How to Make DIY Home Repairs When a Pro Can’t Visit—According to Pros

updated May 20, 2020
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So your dishwasher breaks. Or your toilet won’t stop running. Or maybe your fridge just will not stay cold. You go to call your usual trusted handyman… but the pandemic’s slowed down or even stopped their visits. What to do?!

Everyone’s becoming more resourceful in navigating shelter-in-place orders and remaining vigilant about limiting exposure to others. Some handymen and women are also no longer coming into people’s homes during COVID-19 for their own protection as well, leaving everyone to their own devices when it comes to figuring out the fixes for common issues. From appliances on the fritz to terrifying plumbing problems, experts gave Apartment Therapy the scoop on DIY fixes around the house.

Home remodeler and handyman Kody Schumacher of Schumacher Remodeling near Cincinnati says that with a “few select tools and some patience you can figure most things out with common sense.” He recommends having the following on hand for home fixes:

Note: Not every fix can be DIYed safely. For jobs that need a pro, follow Apartment Therapy’s advice for safely allowing service people into your home.

What to do about toilet troubles

For a serious clog:

If you haven’t used a plunger in a while, it may be time to locate it, as clogged toilets are a common issue. Glenn Gallas, VP of operations for Mr. Rooter Plumbing, says the most important thing not to do is keep flushing—because your toilet will overflow. “The goal is to push the blockage through,” Gallas says. First, begin plunging with a good amount of force in a quick and repetitive motion, keeping your eye out for movement of the blockage through the toilet. Then, make sure the water is draining, not rising, before attempting to flush again. And don’t go the chemical route: “Never pour a chemical drain cleaner down your toilet,” he says. “Harsh chemicals can irritate your skin and eyes or cause damage to your plumbing pipes.”

For a running toilet:

Another problem is toilets that won’t stop running, meaning it sounds like it was just recently flushed but the sound just… never stops. Gallas recommends turning off the water by using the valve near the base: “Ignore the righty-tighty rule and turn it counterclockwise,” he says. Next, check the tank by removing the cover and lifting the float ball or cup high until it stops running. Gear up with some gloves and potentially a mask, and remove some of the water into a bucket before following the plunging directions above. A toilet auger can also be an option to get out a strong clog or foreign object that is stuck. Reset the float mechanism and attempt to flush while holding the ball or cup up. Dispose of the wastewater down the toilet once it’s working (not another sink or drain).

Stephany Smith of My Plumber (part of the Fantastic Services company) adds that the toilet tank flapper is the most vulnerable part to breaks, and often just needs to be cleaned. You can replace it by simply purchasing the same size as what you have—here’s an example—and attaching the hooks to the pin of the overflow pipe. Smith also says sometimes there can be an issue with the water level above the overflow pipe, and recommends the following depending on your toilet type: 

  1. In case your toilet tank model includes a plastic round ball float, you only need to turn the screw attached to the fill valve counterclockwise to lower the float. 
  2. If your tank is equipped with a cup float, you can easily control the water level when raising or lowering the smaller circular cylinder wrapped around the body of the fill valve.

For replacing a loose or broken toilet seat:

If you have a crack in your seat or you are just upgrading for aesthetics, Gallas recommends first identifying the right type of replacement—there’s a difference between round and oblong, for example. “Pry off the plastic covers at the back of the seat with a flathead screwdriver and unscrew the plastic or metal bolts underneath,” Gallas says. “You may need pliers to hold the nuts in place while you unscrew the bolts. Lift the old seat and discard it.” Clean the area that had been covered before screwing the new bolts into the mounting holes and attaching new nuts if applicable. Snap the plastic covers firmly over the new bolt heads.

Credit: Jessica Isaac

What to do if you’re finding issues in the kitchen

For a leaky dishwasher:

There’s nothing worse than your dishwasher not doing its job, especially if you’re feeding people multiple meals per day at home during the pandemic. “Dishwasher leaks most of the time is just a bad drain line, so run to a store or Amazon and get a universal line and sap those out,” Schumacher says. “As my brother always says, ‘everything has directions.’” Schumacher emphasizes that often, part swaps are things homeowners can try for themselves by simply following the steps on the equipment they’ve purchased—but they should also know their limits. “If you don’t want to see it through to the end, call a professional and have them do it. I work on my truck but I’m also not a mechanic and I know my limitations,” he jokes.

For a fridge that isn’t staying cold:

During the pandemic, a working fridge is essential for ensuring food stays cold and fresh, especially to minimize extra grocery trips (and germ exposure). Bailey Carson,’s Head of Cleaning—overseeing cleaning and repairs—breaks down the parts that could contribute to a fridge that isn’t staying cold: a malfunctioning compressor, start relay, evaporator fan, condenser fan, or defrost system. Not all of these issues are DIY-friendly, but issues with the defrost system are.

“If your defrost system seems to be the culprit, what is likely happening is an ice build-up in the evaporator coil within the freezer,” Carson says. “This causes the unit to stop cooling within the fridge first, then the problem moves on to the freezer as well,” she said. Clean your fridge’s condenser coils regularly to avoid problems. “If the condenser coils stay dirty for too long, the debris overheats the refrigerator and causes the other components of the fridge to work harder, wearing them out,” Carson says. “To clean your condenser coils, remove the grill piece found at the back or bottom of most fridges and clean out the debris with a small brush or vacuum.”

For a dripping faucet:

A leaky faucet is frustrating for several reasons, the most obvious being the negative effect it can have on our wallet, home, and environment, Carson says. But she assures homeowners that it’s no large task with the right tools, which include an adjustable wrench, plumber’s putty, a screwdriver, a flashlight, and a bucket. 

“First, turn off the water source to your sink, and place a bucket underneath the sink to catch any dripping,” she says. “Then, loosen your faucet handles and remove them from the faucet. The third step is to disassemble your faucet, paying extra attention to the rubber gasket for any signs of wear and tear. Clean all parts thoroughly with a calcium remover. If your gasket needs replacement, it should be easy to find at your local hardware store. Once you have a functional gasket, reassemble your faucet making sure that all parts are tightly screwed and secured and the handle is in the off position.” Test out your handiwork, and call your plumber for advice if you get stuck.

For a yucky garbage disposal:

Prevent nasty buildup in your garbage disposal by following Gallas’s steps. This is also a proactive step you can take to prevent any issues with your disposal.

  • Pour half a cup of baking soda into your disposal, followed by a cup of vinegar, adding slowly and letting the mixture fizz. (If you have a double sink, make sure to plug the opposite side.) 
  • While this mixture if fizzing, bring a pot of water to boil. Very carefully, pour the boiling water down the drain to rinse away debris the fizzy mixture has loosened. 
  • Now fill the drain with 2 cups of ice, adding 1 cup of course rock/sea salt if you have it. 
  • Run the cold water and the disposal. 
  • Finally, cut a lemon or lime in half, adding the halves to the drain one at a time, to deodorize your disposal. Repeat weekly, or daily if odors persist, until unwanted smells are eliminated.

Ask if virtual services from your plumber are available

If you get in the middle of a project you can’t handle, ask your plumber if they offer virtual services, like Smith’s company. “We help the homeowners to avoid DIY nightmares by guiding them through the plumbing repair or installation process over a smartphone or tablet. Instead of welcoming the plumber at your home, you can easily arrange an appointment with a certified virtual plumber and explain/show the plumbing issue over a video conference call,” she says. “The expert will assess the problem remotely and, if it’s not an emergency issue requiring a professional technician on-site, he can help you deal with the problem safely, reliably, and quickly. You also get information on what tools, materials and supplies you’ll need in advance.”

What to try and not try on your own, according to pros

  • Schumacher cautions against attempting electrical work without testing or turning off the power. “Always test everything like five times. I’ve been shocked in the same room four times when I thought all of the outlets were on the same breakers. Most residential electrical problems are from bad outlets and fixtures. Shut the power down first,” he says.
  • Three things Gallas recommends trying for a clogged sink or tub drain anywhere in the house: a bent wire hanger, baking soda and vinegar, or boiling water. 
  • Smith says small pipe ruptures may be fixable by DIY—but even in a pandemic plumbers are available for emergencies, so it may be smarter to shut off the water flow and find a certified plumber. That’s especially true for anything leaking behind a wall, which requires more care and expertise.
  • Smith also says that if you experience limited water stream, it could be hard water, mineral, and rust build-up, which can clog up the tiny holes of your faucet or shower head. “To solve the issue on your own, soak the clogged part in a container filled up with a mixture of water and vinegar for a couple of hours,” she says. “Then, by using a wire brush, scrub out the softened residue remaining after the soaking process. Rinse it, and now, you are ready to enjoy a rewarding tap or shower spout.”