller for most of it, a small roller to paint close the edges, and an angled brush to paint the edges. And, if you chose a good quality angled brush and go slow, there’s no need to tape the edges.”

Fellow interior designer, Tammy Lane says there are many ways that DIY disasters can be avoided.

“Safety is the most important thing so always use the right tools for the job and ensure they are in good working order,” she says. “Leave any electrical or risky jobs to the professionals and never attempt to knock down a wall.

“With regard to less serious DIY mistakes, the most common is probably getting the paint colour right. I really recommend getting peel-and-stick samples from a good paint company – put them in various parts of the room because different light will change the colour. Take your time and even leave up for a couple of weeks to really see what you think of them.

“Once you’ve decided, make sure to clean the walls and woodwork well beforehand so dirt or grime won’t prevent the paint from sticking. Also, use good clean brushes and rollers and wrap masking tape around new rollers before starting as when you remove it, you’ll take off any stray lint or hairs which will give a better finish.”

The Kildare-based expert says that preparation is key when it comes to any DIY jobs, and it is important to have the right tools and measurements before you start.

“Whether it’s wood, wallpaper or carpet, check and double-check every measurement before making a cut,” she says. “You can always take more off, but if you cut too short you have wasted your time, materials and most importantly, your money – so remember to measure twice and cut once.

“When putting up shelves use a spirit level to make sure they are even and when hanging curtain rails, make sure to use sufficient supports.

A good job depends on how the curtain rail has been put onto the wall as it needs to support the weight of the curtains. So make sure they are anchored into studwork or use the correct cavity fixings. If in doubt about anything, just ask staff in the DIY store or curtain shop for advice.”

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in health, lifestyle, parenting, travel and human interest stories