Like Joanne's husband, I like to try to do some repairs myself.
Part of the attraction is saving money. The other part is curiosity about how
things work. Her story is a common one. Even in our "throw away" society,
there's still a some repairs that you can do yourself. But the trick is knowing
which ones to attempt. In some cases a failed repair attempt could actually cost
you money or even be dangerous. So how can you decide whether you want to try to
play repair person?
Before deciding whether to attempt a repair you need to ask
yourself a couple of questions. The first one is: do you have any idea of what's
wrong? Some items, especially electronics, are so complicated that it's almost
impossible to try to fix them unless you have special training and tools. But
even on complicated appliances there are some things that you can check.
Joanne's microwave is a perfect example. You don't need to understand how they
cook to know that it needs electricity to work. Anyone can check a cord for bad
connections or look for a blown fuse.
Next decide what you would do with the item if you can't fix it.
Would you call in a repair person, buy a new one or live without it? If you're
going to be forced to buy a new one or live without it there's usually not much
risk in trying to fix it. Unless you buy expensive parts, the worst that can
happen is that you take it apart, can't fix it and end up throwing away a
On the other hand, if you'd call in a repair person make sure
that you don't make the problem worse with your attempted repair. That can get
A boyhood experience showed me how that works. If you've ever
tried to take apart an old fashioned wind- up watch you know that there's a
point where removing one additional screw will release dozens of springs and
gears! And, unless you're a trained watchmaker, there's no way to ever get them
back together again. Boing! Whoops!
Fortunately that watch taught me a lesson. Think through the
possible outcomes before you pull out your screwdriver. If you can get into big
trouble you might decide to walk away from a particular challenge. And, that's
ok. Our goal is to save money. Not destroy items that a professional could
repair. You should also consider safety issues before attempting any repairs.
Electricity is a particular concern. Make sure that the item is unplugged or the
circuit breaker turned off before you begin any repair. Remember that some
repairs just aren't safe without proper tools or knowledge and should not be
attempted. Heights and heavy objects can also be dangerous. Remember, your
safety comes first.
Before you attempt any repair spend a little time thinking about
how the item works and what the symptoms are. If you don't know about the
appliance visit your library or do a little web surfing. There are many good
home repair and appliance guides available. I particularly like the ones written
by Popular Mechanics. You can use the search feature on their website
www.popularmechanics.com to see explanations of how many household items work.
Many appliances can be broken down into two or three different
processes. Breaking the item down into it's separate functions helps you
diagnose the problem. You don't need to understand everything. Just the basics
of the subsystem that's broken.
A recent challenge with our washing machine is instructive. It
was more than ten years old and with two children we've gotten some fair use out
of it. Now it was starting to leak. And the leak was getting worse. After
studying it a bit I realized that the leak probably was occurring in one of two
places. Either in the hoses and mixing valve that lets water into the tub or in
the pump section that forces the water out of the tub. If the problem were in
the pump assembly the parts could cost more than an old washer was worth.
Fortunately, after removing the cover, I found that the inlet
hose was cracked. Do I understand completely how a washer works? No. Just that
water must come into the tub and then get out to the drain. An hour's work and a
couple of bucks prevented a $350 purchase.
There was another lesson from this experience. A year ago the
mixing valve wouldn't work. And, even though I correctly guessed what was wrong,
I couldn't figure out how to get the cover off of the washer. Had to call in a
professional. While he was there I made sure to watch what he was doing. Most
repair people are glad to answer a question or two as long as you don't put them
behind schedule. In this case I learned the trick to removing the cover. That
sure came in handy this time around.
One final thought on home repairs. Don't be afraid to fail.
There's no disgrace in it. Even experienced do- it-yourselfers often find that
their skills and tools aren't up to a repair job. As long as you don't make a
problem worse, you really haven't lost anything but your time. And, occasionally
you'll succeed. And when you do, you'll save some money and also have the
satisfaction of knowing that you did it yourself. The only downside is that more items pop up on your project list!
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner who currently edits The
Dollar Stretcher website