Basic Maintenance Skills Homeowners Need to Know

Shut off

Home-ownership does require some basic home maintenance skills.

Owning a home is hard. The list of skills (and tools) you need to maintain a home is as long and knotty as that clump of hair in your shower drain. And it’s not like they teach drywall or basic electrical in high school.

There’s bound to be a little trial and error (and trial and error and YouTube and trial and error and three trips to the hardware store), but here are a few essential skills that can save you time and money and property.

Water, water everywhere

It usually happens at 2 a.m., but really, there’s no good time for water to start issuing forth unbidden from a pipe. Before any diagnosing or fixing can occur, you gotta stem the tide. Know where your water shut-off valves are — probably in the basement, if you have one — and remember that, depending on your valve, righty equals tighty or turning the handle perpendicular to the pipe equals off. From there, you can start mopping up and either fix it yourself or call a qualified plumber.

HVAC attack

Allergies suddenly acting up indoors? Utility bills spiking unprovoked by the weather? We wouldn’t suggest cracking open the Freon alternator pistons in your AC unit (which aren’t real things), but there’s one HVAC (aka heating, ventilation & air conditioning) fix that just might save you an expensive service call: change the air filter in your furnace.

Take the plunge

First, turn off the water behind your toilet. Then grab a plunger, form a seal and plunge, young apprentice, plunge! No luck? Snake the drainpipe with an auger—another one of those $15 purchases that could save you a $150 plumber bill. The idea is to feed it down the drain until you meet resistance and then crank until you snag the interloper. Still stuck? Well, there’s a reason plumber charge the same hourly rate as lawyers. Find one with good reviews.

Burgle yourself

Or your bedroom, at least. Have you ever locked yourself out of an internal door, or discovered your daughter is posting your personal information to Facebook from her locked bedroom (how does she know your social security number?!)? Just slide a flathead screwdriver into the slot on the doorknob until you feel a spring compress, turn, and voilà! For external keyed doors, hide a key in your yard (today would be good) or get your skinny neighbor to slip through the cat door. Or, you know, call a locksmith.

Cut power

Whether you’re installing a ceiling fan or experiencing an electrical emergency, it’s important to know which breaker goes to each region of the house. Label them very clearly to avoid having to do that trick where you tap an exposed wire with your finger real quick to see if it’s hot. Future homeowners will thank you, too. Keep in mind that electrical work isn’t as forgiving as, say, gardening. If you don’t know what you’re doing, consult a licensed electrician.

Ladder-day safety

Ladders are like koalas: You need to be more careful around them than you think. Even if you’ve been up a hundred times, the one time you get casual can bite you.

Basic ladder safety:

  • Make sure the rung locks are anchored in place.
  • Use levelers on the feet if you’re on uneven ground.
  • Put a stabilizer on top if you can’t lean on a steady surface.
  • To measure a safe pitch (1′ horizontal: 4′ vertical), you should be able to grab a rung with your arms out straight and your toes touching the feet of the ladder.
  • Face the ladder when going up or down.
  • Never go higher than the third rung from the top.

These are the basics, the very first things you should know as a homeowner. For the jobs that are above your pay grade, hire a handyman. Watch them work, ask questions and look things up and you’ll pick up DIY expertise along the way.

Most importantly, be safe!

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