Removing walls, windows, doors, floors and other structural elements can be a relatively uncomplicated task, though it requires a strong back. Many ambitious homeowners choose to tackle these chores themselves and save the cost of hiring a professional demolition crew.

But nasty pitfalls await the amateur who too eagerly begins tearing down a kitchen wall or pulling out a window. Before reaching for a sledgehammer, carefully consider the challenges.Safety is job No. 1.

Approach demolition as if your mother were lurking over your shoulder offering advice: Be careful. Wear your gloves. Is that ladder strong enough? As moms know, it is almost impossible to overemphasize safety.

Gather all your safety gear before you start. You will need sturdy clothing, including a long-sleeved shirt and gloves; a respirator mask with changeable filters, safety goggles, a hard hat and good work boots. Keep a first-aid kit handy.

Never cut into a wall, floor or ceiling unless you know what wires or pipes are hidden inside. If you are working around concentrated lead paint or other environmental hazards, use the proper breathing gear. Proceed carefully. If asbestos is present - a risk in old ceiling tile and vinyl floors - it is best to call in expert help.

Ladders always need solid footing.

Before starting, be certain all utility services are off. After turning off the electricity at the fuse box, double-check circuits in the room where you are working by testing each outlet for power.

A further word of caution

There's rarely a way to avoid chaos. Major demolition slams into a home with hurricane force and stirs torrents of noise, dust, dirt and home debris. Hands-on author Michael Litchfield wrote about the process and its difficulties in Renovation: A Complete Guide (Prentice Hall; 1991; 565 pages; $29.95). Living in a house that's being torn apart isn't fun and it can be murder on marriages, Litchfield says.

Become Sherlock Holmes

Investigation comes before demolition. Keep in mind that mistakes are avoided much more cheaply than after-the-fact corrections. Include legal obligations in this category. Before demolition begins, check with city or county officials to see if any permits or restrictions apply.

Corral the mess

One of the keys to a successful renovation is managing the mess. If you're sloppy as you renovate, you'll pay later, Litch-field says.

Contain the mess by sealing the rooms in which you are working. Put heavy plastic over doors and windows so dust and debris are confined to the work space.

Since you know there will be huge piles of debris, plan for removal. It's usually best to rent a Dumpster.

Stuff worth keeping

Use extra finesse in removing materials you want to reuse.

Take out doors carefully; they are usually worth keeping. Trim pieces, wood flooring, cabinets and fixtures are usually worth saving, too, so treat them gently.

Tool time

As with any job, demolition will be easier if you have the right tools. Heavier equipment and power tools are usually available at rental shops. You will need a selection of metal bars (these come in various thicknesses and lengths) for prying and pulling; a razor knife; a strong pocketknife; a claw hammer; a sledgehammer; a metal-cutting hacksaw; chisels; and a wheelbarrow. You may need a ladder. Also, buy heavy, 6-mil plastic sheeting to seal off the work area and protect floors.