The Steep Learning Curve from Hapless to (Somewhat) Handy

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

I have a friend who, having been divorced for several years, decided to fix a leak in her toilet by purchasing a piece of fitted pipe that cost around $1. "The guy at the hardware store showed me how to attach it easily," she recalls. "My dad wanted me to call the family plumber but I told him I didn't need to … I could save the $65 house-call fee."

The only person who was surprised by the ensuing flood, which destroyed both her kitchen and downstairs bath, was my friend. Ever the optimist, she proudly gave us a tour of her newly renovated first floor a few months later. "This time, I hired a contractor," she admitted a bit sheepishly. She also had to do a lot of explaining to her insurance company.

Home repairs can be a challenge, especially for the newly single. Seemingly minor adjustments, such as replacing a recessed kitchen ceiling light while wearing boots with (low) heels can result in a slip on the counter. After taking a header onto the floor, I found myself wandering around dazed for a few minutes, thinking perhaps I should have called my next door neighbor who had offered to loan me his ladder. But I couldn't quite remember his name.

So how do you know when to call in the troops for home repairs? Recalling my friend's Titanic experience, a seemingly unresolvable clogged toilet resulted in me calling a plumber. I found myself paying $50 for the privilege of watching him jam the plunger really, really fast into the bowl to get the water to go down. That was an expensive lesson.

If you're new to living alone, even dealing with a backed-up sink can seem like an overwhelming obstacle. In addition to being biologically and ecologically unfriendly, liquid drain cleaners-the most obvious and heavily advertised solutions-are only partially effective, with the potential to eat away at plastic, as well as metal, pipes.

That's where friends and neighbors come in. Whenever I have a problem, I ask for their help. They may be kind (or tall) enough to rewire or replace a capricious smoke alarm or demonstrate the joys of Zip-It-a cheap device available at any hardware store that magically removes hair and gunk from a clogged sink. (Yes, it can get pretty gross, but the end result is showering or brushing your teeth in a water-free tub or sink with well-preserved pipes.)

When big things break, it's another reason to freak out. Even after being divorced for several years, I still go into panic mode, frantically figuring out how to afford to replace the malfunctioning microwave, dishwasher or hot water heater. Again, I consult trusted friends, as well as,,, and even the Federal Trade Commission, which provide some common sense guidelines. Getting references, checking out Better Business Bureau ratings and online reviews from sites such as Yelp and Google also help.

Also, make sure the contractor has been around for a while and has the appropriate licenses and insurance. Then, before making a final decision, obtain written estimates from several reputable companies that include the type of work to be done and the dates of completion. Those wanting an extra dollop of assurance may want to cough up the $10, or so, a year for a basic membership to Angie's List, which offers fair price and service quality guarantees to its members. In many cases, the problem is often minor and affordably resolved, especially when you do your homework.

Here's what not to do. Avoid taking your home repair cues from Wheel of Fortune. When my air conditioner broke last summer, I called the HVAC company advertised before the bonus round. Apparently they thought they hit the jackpot and gave me an estimate that was three-and-a-half times those given by the other two contractors I contacted.

I wasn't about to go bankrupt on that one. You might also want to stay away from a person who knocks on your door and offers a service for a discount, to be paid upfront in cash. (There are multiple scams that can result in lousy or nonexistent service and can involve jail time for the absconder). Also, watch out for a scoundrel who will happily finance the expense with a lender they know-this will probably require you to pay a high-interest loan.

If a contractor makes promises that sound almost too good to be true, keep in mind that famous quote, "There's a sucker born every minute."

When it comes to home repairs, the first line of defense for the single person is listening to those who know you best. Even if it involves spending another $64.

Sandra Gurvis is the author of 16 books and hundreds of magazine articles. Her latest project is Close Enough for Government Work: A Guide to American's Presidential Libraries. She lives in Columbus.