I hate plumbing. Whenever a faucet begins to leak or a drain clogs, my stomach sinks. I know it means hours of frustrating work. It’s not that plumbing is difficult — it’s just that I’m not well-versed in the ways of home-improvement. Somehow I missed that part of Manhood Training.

Despite my apprehension, over thirteen years of homeownership, I’ve made it a point to do as much repair work as I’m able. It has saved me a lot of money. And while I’m a ball of nerves going into a project, I get tremendous satisfaction when I finish something and know that I did the work with my own hands.

Yesterday we woke to find water on the floor of the upstairs bathroom. When we couldn’t immediately locate the source of the leak, we debated calling a plumber. Because it was the weekend, and because we’re trying to save money, Kris and I decided to tackle the problem as a team. While she buried herself in the Readers Digest Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual, I took the toilet apart. Ultimately we diagnosed the likely culprit: corroded fasteners connecting the tank of the toilet to the bowl. We drove to the hardware store, picked up replacement parts, and then put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

We were able to repair our toilet for $6.49 and an hour of time. Had we called in a plumber, it would have cost much more. This is how home repairs usually seem to play out for us: some initial frustration, a Eureka! moment, a trip the hardware store for a $10-$20 part, and then a final repair.

Here are some things we’ve learned when dealing with home repairs:

  • Don’t panic. A zen-like state is important for repair work. I don’t mean this in any mystical sense, but it’s helpful to be calm and relaxed when doing this sort of thing. Rash actions can turn a small problem into a disaster.
  • Act quickly. Don’t put off repairs. While you don’t want to charge blindly ahead, you do want to take care of the problem as soon as possible. We once put off fixing a small leak in the roof. You can guess how that ended during a rainy Oregon winter.
  • Use a reference. Google is your friend. We’ve found lots of answers on the internet. As I mentioned above, though, Kris and I find it convenient to have a book on hand. In 1994, we paid about 20 bucks for a copy of the Readers Digest Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual. The book has literally saved us hundreds of dollars.
  • Work methodically. When you take something apart, neatly set the pieces someplace safe. Label them, if appropriate. Be orderly. Follow instructions. Measure twice, cut once. If you have a digital camera handy, take pictures of how things were assembled before you dismantled them. These sorts of careful steps make repair work run smoothly.
  • Don’t make assumptions. Some of my most frustrating do-it-yourself experiences have come when I’ve made assumptions about a problem, only to be proven wrong. Here’s an example from my days as a computer consultant: I once spent several hours trying to fix a software problem that had caused a printer to stop working. As it turned out, it wasn’t a software problem at all — the power cord had gone bad. Boy did I feel stupid. Don’t assume things.
  • Pay attention. As you work, try to notice details. You never can tell what piece of information will be important. Are the electrical outlets you’re replacing two-prong or three-prong? How big were the screws on that gizmo, anyhow?
  • Be safe. Some tasks are dangerous. Electricity can kill you. So can a chainsaw. I have a friend who accidentally wired his outside power for 220 instead of 110. The first time he plugged in his Christmas lights, it was like the fourth of July! When one of our trees fell into the neighbor’s yard, I had my first experience with a chainsaw. I learned quickly that even a small tree has a great deal of mass.
  • Know when to call in an expert. Not everyone can fix every problem, of course. Some things do require a specialist. But there are many nuisances around the home that can be solved with patience, research, and elbow grease. Don’t be intimidated by replacing a light fixture or a garbage disposal. But call an electrician to replace the knob-and-tube wiring in your attic.

Home-improvement can be intimidating if you don’t have much experience with it. But with time, you can develop the confidence and the basic skills necessary to perform many common household repairs. If you’re interested in developing further competence, take classes from your local community college, or attend seminars at a home-improvement store. (I’ve also learned a lot by shadowing contractors as they work on our home. I always ask permission first, though. Some are happy to explain what they’re doing, but others are nervous to have an observer.)

Next on my home repair agenda: Diagnosing why the light in our guest room sometimes switches on, but mostly doesn’t.