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23 Quick Fixes

Lightning-fast repairs you can get done in no time

1: Silence Squeaky Floors (and Stairs)

Photo by Russell Kaye

Your overnight guests don't need to know about your midnight refrigerator raids, so the first of your old house repairs should be tightening up those creaking floorboards and stair treads before they wake up the whole house. Squeeeeek-No-More screws, available at home centers and hardware stores, draw flooring tight to joists, or stair treads to stringers; then their heads snap off, leaving a 1/8-inch-wide hole in the finished surface. "The holes disappear in carpeting," says This Old House general contractor Tom Silva. "For wood floors, fill the holes with a wax filler stick in a matching color."

2: Unclog a Powder-Room Sink

plumbing richard trethewey Russell Kaye

The surest solution is to remove the P-trap, flush out the clog, and reinstall the trap. You can also try clearing the clog from above. You might not even need a wrench for this simple home improvement. Just unscrew the ball-and-socket connection that holds the assembly together in the back of the sink, slide out the rod, and remove the pop-up stopper. The offending glob—or at least enough of it to get the drain flowing again—is likely to come out on the end of the stopper. Clean it off, replace and hand-tighten the its ball-and-socket nut.

3: Keep the Stainless Spotless

Photo by Geoffrey Sokol

Do the fingerprints all over the appliances make your kitchen look like a crime scene? Take the advice of Dan Smith, showroom manager at Valcucine Chicago, an upscale kitchen outfitter. "The secret to cleaning stainless-steel surfaces is never to use stainless-steel cleaner," he says. Most of those products contain naphtha, which leaves an oily film that attracts dust and smears every time you touch it. Instead, Smith recommends using a glass cleaner that contains no ammonia or alcohol, such as the ones made by Restore or Method.

4: Camouflage Scratches in Woodwork

Photo by Willliam Wright

You can hide a damaged finish on antique furniture or any fine woodwork by applying a coat of pigmented wax, such as Briwax, or a pigmented polishing fluid, also known as scratch cover, which will make fine scratches all but disappear.

5: Tighten a Loose Set Screw

Photo by Russell Kaye

Set screws are those tiny fasteners that hold everything from doorknobs on their spindles to wall-hung toilet-paper and towel hooks on their brackets. But some set screws just won't stay set. Try applying a drop of Loctite Threadlocker Blue to the threads and reinserting it. "It's a superglue-type adhesive that's strong enough to keep the screw from vibrating out, but will easily release when you want to unscrew it," says Norm Abram. No glue will help if the threads are stripped, though. In that case, wrap some sewing thread clockwise around the screw's shank before putting it back.

6: Mask a Musty Smell

Photo by Keller + Keller

Scented candles or potpourri may help mask odors in small areas, but here's an all-encompassing solution for the whole house if you have forced-air heating: Put a couple of drops of vanilla extract on the furnace filter. The system's blower will then spread the sweet smell throughout the house. If the heat's not on, set the system on fan only.

7: Tighten Loose Chair Legs

Photo by David Carmack

A chair that suddenly collapses under one of your guest is no laughing matter (unless, of course, no one gets hurt). To prevent mishaps, This Old House master carpenter Norm Abram recommends that you take out any loose stretchers (the horizontal pieces that run between the legs) and scrape off the old glue with a knife. Apply a slow-setting epoxy, and lash everything together with a band clamp around the legs. Wipe up drips with vinegar. Take the clamps off the next day when the epoxy has cured.

8: Tighten a Drafty Window

Photo by Russell Kaye

Those leaky old windows are bound to make your guests uncomfortable or cause the candles to sputter. New weatherstripping—the best solution—requires removing both sash. For a simple home improvement that you can do with the window in place, Tom Silva suggests adding an extra sash lock.

This treatment is best on sash you can wiggle in and out when the lock is engaged. Remove both lock pieces, and plug the old screw holes with a sliver of wood and wood glue. Link the lock halves together and reinstall them on the sash about a third of the way in from the side of the window. (Don't forget to drill pilot holes for each of the screws first.) Now do the same with a matching sash lock about a third of the way in from the opposite edge. When both locks are closed, the sash should pull tightly together and keep the cold air outside, where it belongs.

9: Quiet a Bathroom Fan

Photo by Keller + Keller

That noisy vent fan—the one that effectively announces whenever someone is in the bathroom—may just be the rattle of a loose cover. For a simple fix, remove the cover and bend the spring-loaded attachment brackets slightly so that they grip a little tighter against the ceiling. While you're at it, switch off the circuit breaker and vacuum the unit's insides to quiet the fan blades and take the strain off the motor.

10: Steady a Loose Toilet

Better take care of that rocking throne before Big Uncle Earl comes to visit; the last thing you want is an out-of-commission toilet with a house full of company. First, check the closet bolts holding the bowl to the floor. If they're loose, hand-tighten them, then give them an additional quarter-turn with a wrench. If they're already tight, steady the toilet by slipping some plastic plumbers' shims into the gap where the bowl meets the floor. You'll find these useful wedges in plumbing-supply stores and the plumbing aisles at home centers.

11: Pop a Wallpaper Bubble

Photo by Kolin Smith

It's finally time to do something about those air bubbles under the wallpaper that your "handyman" brother-in-law so thoughtfully left behind. Make a tiny slice through each bubble with a sharp razor knife, then take an artist's syringe—a plastic, needle-tipped tool available from craft shops—and inject a small amount of white PVA glue (like Elmer's) behind the paper. Smooth the area with a wallpaper brush or a dry paint roller, and use a damp sponge to gently wipe away any glue that squeezes out. With this simple old house repair, your brother-in-law's handiwork will never have looked better.

12: Reattach Loose Laminate Countertop

Photo by Russell Kaye

You don't need the pros' special tools—laminate adhesive and a J-roller—to stick peeling Formica back in place. Use a heat gun, or even a hair dryer, to gently heat the laminate and soften the old glue underneath. Whack it with a rubber mallet or a hammer cushioned by a block of wood. Weigh it down for about an hour with a stack of heavy blocks while the laminate cools and readheres to the substrate.

Revive a Dead Doorbell

Photo by Courtesy of

When a doorbell stops working, the button is usually the culprit. To know for sure, all you have to do is remove it and touch the wires to each other. (Not to worry, they're low-voltage.) If the chime sounds, pop on a replacement switch. If it doesn't, you'll need a voltage tester to sleuth out whether the problem is the transformer, the chime, or the wiring. But since time's running short, consider sticking up a battery-operated wireless doorbell system, like one of the many models (including the one shown here) offered by

Reinvigorate a Wimpy Shower

Photo by Keate

If your shower power just ain't what it used to be, the showerhead could be clogged with mineral deposits. No need to replace it, though. Gently unscrew it from the pipe and soak it overnight in vinegar. (If you don't have that much time, a 50-50 mixture of hot water and CLR, a powerful calcium dissolver, will do the job in a few minutes.) Then wrap new Teflon tape clockwise around the pipe threads and turn the head back into place.

Ghostbust a Door

Photo by Ryan Kurtz

Little Lizzie, your monster-phobic niece, will totally freak if that out-of-plumb door swings open in the middle of the night. To avoid this trauma, you could take off the door and carefully realign the hinges. Or, just pull one of the hinge pins, set it on a hard surface, and whack its middle with a hammer. This will bend the pin slightly so that when you tap it back in, the hinge will resist the force—gravity—that's pulling the door open.

Add a Fireplace for Santa

Photo by Eric Piasecki

Do your children still believe, even though your home has no fireplace? Fuel their fantasies with a direct-vent gas unit. Don't tell the kids, but these fireplaces need no chimneys. The heating contractor simply installs the firebox on an exterior wall and vents it directly to the outside. The burner connects to a natural gas or propane supply. (Electric models need no venting at all.) For about $2,000 to $5,000 installed, this simple home improvement gives you an "entryway" for St. Nick and his bag of goodies.

Lawsuit-Proof the Walk

You don't want anyone's memories of the visit to include bruises or broken bones, so make sure there's no ice for people to slip on. But chemical de-icers damage masonry, plants, and shoes, and fireplace ashes or kitty litter ends up being tracked into the house. To clear the walk in a hurry, follow This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook's advice and gently scrape off whatever ice you can with a long-handled ice chipper. Then, loosen the stubborn bits by pouring a bucket of hot water on them. Just make sure to dry up the water with a towel so it doesn't turn into a new layer of ice.

Silence a Rattling Door

Photo by Kolin Smith

A door that shakes and rattles when it's closed isn't resting firmly against its stop, the way it should be. For most interior doors these days, you can fix this problem by adjusting the latch plate that the door latch engages when shut. Find the little tab that sticks into the latch plate's hole, and use the tip of a screwdriver to bend that tab slightly toward the stop. Close the door. You'll know the tab is bent the right amount when the latch engages securely and the door doesn't rattle. If your latch plate has no tab, put some peel-and-stick silicone bumpers onto the side of the stop facing the door. They stop the rattling by pushing the door tighter against the plate.

Cover Up Bathroom Mold

Photo by David Carmack

The mildew-blackened caulk around your bathtub will surely disappoint your mother, but no amount of bleaching will make it white again. Here's a quick, cosmetic solution: Hide the mildew under a thin layer of fresh caulk. (Let it cure overnight before using the shower.) Mom will never be the wiser. This is not a permanent fix. If you don't remove and replace all the caulk, the mold will grow up through the new layer in a matter of weeks. (See Caulking Around a Tub, a Step-by-step)

Brighten an Outdoor Walkway

Photo by Courtesy Hammacher Schlemmer

Folks are still laughing about that long "trip" cousin Ralphie took the night he came bounding up to your house. Save him from further embarrassment by installing solar-powered lights, a quick, no-wiring-needed way to illuminate dark walkways. Available in an array of styles, they use photovoltaic cells to soak up the sun's energy, which gets stored in a battery that powers the bulbs after dark. But if the location is shady or you don't want to risk having no lights after a

dark, cloudy day, use battery-operated landscape lights instead. They can last for weeks on a pair of D-cells each. Either way, look for lights with LED bulbs, which use very little power.

The solar model shown here is available from Hammacher Schlemmer

Add a Light Switch

Photo by Courtesy Leviton/ TWAcomm

A room that has no overhead light fixture or switched outlet will leave your guests fumbling their way in the dark to turn on the table lamp. Unless, that is, you add a wireless wall switch, like the Leviton Anywhere Switch, which simply glues or screws to the wall. (The standard location is next to the doorknob side of the doorway, usually 43 to 48 inches off the floor.) Powered by disposable batteries, the switch sends a signal to a plug-in controller where you insert the table lamp's plug. Okay, so maybe it's not as much fun as The Clapper, but it's a whole lot quieter and more intuitive.

Recalibrate the Oven

Have you earned a reputation for medium-rare holiday turkey or blackened pumpkin pie? Maybe it's the fault of your oven, not your cooking. Often the thermostat in the oven misreads the temperature inside the cooking space. Check the true temperature with a stand-alone oven thermometer, then recalibrate the oven's thermostat following the instructions in the owner's manual. (If it's missing you can usually find the manual online. Try an appliance manual directory like Appliance 411 to find the manual you need.)

Sweeten a Stinky Disposer

Photo by Courtesy Arm & Hammer/ Church & Dwight Co.

Why spend the money on store-bought disposer-cleaning capsules when baking soda works just as well? First, run the unit with plain water to clear any gunk. Then, put in the stopper and fill the sink halfway with warm water. Add 1/4 cup of baking soda. Now remove the stopper as you flip on the disposer's switch. Toss in some lemon or orange peels as the water swirls down, and switch off the disposer when the water runs out.