And 4 Other Home-Repair Tips from the Pros

Handling common home repairs on your own rather than bringing in expensive repair people could save you hundreds of dollars—or cost you thousands of dollars if you make a big mistake. Because of the possible pitfalls, home owners often are too scared to attempt repairs that are surprisingly doable. Before you attempt to tackle any of these, you need to know the secrets that experts rely on to avoid catastrophe.

Bottom Line/Personal asked three experts to identify some low-risk home repairs that truly are worth tackling as DIY projects and to reveal the twists and turns that will help guide you to success.

Greg Chick

Bungled plumbing repairs can cause costly water damage or other problems—but certain repairs are relatively simple and have limited downside…

Surgical instrument (hemostat or artery clamp ) on white background

• Clear a clogged bathroom-sink drain. A plunger isn’t always enough. And chemical drain cleaners such as Drano and Liquid-Plumr can damage plastic pipes and other plumbing components…corrode metal pipes…and/or alter the chemistry of a septic system if used frequently.

Instead, tackle the problem without chemicals. Start by removing the stopper. If it doesn’t simply lift out, remove the nut located on the back of the drain pipe just below the sink. The lever that passes through this nut is holding the stopper in place. (Some sinks have slightly different stopper ­systems.) You might be able to use a thin grabbing tool, such as hemostat forceps, shown at right, (available at medical-supply stores or online for less than $5), to remove the obstruction. If not, reattach the nut you removed when freeing the stopper (to prevent leaking and loss of suction)…then run the water…cover the sink’s overflow opening with your hand…and place the nozzle of a running wet/dry vac over the clogged drain. (If you don’t own a wet/dry vac, buy one—at around $60, they cost less than most plumbers charge for a single service call.) After a few seconds, move the vac nozzle to the overflow opening for a few seconds…then back to the drain (again covering the overflow). Continue moving the nozzle back and forth until the changes in pressure dislodge the clog—pulling it up to the vac or sending it down the drain—and the water flows freely down the drain.

Helpful: Dislodging the detritus from your sink drain in this manner might result in noticeable drain odor. If so, use a bottle brush to scrub the drain line. If the odor persists, put the stopper back in, close the drain, then run the hot water for three to five minutes with the water flowing down the overflow opening. This washes away the detritus that was causing the smell. Monitor the sink to make sure that water doesn’t spill onto the floor.

• Fix a running toilet the right way. First, make sure that nothing simple has gone wrong—remove the tank lid and look inside. Is the chain that is connected to the flush handle caught under the flapper (the part lifted by the chain when you flush, shown below)? If so, shortening this chain slightly should solve the problem.

Flush the toilet. Is some part of the mechanism snagging on another part? If so, making a small adjustment to one of these parts—adding a slight bend to a float ball arm, for example—could be the solution.

Flapper_capIf neither of these things is happening, the problem probably is a warped flapper. These fail faster than ever these days due to the chemicals put in the water by local water districts and the cleaning chemicals that some home owners put in their toilets. It isn’t always easy to select the proper replacement. Shut off the water to the toilet…flush to empty the tank…disconnect the chain connecting the flapper to the flush arm…then lift out the flapper—flappers vary, but removing them usually is simple and intuitive.

The most challenging part of replacing a flapper is buying the right replacement. You could bring the old flapper to a home center or plumbing-supply store and ask for a match—but if the last person to replace this flapper chose the wrong part, this would get you the wrong part, too. A safer solution is to jot down your toilet make and model and see if one of the flappers at the parts store lists this model. Also, look under your toilet’s tank lid—some provide a list of replacement-part numbers.

• Unclog a showerhead. Clogged spray holes in a showerhead often can be cleared without even removing the showerhead from the wall. Soak a washcloth in white vinegar, then use a rubber band to secure it around the showerhead with the cloth tight against the nozzle. The vinegar can clear clogs in as little as 20 minutes, though longer soak times improve your odds. This technique works on clogged faucet aerators, too.

If the washcloth doesn’t work, fill a gallon-size plastic bag halfway with vinegar and secure it over the showerhead (rubber bands work) so that the head is immersed.

Source: Greg Chick, a licensed plumbing contractor for 40 years based in Ramona, California. He offers plumbing how-to ­videos on his website,

Danny Lipford

This is relatively easy for home owners but relatively costly if you hire a pro…

• Seal an asphalt driveway. Sealing an asphalt driveway can prevent cracks from becoming large holes. Pros charge $300 to $600 or more—­depending on the size of the driveway—and you might not get your money’s worth. There are many shady operators that do low-quality work.

Clear away encroaching grass and weeds from the edges, then clean your driveway with hot water or use a pressure washer if you have one. Next use a driveway caulk to fill small cracks…asphalt patching paste to fill large cracks…and a “tamp and set” product such as Latex-ite Super Patch ($10 for one gallon or $17 for 3.5 gallons) to fill potholes. (Remove loose materials before filling these cracks and holes.)

Buy a good-quality sealant from a home-improvement store. Then follow the instructions on the container. Pay attention to temperature recommendations—applying sealants when it is too hot or cold can cause them to fail. If your driveway is sloped, start at the uphill end.

Caution: Sealant quality varies. It’s worth it to pay extra for a product intended to be applied with a squeegee, not a paint roller. (Pulling the squeegee toward you will work better than pushing it away from you.) The best I’ve found is Latex-ite Optimum Driveway Filler Sealer ($25 for a 4.75-gallon bucket sufficient for 400 to 500 square feet of driveway,

Source: Danny Lipford, a remodeling contractor for 36 years, based in Mobile, Alabama. He is host of Today’s Homeowner with Danny Lipford, a nationally syndicated program.

Eric Kleinert

Modern appliances are computerized, which makes them very difficult for home owners to fix. But here’s a repair that’s still fairly easy…

• Fix a washing machine that is no longer spinning or agitating. The problem could be a snapped or dislodged drive belt—that’s the rubber belt that connects the unit’s motor to its drum or transmission. Unplug the washing machine, and remove its access panel. With a top loader, it typically is the front panel that detaches. You might have to remove a few screws near the base…and/or slide a putty knife along the top of this panel, releasing several clips. With a front loader, access is typically from the rear. If you cannot figure out how to get inside your washer, enter its make and model online and search for videos on gaining access.

Once you get the washer open, look for a rubber belt lying near the bottom of the unit or hanging loose from the motor or drum pulley. If it is intact but dislodged, the repair might simply require putting it back in place. If it’s snapped, take it to an appliance parts store and ask for a ­replacement.

Helpful: Tipping the washer back and resting it against a wall can provide easier access—just make sure it is stable. If it is difficult to stretch the belt into place, first position it on the motor, then hold it in place along one side of the drum pulley. Ask someone to slowly rotate the drum, which should ease the belt the rest of the way around the ­pulley—be careful not to catch your fingers between the belt and pulley.

Note that some washers don’t have drive belts at all—they use a “direct drive” connection between the motor and the drum. When they stop spinning, it’s generally time to call a repair person or replace the washer.

Source: Eric Kleinert, who has more than 40 years of experience in major appliance and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) service and installation. He has served as program director for Fortis Colleges and Institutes in Palm Springs, Florida, and is author of Troubleshooting and Repairing Major Appliances, now in its third edition.

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