Frugal NationFrugal Nation

Become your own handyman

Your home is full of things that stall, shred, stick, crumble or clog. A whole bunch of those things can be fixed by you.

By Donna_Freedman Apr 27, 2012 1:32PM
Image: Woman Using a Spirit Level on a Sink in a Domestic Bathroom (© Alex Wilson/Digital Vision/Getty Images)Some years back I visited some college students whose front door wouldn't always open. "The knob is loose," one of them said as she shimmied through an open window.

After she let me in, I pulled out my Swiss Army knife, flipped up the Phillips-head screwdriver and went at the door. In two minutes it worked beautifully.

The 20-somethings were all agog. It had never occurred to them to tighten the screws.

They could have called the landlord. So can you, if you're a renter. But if you own a home or a condo, you either have to fix things or pay to have someone else fix them. You can guess which option I'd recommend.

Your home is full of things that stall, shred, stick, crumble or clog. A whole bunch of those things can be fixed by you. Even the most amateur of handy-folks can avoid paying a plumber $100 to fix a $3 part. (Post continues after video.)

A comprehensive home-repair book is a great investment, but you'll also find a ton of articles online. Videos, too, which take the DIY concept from words on a page to watching the rubber meet the road. Or watching the toilet flapper being reseated.

The FYI on DIY

While I wouldn't suggest knocking down walls on your first attempt, surely you can do something as simple as changing that flapper. Toilet repairs are among the simplest (if occasionally nastiest) repairs you can do.

If Harrison Ford could make a living as a carpenter by teaching himself from a book, most people can learn to fix a garbage disposal. Hint: It's often as simple as hitting the "reset" button.

Didn't know that disposals have reset buttons? You do now. Those that don't restart can often be "repaired" with a few turns of an Allen wrench in the slot under the center of the disposal.

You could have learned this by doing an Internet search for "stuck garbage disposal." I hope next time you have a problem you'll search for stuff like for "tub drain fix," "shingle repair" or "refrigerator leak."

About that last: In the building I once managed, a tenant told me water was coming out from under the fridge. I went online and learned it might be either an overflowing drain pan or a clogged defroster drain.

The pan was dry, so I opened the drain and found chunks of slimy goo. After cleaning it out, I used a turkey baster to force water through until I could hear it dripping into the drain pan. The problem never recurred.

A sense of accomplishment
Obviously you should know your limits. For example, if I got a shock when I touched the washing machine, I'd call an electrician immediately.

Don't be casual about your research, either. A smart frugalist will read/watch more than one article/video about the fix he's contemplating.

When a long-ago ice dam caused a leak in our Alaska place, the bathroom floor became unsteady. My daughter and I removed the toilet, pulled up the linoleum, patched the sub-floor, replaced the throne and put down new vinyl flooring.

But before I so much as turned off the water supply, I must have read that section of the home-repair book eight or nine times.

Plenty of things are doable, even if you've never thought of yourself as handy. Before you call the expert, put a little effort into figuring things out on your own. Patching the drywall or installing laminate flooring does more than stretch your home-repair dollars. It gives you a sense of accomplishment.

Remember, though: Measure twice, cut once.

Readers: Got any DIY triumphs to share?

More on MSN Money:

Apr 30, 2012 11:33AM
I'm a single female and new homeowner, and what I lack in money, I make up for with guts and a library card.  The Stanley "Complete" series, which even includes DVDs, is terrific.  Using the "Complete Wiring" book, I was able to fix a three-way entrance lighting arrangement that must have never worked correctly, ran wiring for a new ceiling fixture and switch, and replaced all the switches and outlets in the house.  The *right* knowledge is power, people!  Save your money for the real emergencies.
Apr 27, 2012 5:37PM

DO NOT, I REPEAT DO NOT BUY A HOME REPAIR BOOK AT A HOME IMPROVEMENT STORE. Achew -- Home Depot. Upon looking through the book, a great amount of material was omitted which would ruin any attempt to fix something or send you back for more supplies or equipment.


Check out the ol' Reader's Digest Home Repair book from library. See what you think. Then pick it up used on or Amazon.

Apr 30, 2012 11:16AM
As a landlord, I find myself fixing things all the time. The internet is an Awesome resource. I definitely think a home improvement book is a great investment, but they can't cover all contingencies. I usually start with the HI book, and if it doesn't cover me, than I check the internet. Need to do some pointing (replacing mortar between bricks)? Need to repair some box gutters? Put in a ceiling fan? Replace a toilet? Trim out a window, trim out a door, put in a window, put in a door? To paraphrase: There's a YouTube for that.

Another tip: If you hire someone to do it, stick around while they're doing the work. It seems counter intuitive, since you're paying them and you should get to go and relax. But you'll learn from them, and the next time you may not have to pay.

It took me years to learn this, but Water is your biggest arch-enemy. Keeping it out of, and contained in, the house will save you more money than anything else. At the first hint of water being where it's not supposed to be: attack it. Either yourself, or with a handyman/plumber. Don't ever accept putting a pan under the sink, or living with a leaky faucet or running toilet. these things are all usually cheaply and easily fixable and will save you TONS of money over the years.

Apr 30, 2012 2:36PM
When I bought my place almost four years ago. I was excited being a single female owning for the first time. My father always told me " you need to have the proper tools to do a job". He was absolutely correct! I have put up closet doors, a thermostat, a flapper in the toilet, vanity lights, paint in every room, caulked, primed, installed a garage door opener. I purchased a home warranty at closing and it was good for nothing! I would call them and they would charge me a service fee of $55.00 just walk thru the door. I knew then I had to get my hands dirty! As a woman you have to be extra mindful and careful of repair men coming to do repairs in your house. When I moved in I called the plumber to "dewinterize " the house when he walked thru he wanted to charge $175.00 to change the flappers in the toilet and replace the washers in the faucets and to open the shut off valves. I had no idea I thought everything was major I was there alone with my mother  and we were taking notes like wonderful students and my boyfriend came home and I told him what the plumber told us and the next thing I know the plumber got his tools and left and told me to call him if I had any probelms. UNBELIEVABLE! If you can do it yourself take your time and do it yourself! 
Apr 30, 2012 11:19AM
I replaced the door knob on the back door- the old actually fell apart in my hands. The new door knob came with easy instructions and frankly both the knob and the dead bolt lock work better now than when I had a locksmith work on it years ago.  I also upgraded sink faucets in the kitchen and bathroom.  It's not that difficult.
Apr 27, 2012 8:03PM
Just a "heads-up" a DF and fellow landlord just had a 40 gallon hot water heater installed by a plumber....$998 and some change. Need to put one in and I will be going "solo" cost should be right around $300. In this instance it seems "Knowledge is power"....
Apr 27, 2012 8:50PM
Absolutely what I wish every human living in any kind of abode should know! Licensed repair people get wind that you don't know what is going on and you will have a cheap repair and pay thru the nose, if you are lucky. Save your money for those things that you MUST have a licensed person do, and make sure you research that job first so you know how to watch them and make sure there is no cost cutting and bad workmanship. I stay right with them, taking photos and short videos, and if they don't like it they can leave because it is MY house and I have a right to watch so they do everything properly. It isn't 'looking over their shoulder", you aren't in their face. Those that want you away want to do things they don't want you to see. LEARN. Be the boss, don't let them start telling YOU what they are or aren't going to do. There are some terrific workers out there, but there are tons and tons of ones who take advantage,too. Make every little thing you want done be written clearly and fully on the contract, never just accept and sign the papers they hand you - write in and make them initial beside yours other things you want done. This isnt a change order, it is what you are paying for. Remember anything they just tell you they will do is not by law something they must do. It must all be in the contract or it is just lying. EVERYTHING must be noted in writing. Include a start by date and an end date, or you may find they will rip out your room, leave for months, and not come back unless you agree to pay more. Don't fall for that. If they won't do all this, walk and find another contractor. It is common to start a job just to get the start money, then leave to do much more expensive jobs. Don't fall for this, if they are that busy, they can't do your job.
Apr 28, 2012 5:24PM

But like my ol' Daddy use to say, "If at first you don't succeed, hire someone". Time is also money.


Apr 30, 2012 12:51PM
I have replaced several water heaters in the homes I have owned and saved a lot of money on labor charges.  But while this is a job you can do yourself, remember to do your research first and not just on installation procedures.  Most local governments have permit regulations and you have to apply for one and get the work inspected by them afterward.  If you don't you may have trouble with a home inspection later if you try to sell the property not to mention with your homeowners insurance claim if you have a fire caused by a faulty appliance.
Jun 8, 2012 2:25PM

A handyman is just someone who has screwed up enough times to finally get it right.

There are two states of ignorance

1) Knowing what you don't know-on opportunity for learning

2) NOT knowing what you don't know-an opportunity for disaster

Therefore be bold but not wreckless

When you do it yourself the tools are free

May 16, 2012 10:27AM

Thanks for the tips.  We had the garbage disposal issue not long ago and luckily I had a dad who knew about it.  HAHA  He ripped on me for not figuring out something so simple.  My ex hubby I used to be the first to call in an expert and waste a ton of money.  My new boyfriend is a total DIYer.  I'm learning.  It has saved us thousands doing so much of the work ourselves now.

May 2, 2012 10:41AM

I know a lot of small things I can do around the house to fix things, but I also know when I either do not have the skills or cant  do a task safely. Safety both in the short term as you are doing it and long term so that it is safe from "fire, water leaks, etc." I was well taught by my father to check things like the reset button and such first before I even call for service.

As a renter right now I only keep a smallish selection of tools in the place. Basic tools for many home repair projects include regular and philips head screwdrivers, Hammer, Pliers, Wrench, container of random (washers, bolts, O-rings, screws, nails), Keep any such items that you might have left over after any job to use latter.

Apr 29, 2012 11:28AM
I've had to do small repairs around my house such as removing clogged hair in the sink and shower. On the other hand my front door handle (you know the ones with the long handle) became very loose and finally just fell off. A friend had originally installed it for free and although he could fix it for free he could not come that day and it would have to wait several days to be fixed. I had to pay a locksmith to come over and fix it since I could not figure it out.He told me the handle which is made by kwickset is the worst brand and told me if I had bought at homedepot which I had. When all was said and done I paid like 140 but he did replace the handle part with a more sturdy short one and now the door has two locks. I guess the piece of mind was worth it.
Please help us to maintain a healthy and vibrant community by reporting any illegal or inappropriate behavior. If you believe a message violates theCode of Conductplease use this form to notify the moderators. They will investigate your report and take appropriate action. If necessary, they report all illegal activity to the proper authorities.
100 character limit
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?


Copyright © 2014 Microsoft. All rights reserved.

Fundamental company data and historical chart data provided by Morningstar Inc. Real-time index quotes and delayed quotes supplied by Morningstar Inc. Quotes delayed by up to 15 minutes, except where indicated otherwise. Fund summary, fund performance and dividend data provided by Morningstar Inc. Analyst recommendations provided by Zacks Investment Research. StockScouter data provided by Verus Analytics. IPO data provided by Hoover's Inc. Index membership data provided by Morningstar Inc.


Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.