A home renovation isn’t for the faint of heart. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a good contractor who can take care of the heavy lifting. But even that doesn’t mean you won’t be exposed to your fair share of disasters—including some that can be scary, some that can be traumatic, and some that can even be harmful to your health.
You can’t avoid every terrifying possibility, but you can do your very best to minimize the risk. And that starts with knowing what terrors could be lurking behind that ordinary-looking brick wall or innocuous, if hideous, popcorn ceiling. We’ve got your back, friends!
Here are seven frightening and dangerous things to watch out for when you’re renovating or remodeling.
1. Flooding and electrical issues
Smart DIYers call 811—the service line that informs you where underground utility lines can be found—a few days before they dig. The helpful operator on the other end of the line will notify utility companies to send you indications of any water, gas, or electrical lines.
But maybe you forgot. Or maybe you hit a smaller water pipe in your wall, which the water company won’t know about.
“Mistakenly hitting a water pipe can have consequences much more serious than just getting your shirt wet,” says Dan Barr, a property restoration expert with 1-800 Water Damage.
Say you pop out for a bite after drilling a hole in the wall between your laundry and living rooms, not realizing you just punctured a pipe. When you return, everything is flooded. Including a puddle around your drill—that’s still plugged in. Yikes!
If you hit a line and find electric tools or appliances submerged, Barr recommends locating your home’s main electrical panel and turning off the power before you start wading through the water.
“It could be charged and extremely dangerous,” he says.
2. Creepy creatures
True story: My fiancé was unscrewing a can light in the living room of our brand-new house—and a handful of wasps smacked him in the face. Fortunately, they were dead.
But what if they weren’t?
“You can have really dangerous creatures fall or crawl on you,” says Texas designer Pablo Solomon. Dead wasps are just the beginning. Depending on where you live, shuffling around your attic or inching through your crawl space might bring you into contact with brown recluse or black widow spiders, scorpions, centipedes, or snakes.
While there’s no sure-fire way to avoid creepy-crawlies, full-coverage clothing will protect your skin from bites. As for the years of nightmares—you’re on your own.
3. Mold invasion
Skipping steps during a renovation is sure to cause you major problems down the line. And one of the most commonly overlooked aspects of a home renovation is proper ventilation.
“Most bathrooms have so little ventilation that they unintentionally become labs to grow mold and mildew,” says David Schneider, an interior designer in Chesterfield, MO, who focuses on sustainable, green remodeling.
So any time you remodel a kitchen or bathroom, make sure you’re installing enough fans—strong ones—to suck out all the moisture-ridden air. Most experts recommend one 100 cfm (cubic feet per minute) fan per appliance.
Plus, a whirring fan can cover up any unpleasant sounds. This is known as “value added”!
4. Release of asbestos and lead
You’re probably already aware of your home’s lead or asbestos risk. Unless you had a particularly unscrupulous seller, you should’ve signed a lead paint disclosure when buying any home built before 1978. And the second you Googled “popcorn ceiling,” you probably spotted the word “asbestos.”
But still, maybe that’s not top of mind when you’re in a hurry to yank out your ugly old cabinetry or rip up that garish old tile to start fresh—and you end up unleashing unknown amounts of those toxic materials.
“Inhaling or swallowing even small amounts of lead or asbestos is extremely dangerous,” Barr says. “Any time you remove walls or ceilings or do major work on floors, you run the risk of encountering both.”
Wear a mask during small renovation projects to help protect you. For bigger jobs, such as taking down a wall, contact an indoor environmental expert who can take samples. If asbestos or lead are present, plan to hire a professional for demolition.
5. Foundation damage
Have you ever used a drill to mount a pot rack or a flat-screen TV and found that your hands are a bit … wobbly afterward? Your walls feel the same thing—and the jiggling can cause major problems.
Constant shaking and hammering from power tools can create new fissures and other problems inside your walls. You might spot water leaks or even cracked Sheetrock, Solomon says. If possible, peek inside your walls after you drill for any new problems and repair them immediately.
6. Damage to your hearing
Construction is loud. You might think it’s tolerable, since it’s temporary. But if you’re, say, remodeling an entire kitchen, your ears will be under siege day after day for what could be a protracted period—and that could incur long-term damage.
“The noise of saws, hammers, power tools, and other construction machinery can wreck your ears,” says Bryan Pollard, president of Hyperacusis Research, a Hearing Health partner. “Noise damage is cumulative and presents with a delayed reaction. And the longer someone is exposed, the higher the risk.”
So maybe your ears feel fine the next day. But will they be fine a week later? A year later? Or 10 years later? Pollard warns of tinnitus—that annoying ringing in your ears—or hyperacusis, sound sensitivity, and noise-induced pain. Maybe those bulky protective headsets don’t look so dumb after all.
7. Exposure to high-VOC materials
Wearing a face mask can help keep you from inhaling fumes when painting, but their damage lasts long after the color is applied. Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are chemical-emitting gases found in several renovation materials, including many paints, carpeting, or upholstering. You know that funny smell your carpet gave off for a few weeks after installation? That’s probably VOCs.
Many VOCs are known carcinogens, and they can cause headaches, allergic reactions, or asthma.
You can purchase low-VOC paint and carpeting to reduce your risk. Keep windows and doors open to ventilate your home and reduce the VOC danger.