There are skills every homeowner should master. You don't need to run out and learn them all immediately, of course. But you'll appreciate them - and save yourself lots of money. You can tackle most with simple hand tools, either items you own or those you can buy for $10 or less. The only power tool here is a variable speed drill. We'll start at the front door.
1 REPLACE A DOOR LOCK:
Especially if you buy an existing house, with lots of old keys floating around, you might want to replace the exterior locks. On the inside of the door, remove the two long bolts holding the front and back of the lock together; remove the front and back of the lock. On the edge of door, remove the screws holding the latch in place, and pull the latch out.
To replace, just add new hardware in reverse order.
Door hardware needs tightening and lubricating over the years, so understanding how it works will pay off in more than extra security.
Tips: Before buying new hardware, check the "backset," or the distance from the edge of door to center of the hole for the deadbolt or doorknob. Replacement hardware will need to match; some locksets are adjustable and accommodate the two standard backsets. Also, the helpful people at the home center or hardware store can key all locks to be alike.
2 CHANGE FURNACE AND AIR-CONDITIONING FILTERS:
Nothing difficult about this. Be sure you know where all the filters are - on air returns or at the air handler - and how to change them.
Tips: Make a note of filter sizes and keep the information handy. (You want to be sure you have the right size before you climb the stepladder.) Also, learn how to clear the pipe that carries condensation from the air handler during the cooling season. The pipes can get clogged with mold and algae - and the water usually backs up and starts dripping from your ceiling when you have a house full of company. If your air handler is in the attic or a utility room, it should have two drains: one from the unit and the other from the safety pan under the unit.
3 LEARN THE LOCATION OF THE MAIN WATER CUTOFF:
It's probably in a utility room or closet, but could be at a water tank or near the meter. You don't want to go looking for it after a pipe bursts.
Tips: Familiarize yourself with other cutoffs, too. Don't forget the dishwasher and icemaker, for instance. And learn how to turn off the gas in an emergency. Gas valves, indoors or at the meter, are open when parallel to the line and closed when perpendicular.
4 FIND A STUD IN A WALL:
You'll want to locate studs any time you're hanging a heavy object, or installing molding or cabinets. Most homeowners know the tap-tap-tap routine; you'll get a hollow sound between studs, a solid thunk on the stud. (Most of the time.) The centers of the studs are 16 inches apart - so if you find one you can usually locate the others pretty easily.
Tips: Look for the heads of finishing nails near the top edge of the baseboard. Those nails will be in studs. Or, hold a flashlight against the wall, shining the light parallel to the wall. Turn the flashlight slowly to sweep the wall with light. You'll be able to spot the patches over drywall nail heads or screw heads that aren't visible otherwise.
5 FOR SPACES BETWEEN STUDS:
You'll want to use hollow-wall anchors to mount towel bars, drapery rods and the like. The most important rule is to match the anchor to the weight of the item you're mounting. From weakest to strongest, anchors include: plastic expansion anchors, threaded drywall anchors (Zip-It), winged plastic anchors, molly bolts or sleeve-type anchors, and toggle bolts.
When installing anchors, you can make small holes in drywall with an awl or sharp nail, but you should use a drill for larger holes.
Tips: You'll be more accurate if you make small starter holes even for those anchors that screw in. And, if you're not going to mount something in the same spot, it's easier to patch over anchors such as mollys than it is to remove them. Here's how: Remove the bolt or screw; tap the anchor lightly with a hammer until it's below the face of the drywall; cover with spackling; sand.
6 HANG A CEILING FAN:
This is a popular upgrade and involves skills that you'll use to replace light fixtures and receptacles.
The first step, any time you're dealing with electricity: Turn off the power at the breaker box.
You must make sure a ceiling fan is anchored properly. If it's not, it can fall. If you can move the electrical box with one finger, it won't support a fan. It's best to anchor the fan directly to the ceiling joist.
This can be a time-consuming job; give yourself a couple of hours.
Assemble the fan, minus blades. Then attach the fan's ceiling bracket. Hang fan in the bracket. Connect wires - black to black and white to white - according to the directions. Attach blades. Fans work best if blades are at least 10 inches from the ceiling, and fans should be no lower than 7 feet from floor.
Tips: Your first electrical project is a good time to make sure the breakers are labeled clearly and correctly. (Don't assume they are.) When hanging fans - or light fixtures or dimmer switches - make sure wires are securely fastened and avoid jamming wires into crowded boxes. If you try to force wires, you could pull them apart and create a dangerous short.
7 BECOME A STAIN MASTER:
Here's another lesson from Homeowner 101: You can't paint over crayon, ball-point pen, grease splatters on the kitchen wall or water stains on the ceiling without the stains coming through. You must seal stains first.
There are lots of good sealers and primers these days, but one old standby is pigmented shellac. A familiar brand is B-I-N from Zinsser, and the company's Web site (zinsser.com) is a good place to learn about the wide array of specialty primers.
Tips: Remember that you can tint primers to make them easier to cover with the finish paint. Ask your paint pro. Also, some primers - including pigmented shellac - seal in odors, too. You'll appreciate that if you live with a smoker or a cat.
8 YOU MUST MASTER A CAULKING GUN:
Some say squeeze tubes are easier for do-it-yourselfers to master. We think they're wrong. A gun's trigger gives you more control.
There are some tricks. Cut the tip of the tube at an angle, but with a smaller hole than you think you might need; you can always trim the tip again if the hole needs to be larger. Break the inner seal.
Quit squeezing before you get to the end of the area you're caulking. The caulk will continue to come out. When you reach the end, lift the gun from the surface and immediately remove the tension on the push rod.
Tips: It's important to choose the right caulk for the job. Use mildew-resistant bath and kitchen caulk for tub or shower; use paintable acrylic latex for that gap between wall and baseboard. Read labels carefully. Also, when smoothing caulk with your finger, resist the temptation to overwork it. Smooth it with two passes - the third will make a mess.
9 LEARN TO DRIVE DRYWALL SCREWS WITH A VARIABLE SPEED DRILL:
You'll repair drywall nail pops that way, of course. Pull the nail, drive a screw into the stud or joist a few inches away from the nail hole. The screw head should "dimple" the surface, with the screw head just below the face of the drywall. Cover the screw head and nail hole with spackling, let dry and sand.
With screws and drywall clips, you can make larger wall repairs. U.S. Gypsum, the maker of Sheetrock brand drywall, offers a handy explainer online: Go to usg.com, search for repair clips, click on "Install Guide."
You use the same screw-driving skills to repair loose boards on your deck. Pull any loose nails and replace with decking screws. Be sure you use coated or galvanized screws in treated lumber.
Tips: Driving screws with a drill is like putting in golf: It's all feel. Practice on a scrap of 2 by 4. Also, buy extra No. 2 Phillips screw bits. You always want a spare. You'll tear them up, especially when working on decks.
10 REPLACE THE FLAPPER BALL IN A TOILET:
Every homeowner deals with a toilet that leaks water from the tank to the bowl (and mysteriously flushes in the middle of the night). The problem is usually a bad flapper ball, the valve that opens when you press the handle to flush. The cure is easy: Buy and install a replacement flapper ball.
Tips: Pay attention to proper chain length. A chain that's too short or too long can interfere with proper operation. Also, clean the opening at the bottom of the tank thoroughly before installing the new flapper ball. Grit and minerals build up and keep the ball from sealing properly.
* * *
Do-it-yourself books are like tools: Buy one when you need help with a specific chore and, if you choose properly, you'll use it for years to come.
The most helpful books explain things with clear, complete pictures and illustrations. If you're considering a book, pick it up and flip through it to a chore you're familiar with. Could a novice follow the graphic instructions, based on your experience? If so, you'll probably be able to follow the advice for something new.
Here are three books we've found especially helpful:
- The Reader's Digest Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual First published in 1973, it was last updated in 2005. A great all-around book. It sells for $35 new, but you can find used versions online.
- Home Depot's Home Improvement 1-2-3 (Meredith Books, 2003, $34.95) Clear, helpful visuals, which is true of all the how to and home improvement Home Depot books.
- Home & Garden Television's Complete Fix-It (Time Life, 2000, $29.95).
* * *
TAKE A CLASS, HIRE A PRO
If some of these chores seem too much for you:
- Take a class. The short workshops offered by home centers provide basic skills for a wide variety of projects. There are projects for kids, too. Schedules are posted online at lowes.com or homedepot.com.
- Hire someone. The best way to find a tradesman is through a recommendation from a friend or neighbor. Or check out the roster of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, where contractors are posted by specialty, at nari.org. Also check out Angie's List at angieslist.com or Home Owners Clubs of America at hocoa.com.