Home Repair on the Cheap: Top 7 Tips

Clogged drain? Stubborn pet stains? Fix 'em using products already in your home.

ByABC News
May 4, 2009, 12:06 PM

May 5, 2009— -- Ever showered in ankle-deep water because that stubborn clog just wouldn't budge? Bombarded the house with noxious chemicals to destroy a marching parade of ants? Shelled out a car payment's worth of cash to a repairman for a job you could have done yourself?

These are common situations that all homeowners face. But keeping up a house doesn't have to be expensive, according to home improvement gurus who have an arsenal of cheap fixes to tame common at-home repairs.

"Murphy's Law applies when you're a new homeowner," said Judy Ostrow, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Home Repair." "If you don't learn things , you can really get up to your neck in repairmen."

That's what Ostrow, a mother of two grown children who said she's "old enough to know a lot about home improvement," said happened to her when she was a new homeowner with a husband and a new baby.

"I really got sick of paying $100, $250 ... and started learning some things myself," she told ABCNews.com.

Terri McGraw, aka Mrs. FIXIT, said that when she got married, she expected her husband to fix things around the house because that's what her father did. But the "honey-do" list, she said, just kept getting longer and longer.

"I truly at first had someone come to change a light bulb in a cathedral ceiling because I didn't have a ladder," she said. "I thought, 'Oh my God -- I could do this myself.'"

Now, as Mrs. FIXIT, with two books, TV appearances and a home improvement Web site, McGraw, 48, said she considers herself to be a cross between Heloise and Bob Villa.

Many of the tips offered by Ostrow and McGraw are simple and require ingredients often found in the house anyway -- things like toothpaste, mint, vinegar and shaving cream.

"Everyone lives somewhere," McGraw said. "You've got to live in nice conditions."

McGraw said she uses one cup of baking soda poured down the clogged drain, followed by a cup of vinegar. The two ingredients, she said, will bubble as they work their way down the drain and can then be followed by boiling water.

"It's very inexpensive," she said. "It's a wonderful thing to do when you have a septic system."

Both McGraw and Ostrow cautioned against using commercial clog removers found on store shelves if the pipes are old or connected to a septic system.

How about DIY fixes for household pests?

"If you have it and you want to try and get rid of it, try it yourself first," McGraw said of infestation of bugs and rodents.

A tried and true natural repellent to mice and other rodents? Mint.

McGraw suggested saturating a rag with peppermint oil and stuffing it into whatever opening the mice are crawling through. It can also be sprayed around door frames. Mint leafs planted around doors can deter pests from ever entering the house.

"The added bonus is ants hate peppermint," she said.

For ants, McGraw suggested putting out a bit of baking soda wherever the bugs have been spotted. Let it sit for 24 hours and then vacuum, repeating if necessary. The bicarbonate in the baking soda, she said, kills the ants.

Ostrow also suggested cinnamon for the ant infestation, sprinkled in the doorways or wherever else they are coming in.

"It actually kills the ants as they cross the line," she said. "I say try it rather than put poison down."

But, McGraw cautioned, know when to call the professional if home pest control remedies just aren't working.

"One squirrel will lead to two, which will lead to a whole family," she said.

For carpet stains, she said, put a dab of white shaving cream -- not the gel variety -- onto the spot and blot. Use cool water to clean up the shaving cream. For pet stains, which are a little different and sometimes harder to lift, McGraw suggested using a bit of dishwashing soap and water. If that doesn't do the trick, pour white vinegar on the spot and let it dry.

White vinegar, she said, is also good for washing windows and mirrors without leaving streaks. A mixture of lemon juice and water will also do the trick.

And for outside the home, Ostrow said homeowners should clean their gutters the old--fashioned way -- with a ladder and a hose. Just make sure someone is holding the ladder.

"The worst enemy of your house is water," she said. "Water where it's not supposed to be."

Not only does toothpaste make your pearly whites sparkle, it can pull double duty as a cleaning agent in several places around the home.

Toothpaste on a soft cloth can help shine up faucets, McGraw said, and it can be used to clean glass-top stoves instead of the expensive cleaners recommended by some manufacturers.

And while spackle is best for a permanent job, toothpaste can also be used to fill nail holes on the quick, say, before the landlord comes to inspect the apartment.

The squeaky floor -- a horror movie staple and the bane of teenagers' existence as they fail to sneak into the house after curfew.

Rather than hiring someone to come in and adjust -- and possibly rip up -- your hardwood floors, McGraw suggested sprinkling baby powder in between the floorboards and sweeping up the leftovers.

The powder, she said, lubricates the two boards so they no longer rub together and squeak when someone walks over them.

Ostrow said graphite will also serve the same purpose and not create unsightly white dust like the powder.

Bonus squeak repair: a squeaky door hinge can be fixed, McGraw said, by removing the hinge pins, coating them in shaving cream and reinstalling them.

"Tackle a small repair when you first notice it," she said. "It always gets bigger."

Ostrow also recommends keeping the handbook for every appliance in the house, so simple, yet often forgotten. Those booklets, she said, often include troubleshooting tips for the most common problems, yet homeowners often spend money needlessly by having their appliances serviced when they don't need it.

"And then they say, 'Oh, you didn't plug it in ... and it's $100," she said. "You need the information at your fingertips. It's a really good money-saver."

While Ostrow and McGraw are all for giving it a shot on your own, sometimes the job just needs a pro. Both recommended calling a professional right away when dealing with any sort of electrical problem or advanced plumbing.

"You can hurt yourself," Ostrow said. "You can also hurt your house, but yourself is the most important thing."

Ostrow said she also tends to call in the pros if the equipment to fix the problem costs more than $25, a sign it might be too labor intensive.

Even if a professional is needed, McGraw recommended learning as much about the problem as possible before the repairmen get there. People who can call and intelligently describe the problem and suggest what may or may not work to fix it, she said, are less likely to be ripped off by unsavory professionals who may look to take advantage of an uninformed consumer.

"And watch them when they're there," she said. "Ask questions."

After all, she said, you may be able to fix the problem yourself the next time.