Master basic home repairs

Why pay for fixes that you can do yourself?

Q: I'm a new condo owner. I'm not handy at all, but I figured I'd better learn some of the basics or get ready to shell out the bucks for a contractor to do what I should do myself.

I've got two questions for you guys:

  • How do I learn the basics of home repair?

  • What tools should I buy?


A: Congratulations.

We applaud your desire to do the work yourself. There's a lot you can do to save time and aggravation, not to mention money, by not hiring work out.

To start your education we suggest that you do two things. First, read. Go to the library and borrow some books on basic construction. Flip through them and focus on what strikes your fancy. Don't forget magazines. Especially check out Fine Homebuilding magazine. Although advanced, it's a good place to get tips on some basic skills.

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Second, watch television. We've said many times that we cut our building teeth watching "This Old House." We learned a ton about carpentry from Norm Abrams and Tom Silva, plumbing from Rich Trethewey, and other tricks of the trades from master builders over the years. "Holmes on Homes" is also a good show to check out.

In the same vein, check out YouTube on the Internet. We've seen a number of excellent tutorials from hanging pictures to building the walls they hang on.

Then it's time to apply what you've learned. Start with the simple stuff. If a door sticks, adjust the hinges. If a faucet leaks, replace the washer. If your laundry room needs shelves, build them. You'll make mistakes, but they can be fixed. Pretty soon you'll be comfortable. That's how we started, and we ended up designing and building a house.

This leads to the answer to your second question: our suggestion for a basic set of tools. Our beginner set has only one power tool: an 18-amp cordless drill with bits and nut drivers. The rest are hand tools. Buy quality and they'll serve you for a lifetime. Kevin still uses some of our grandfather's tools. Here's our list of must-have hand tools:

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Hammer: The 16-ounce rip model is the hammer we'd have if we were limited to one. It's a good all-purpose hammer. The claw is straight, allowing for pulling nails or ripping into walls. Buy one that feels well balanced in your hand. Make sure the one you choose is heavy enough to drive a nail efficiently but light enough to control.

Retractable utility knife: This all-purpose cutting tool has any number of uses.

Speed square: The square (really an aluminum triangle) is used for marking 45- and 90-degree lines. Get the 7-inch version because it fits easily in a tool pouch.

Tape measure: A 25-footer with a 1-inch-wide blade is the most useful. It's long enough to measure pretty much anything and the 1-inch width allows the blade to extend up to 8 feet without buckling.

Level (or spirit level): This is a must-have for hanging pictures or for marking a plumb line as a guide to hanging wallpaper. The longer the level, the more accurate the line. We've found a 4-foot level to be a good size, with 3 feet being the minimum.

Crosscut handsaw: Before power saws there were handsaws. When you want to make a cut with optimum control, the handsaw is the tool.

Channel-lock pliers: To be used for loosening drains under the sink, among other things.

Four-in-one screwdriver: This versatile tool is a large and small flat head and Phillips head tool in one.

Adjustable crescent wrenches (6- and 14-inch): Crescent wrenches adjust to fit most nuts and bolts. The larger size gives more leverage and the smaller size fits more easily into tight places.

Basin wrench: Sooner or later you will have to change a water faucet in the kitchen or bath. When you do, this inexpensive specialty tool is used for detaching water supplies from underneath a sink.

Voltage tester: We suggest that most home electrical work be left to the pros. But the homeowner may try some very small fixes. Before working on any electrical circuit, make sure the power is off and test it with this tool.