7 Emergency Tips Every First-Time Homeowner Needs to Know

So you’ve scored a mortgage, signed on the dotted lines and schlepped your stuff to your new digs. And then sometime soon, it’ll happen—the disaster that makes you wish your house came with an instruction manual. But never fear, these simple DIY skills will leave you ready to tackle the unexpected.

1. Thaw a frozen pipe

This winter of Arctic temps has led to an epidemic of exactly this thing, and the fallout ain’t pretty. Suspect a frozen pipe if a faucet is running more slowly than usual (or not at all). Turn on the faucet and look for bulges, cracks, or frost on the pipe that feeds it. If you don’t see these signs, run a damp cloth over the pipe; the frozen section will usually frost over. Use a hair dryer, heat lamp, or apply a heating pad to melt the clog. Be forewarned, if the pipe is cracked, it will leak or burst when the clog thaws, which leads us to…

2. Shut off water to your whole house

There are individual shut-off valves near sinks and toilets, but closing the main shutoff valve will ensure that no water enters any pipe in your house. This valve will be near where the water supply enters your home; it might be in the basement, or in warmer climates, on an outside wall or in an underground utility box. Turn the knob or lever clockwise (“right-y tight-y”) and you’ll cut off the water supply. Better yet: Do this a few times right after you move in to make sure it works before you really need to use it.

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3. Use a fire extinguisher


(Photo: OSHA.gov)

A typical extinguisher has only about eight seconds’ worth of fire-fighting power, so remember this acronym: PASS. P = Pull the pin. A = Aim the nozzle at the base of the flames. S = Squeeze the trigger. S = Sweep the spray from side to side.

4. Label circuit breakers

Most electrical work is best left to a pro, but labeling breakers is safe and easy. Locate the breaker box, usually a gray metal cabinet on the wall of a utility space like a garage or laundry room. Inside is the main switch that turns off power to the whole house (for an emergency like a flood or fire), and switches that control power to one or more outlets, appliances, and overhead lights.

If switches aren’t marked, work with a pal to identify what fixtures each one controls (turn them all off, then test them one by one). Write the info directly onto the metal plate right next to the switch, since paper labels can fade or crumble. Snap a pic with your smartphone for a permanent record.

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5. Stop an overflowing toilet

Most of the time this gross ugh nasty common problem is caused when, um, waste from the bowl drains too slowly and clean water from the tank enters too quickly. If you see the bowl filling, take off the top of the tank, grab the float (the black rubber ball at the end of a lever), and pull it up. This action closes the valve that lets clean water into the bowl, buying you time to turn off the toilet’s water source and use a plunger to clear the mess.

6. Take a home inventory for insurance purposes

Oh wait, you don’t have homeowner’s insurance? Okay. Go get some. Then save e-copies of receipts for all renovations, upgrades and major purchases like appliances, and use a spreadsheet to record the make, model, and serial number of each big-ticket item. Once a year, shoot a video of each room, narrating its contents as you go and highlighting anything that’s new or protected with a rider. (And, of course, back up those files.)

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7. Build a disaster kit


(Photo: Ready.gov)

Some emergencies like extreme weather require hunkering down for a while. Ready.gov has all the details on what to put in your kit—at a minimum, gather food, a first-aid kit, some basic tools, a flashlight, and warm clothes—and where to store it so you can get to it easily.

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