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Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
Over the years, I’ve taken on a lot of home improvement tasks on my own — and that DIY approach has meant I’ve made some mistakes. I’ve used the wrong tools, made holes in walls, fallen for false promises made on late night “As Seen on TV!” infomercials.
We’ve all been there. Home maintenance is intimidating, and it’s easy to think, “I’m just not handy.” But then I started following Mercury Stardust, known as The Trans Handy Ma’am on TikTok. She’s been in home maintenance for 14 years.
Here are her tips on how to do your own basic home maintenance — and when to call in the pros.
Prepare for a trip to the hardware store
Hardware stores can be overwhelming. But with a little research you can learn how to talk “hardware.”
Before you go anywhere, take these steps:
Identify the problem and its location. Ask yourself, “What’s going wrong? Where is it going wrong?” Is it a flood or a leaky pipe? Where is it coming from?
Isolate the problem. “Is water coming from a pipe that I can turn off?”
Do some research, if you have time. See how other people made the same repair. Learn what they call the materials and the methods they use to fix the issue. Every situation is different and so is every home, but with some different perspectives you can communicate your needs effectively to the store clerk.
In this scenario your question might sound like:
I have a leak coming from the bathroom sink, I found the shutoff valve and turned off the water. But it seems like an issue in the P-valve area. Where can I find a tool to take the P-valve off?
4 tools that will get you through most home improvement tasks
I know those 80 piece sets are attractive and cheap, but when has attractive and cheap ever been a good thing?
“Do not trust quantity when we’re talking about home kits,” Mercury says. “You want quality, and you’re not going to get that usually in a tool kit. Buying individual tools will be best for you”
Here are four tools everyone should have in their toolkits:
- Adjustable pliers
- 10-in-1 multi-bit screwdriver
- Allen key (also known as a hex key or Allen wrench)
- Utility knife
These are the basics that can get you through a lot of home improvement tasks, but depending on the projects you tackle, you may need to add other tools. For example, you might want a sledge hammer for demolition. If you’re going to do electrical work, you might want insulated tools. The research you do before your trip to the hardware store will help you here.
For your first project, try unclogging your own sink
Now that you have tools, find one project to help you get more comfortable with home maintenance. My favorite: removing a clog from a drain!
Go ahead and skip the chemical drain cleaner. Unless a clog is at the very top of the drain no goo is going to blast a wad of hair, paper, kids’ toys through a labyrinth of piping. Go straight to the non-chemical fix: a hand auger or drain snake.
And know your limits. If your drain snake comes back without goo and grossness on it, it’s likely that the clog is more than eight feet deep – which means, it’s time to call a professional.
You can always ask for help
Speaking of professionals, you can always ask for help, and learn a few things in the process.
If you’re a renter, putting in a work order is your best bet. This protects you: it ensures that there’s a record that your apartment has been maintained, and that you’ve asked your building’s management to address any issues.
Here are tips to get your work order addressed quickly – and make sure you get your security deposit back:
- Start with the most pressing concern at the top. Be clear about what is going on, the point of origin, and that you need help NOW.
- Get everything in writing, even if you talk to someone on the phone. Make sure you send an email detailing your conversation after your phone call, and CC the property manager.
- Get a receipt after the maintenance work is done. When you move out, you’ll want proof that you addressed an issue, even if the maintenance work didn’t fix it. Mercury suggests getting a physical receipt, even if your place uses a digital portal: “You want to be able to say when you move out, ‘Such and such did this…they were here on this date at this time.'” That proof protects you in case the problem comes back or persists.
If you’re really having issues getting something fixed in your apartment, Mercury advises looking for tenant resources in your town or city.
The podcast portion of this story was produced by Audrey Nguyen, with engineering support from James Willetts.
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