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The Perils of DIY Law

Like most people, I like to save money. One of the ways I try to save money is by doing some home repair and improvement projects myself. Money aside, I also like the satisfaction of having done the project myself.

Over the years, I’ve acquired some respectable home improvement skills. However, I’ve had my share of “learning experiences” as well. I can’t remember any project I’ve attempted that didn’t have at least one unexpected problem I had to figure out. Frequently, solving these problems involved either time-consuming internet searches or swallowing my pride and asking the clerks at Home Depot or Menards.

As anyone who has ever attempted to self-diagnose a medical problem by asking Dr. Google about their symptoms can tell you, the internet isn’t always the best place to get reliable and accurate information to solve your problem, especially if you don’t understand enough about the problem to know what questions you should be asking.

My greatest home improvement failure happened was caused not by a lack of skills, but rather by a lack of understanding and awareness of hazards I could not physically see. I was going to install a whirlpool bathtub in a 1917 home I shared with my then wife and three sons. One weekend in late September, my youngest son and I were home while the rest of the family was at a school-sponsored camping event. That was the weekend I was going to take out the old bathtub and install the new whirlpool tub.

The old tub was an enamel over steel model that had been installed at some point decades ago. The usual way to remove a tub like this is to break it up using a sledgehammer. Unfortunately, at the time I was recovering from tendonitis in my elbow, so repeatedly hitting a bathtub with a sledgehammer was out of the question.

Internet to the rescue, right?

The suggestion I received from my internet search was to use a cutoff saw to cut the bathtub into smaller pieces and remove it piece by piece. Seemed simple enough. I rented a cutoff saw from a local rental store and started to cut the bathtub up.

A cutoff saw is like a larger, more powerful circular saw. I had never used one before, so I really didn’t know what to expect. I had a lot of experience using circular saws, so I approached using the cutoff saw with confidence.

Up to this point, everything that had happened was pretty much as planned and expected.

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When I started cutting up the bathtub, there were a lot of sparks and smoke. I remember thinking that made sense since I was using a metal blade to cut up a metal bathtub. Metal against metal creates sparks, as well as heat, so sparks and smoke were to be expected. Cutting the tub took more time than I thought it would. I stopped for the night around 8:00 after having made only a vertical cut about a foot long down from the top of the tub.

What I didn’t understand at the time, and could not possibly have seen, was that underneath the bathtub was a layer of fiber insulation. Apparently, whoever installed the tub had put the insulation underneath it to act as a sound muffler so that the sound of water running into the tub would be dampered. The sparks lit the insulation, causing it to smolder. The vertical cut allowed enough air to get under the tub to allow the fire to smolder and slowly spread. Because the fire was literally beneath the iron bathtub, the heat was trapped. Over time, the fire continued to smolder and become more intensely hot.

Did you know that hardwired smoke detectors have a lifespan of about ten years, after which their effectiveness deteriorates? I didn’t. By the time of the fire, we had lived in the house for almost eighteen years. I have no idea when the previous owner had installed the hardwired smoke detector. I can tell you that it no longer worked.

The bathroom was on the same floor as the bedrooms. Fortunately, the weather was still warm even though it was the last weekend in September. My son and I had been sleeping with the windows open.

At 4:00 AM, we were awakened to the sound of a carbon monoxide detector that had been plugged into an outlet on a landing going downstairs. We were able to get out of the house and call the fire department. When the fire department arrived, they had to chop through a wall with an axe to access the area under the tub that was burning.

That’s the story of my home improvement failure. The total insurance claim associated with the fire exceeded $100,000.

Why am I telling you this? Consider it a cautionary tale. Sometimes, people choose a course of action that initially appears to be the lowest cost alternative at the time. If all had gone as planned, installing the whirlpool tub myself would have saved me hundreds, or perhaps a couple thousand dollars. However, the course of events took an unexpected turn that I, in my ignorance, simply did not see. I did not even realize that starting a house fire was in the set of possible consequences to my attempted DIY project.

There are several websites offering people off-the-shelf legal products, including basic contracts, wills, trusts, etc. Some of these products can be slightly tailored by the website user by answering some basic questions. The sites usually don’t provide much information, if any at all, about “how can this product go wrong?”; “what happens if this contract fails?”; “what are the next steps I need to do to protect my rights under this contract?”; “does this contract protect me the way I need it to?”; or even “does this will accurately reflect not only my wishes but also what I want to have happened if unexpected contingencies arise?”

The law is a complex area. Understanding how to accomplish an objective in a way that provides maximum protection for an individual or a company is an art form. Understanding how a law applies to a situation isn’t as simple as merely looking up a statute—one must also consider how the courts have interpreted the statute. Some terms have very specific meaning in a legal context and that meaning may not be immediately apparent to people unfamiliar with a particular area of law.

Can a person draft a will or a contract for themselves? The simple answer is that most people have the basic skill set necessary to do so. A more helpful answer is that, while most people have the basic skills required, doing so is generally not in their best interest.

Sometimes what we don’t know we don’t know can—and does—end up hurting us.