I sent my mom a picture recently, saying that my long-buried Alaskan had resurfaced.
Two of my makeup case’s four trays had been dying for a while. They’re really just cardboard covered with some type of material, so not the sturdiest items in the world.
The front of one tray had started to fall forward. The other had gone even further: the front of the tray’s material had come unglued, so it had opened up enough to let the cardboard actually fall out.
I considered replacing it. I thought it might be nice to have three trays on each side, rather than the current case’s two per side. But a quick Internet search told me that those really don’t exist — unless you want to the go the full standing-drawer, which I don’t. And a case like my current one would be $35 on the low end.
And that’s when I heard the whisper from my Alaskan upbringing: “Duct tape.”
Alaskans love duct tape. You’ll see just about anything using it. Mom once saw a car repair using it. So why not something simple, like a makeup tray?
I went out and got a $5 roll, then taped up the drawers. That worked for a couple of weeks, then one of the trays started threatening to fall again. I’m guessing it was having trouble adhering to the surface of the tray. So I added a second layer, since it’ll be able to cling better to the first layer of duct tape.
And if that still doesn’t work long-term, I’ll unscrew the metal holders on each side of the trays and use some glue. But the Alaskan in me hopes the duct tape will suffice.
In my genes
I come by the “fix it, don’t replace it” mentality naturally.
My mom was the family handyperson — and this was mostly pre-Internet days, when you could really only figure out DIY repairs via people in the know or (as Mom sometimes did) Time Life books.
Her motto when things died (or were threatening to): “I probably can’t break it more.”
Her various successes
This generally turned out to be true. The only exception I can think of wasn’t really a repair: Back in the day when freezers got ice buildup, she was trying to chip it down and accidentally broke the mechanism holding the Freon gas in. Oops.*
But she was successful in every other endeavor I can think of.
- Warming up frozen pipes with a heating pad and/or hairdryer rather than call a plumber.
- Opening up and cleaning the parts of the VCR when it would start leaving part of the video tape unspooled and hanging out. (She had to do this several times, as it was only ever a temporary fix.)
- Putting a new plug on our toaster when it stopped working.
- I know she fussed with the washer at least once and got it to behave.
- I have a dim memory of us replacing an o-ring on the toilet.
There are probably other fixes that she did that I’m forgetting. But my point is that she was always game to try.
So now that we have the Internet at our fingertips with how-to articles and actual videos showing the whole process, it’s pretty hard to justify throwing something away without at least trying a repair first.
* But her frugal self ended up finding someone selling a barely-used fridge affordably. The thing was still chugging away some 12 years later when my parents sold the place.
Like mother, (sorta) like daughter
I have my moments of fix-it-ness too.
- When I noticed a picture frame edge was starting to separate, I grabbed some wood glue and my vise and closed the gap.
- When the old ceiling fan stopped responding to a pull on the chain, I went online and determined that it was just an issue of the chain coming off its track. So I took the cover off the ceiling fan and got things back to normal.
- When I couldn’t get the sink shutoff valves in the bathroom to turn off* (and when I couldn’t get an old showerhead off), I did a hearty application of penetrating oil. The stuff reeks to high heaven, but it ate through the rust and kept me from having to call a plumber.
- When my dishwasher stopped draining and cleaning the filter didn’t help, an Internet search told me there was a clog in the pipe. So I used an auger to to dislodge it.
- I’ve gotten my garbage disposal working again multiple times — I barely use it, which I think is why it freezes up — by simply sticking a broom handle in and pushing counterclockwise until it moves again.**
* Fun fact, apparently you’re supposed to jiggle them every six months to make sure they don’t rust in place
** Before you do this, look on the bottom of the disposal to see if there’s a reset button or a spot for a hex key to crank it into motion again. Alas, my model has neither.
Sometimes I get careless
Lately — and especially as money tension has eased over the years — I’ve admittedly been a little too quick to considering throwing an item away instead of trying to fix it.
When two of my makeup brushes’ heads got loose, I almost tossed them since the replacements were only $3. Thankfully, I randomly heard someone refer to gluing brush heads back on (duh) so I took that step instead. Even if the savings were relatively small, it was fewer things going to a landfill.
On a far bigger scale, there was the guest house fridge.
My tenant reported that the fridge door was opening slightly on its own. I started pricing out new fridges,* but thankfully Mom Googled the issue and found that we just needed to tighten the door screws and have the tenant put fewer heavy jars in the door shelves.
*In my defense, the fridge was the one my ex-in-laws brought with them, and it had been old when I met Tim 16 (!) years ago. So I had valid reason to believe it was just finally dying.
Not a perfect success rate
Of course, DIY doesn’t always work.
Mom and I attempted to use plumber’s tape to staunch a small leak in a guest house pipe. It worked briefly, then started leaking again. So I still had to call a plumber.
Another time, neither the infamous baking-soda-and-vinegar concoction nor actual Liquid Plumber got a bathroom sink to drain again.
It turned out that the culprit was a spill that occurred when I refilled the soap dispenser. I washed the soap down the drain, thinking nothing of it. But I guess that much viscous liquid all at once doesn’t flush out properly. So some of it stuck to the pipe wall and also caught debris until the pipes were clogged.
Lesson learned: Always refill soap dispensers away from a drain.
Leave it to the professionals
And even when I don’t have a DIY failure as an excuse, there are times I will gladly pay someone to avoid a fix/upgrade that I deem too much of a headache to fuss with.
- Anything electrical beyond changing a light fixture means a call to an electrician.
- Could I install a ceiling fan? Probably. Will I pay $200 not to have to find out? Definitely. (Besides general “ugh don’ wanna” I don’t do it because if you don’t properly balance them, they swing a bit in a way that ramps up my anxiety.
- When the guest house door needed replacing, I was more than happy to leave that to the professionals.
- Replacing my sink and sink-top would’ve required demolishing the tile top to get at the screws holding it to the cabinet. Then properly affixing a new top (and sink). No thank you.
- I will happily pay (and have happily paid) to have a professional fix any leaks in a roof.
- While I might’ve been able to put in a new water heater on my own, I a) didn’t want to test that theory and more importantly b) didn’t have a vehicle that I could’ve gotten a new tank into to bring home. And four people weren’t going to go without hot water for five to seven days waiting for a new one to be delivered.
- I refuse to do any tiling work, as my efforts are always deeply imperfect, and the last thing I want is decades of having to look at a tile that’s awry or otherwise wrong.
Even renters might benefit
One of the great things about being a renter is that someone else has to deal with repairs. And I can’t blame you if that’s a perk you want to take full advantage of.
If you have a cheap rent through an individual landlord (rather than a large management company), it might behoove you to at least try a repair. Because if you’re a valued, low-headache tenant, your landlord may be less inclined to keep up with the ever-spiraling-upward rental rates.
So if there’s a DIY solution that you think a) you might be able to do and b) wouldn’t potentially lead to a more expensive repair if you fail, you could contact the landlord to get permission to fix the issue yourself. Landlords don’t want to have to find new tenants, so if you can save them some money, they may decide not to increase rent — or at least to not increase it as much when your lease ends.
Heck, if your efforts work, you could even ask for a small discount for the next month. Most repair service calls start at $100 — usually more like $120 to $150 — so if you help them avoid that bill, they might be willing to give you $50 off next month’s rent.
All in all
In the end, there are very few disadvantages to trying most repairs — whether that’s a loose brush head or an issue in the home.
Besides the fact that you’re potentially saving money/avoiding waste, you’ll get a surge of a “Damn, I’m good!” feeling that’s pretty darn swell.
After all, as a wise woman once said, you probably can’t break it more.
What’s a DIY repair you’re particularly proud of? Or an amusing fail?