The A-to-Z Glossary of Confusing Home Repair and Maintenance Terms

published Mar 29, 2022
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Are you facing your first-ever home repair or maintenance project and not sure how to begin (or keep going after that)? Make your way through our starter pack. This content was created independently by our editorial team and generously underwritten by the Toyota Corolla Cross.

Home repairs and maintenance can be super intimidating! So we’re here to help you lay a helpful foundation (metaphorically of course — any literal foundation fixes should be left to the pros!) with a comprehensive list of confusing terms. Talking the talk is essential to being able to walk the walk (or, you know, patch the drywall), so consider this primer everything you need to understand essential lingo throughout your projects. 

A: Access Panel

An access panel is essentially a small metal or plywood “door” that can be removed to allow access to pertinent parts behind your wall. You’ll typically find this in front of important plumbing parts (think: shutoff valves or drains), but it can often be called an electrical panel and give way to low-voltage wiring systems, too (like when you blow a fuse).

B: Building Codes

“Building codes can be looked at as a code of ethics to prevent wrongdoing within the industry,” explain Mike Jackson and Egypt Sherrod, the couple behind HGTV’s “Married to Real Estate” and “Rock the Block.” “The codes were created to set standards that protect the safety, health, and well-being of the public as it pertains to the occupancy and construction of residences, buildings, and structures.”

Credit: AT video

C: Caulk

Caulk — also known as caulking — is a flexible material that can be used to seal gaps or seams in various home repair jobs. There are different formulations of caulk geared toward different types of projects, including water-tight caulk for piping, paintable caulk for crown molding, and more. 

D: Drywall

Drywall is a panel made primarily of paper and gypsum (a naturally occurring mineral that can be found in rock all over the world) that is used to construct everything from walls and ceilings to interior architectural features like arches. It’s considered the modern alternative to hand-applied plaster, which used to be the preferred method of covering walls in construction. 

E: Egress Window

A common code requirement, an egress window refers to a window large enough to be used as an escape in the case of a fire or other emergency. There are building code requirements for egresses in every part of the home. (And speaking of emergencies, don’t forget to check monthly to ensure your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, as well as your fire extinguisher, are working properly.)

F: Flathead Screwdriver

One of the handiest tools in your arsenal, a flathead screwdriver boasts a flat tip that is used to turn screws and bolts. Also known as a slotted flat blade screwdriver, it comes in various thicknesses to cater to the type of screw or bolt you’re using. Alternatively, a Phillips head screwdriver is characterized by a classic star-shaped tip and is good for use on any screws with a cross shape on their heads. 

G: Grout

Grout is a material that can be used to fill the joints in between a tile or stone installation and is water-resistant once cured. In its most basic form, grout is just a combination of water, cement, and sand. However, most commercial grouting mixtures you buy these days may also contain plasticizers and color pigments to add an extra layer of design to your projects. 


An abbreviation that refers to the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems within a home.

I: Inspections

New home buyers will hire an independent inspector to review a property in person before its purchase. This person will check everything from the electrical and piping to exterior rot or foundation issues. “Any home buyer should get a home inspection before signing any contracts and before buying a home, apartment, condo, or townhouse,” says Joe Mazza, a licensed New York State and Connecticut home inspector and star of HGTV’s “Home Inspector Joe.” “This is the most money you will ever spend, so why not know where your investment is going? Can you imagine waiving a home inspection, then moving into a house that now needs a new roof, heating, and cooling system? There are so many components in a house, so it’s important to do your homework.” 

J: Joist

Parallel planks of lumber that support a floor or ceiling in a home. 

K: Knob-and-Tube Wiring

An outdated home electrical system in which electrical wires are enclosed in porcelain tubes that pass through walls or beams. This type of wiring is most often seen in American homes from the 1880s to the 1940s and, while not inherently dangerous, will need to be changed to be brought up to code during a construction project. 

L: Lath

You’re most likely to encounter lath if you’re doing repairs on an older home. The term lath refers to the “framework” that helps plaster adhere to a surface. This is typically seen as narrow strips of wood in old interior walls covered in plaster, but it can also refer to wire grids (similar to chicken wire) on the exterior of buildings that act as a foundation for stucco. 

M: Millwork

In the most basic sense, millwork means any woodwork that has been made in a mill. It’s often a catchall term used for doors, window sashes, molding, and trim

N: Nuts and Bolts

An essential team, nuts and bolts are a duo of fasteners that are typically used together. The term nut refers to a small metal shape (often a hexagon) with a circular, threaded hole in the middle. This is the slot-in spot for the bolt: a metal object, similar to a screw, that has a thick, threaded stem that fastens together with the bolt. 

O: Occupancy Load

An occupancy load (also known as occupant load) is the maximum number of people allowed by code to occupy a home at any given time. Occupancy load often relates to the size of the home and can have a direct impact on other aspects of a home’s design and function, such as the plumbing system. 

P: Permit

Although they can often be a pain to acquire, permits can be a necessary evil of any major home repair. Permits refer to any authorization given by local or state government officials that allows you to perform specific work on your home. There are several different types of permits available and necessary depending on the project you’re undertaking, such as building permits, plumbing permits, zoning permits, and more. Typically, your general contractor can walk you through the necessary arrangements. If you’re doing a repair yourself, you may want to research whether your intended changes are something you’ll need proof of permit for down the line, like in the instance of selling your house or refinancing your mortgage. 

Q: Quit

What you might want to do midway through your DIY repair project. (Also, yes — we couldn’t think of anything for Q…). 

R: Rough-In

Rough-in is one of those terms that will make you sound like a total pro anytime you drop it. “In the construction industry, the ‘rough-in’ phase is a major step in construction,” explain Jackson and Sherrod. “It’s the period where gas lines, water lines (PVC, copper, iron, etc.), electrical wiring, and ductwork are installed.” What this phrase encompasses varies depending on the scope of your project — it could be something as simple as rewiring where your electrical outlets are in a bathroom, or as in-depth as adding water lines to a space so it can support the laundry room of your dreams. 

Credit: Alex Ratson/Getty Images

S: Stud

In a home, at least, this is a thicker board that extends from the top to the bottom of a wall to provide extra support. You may have seen people knocking on the wall to identify the location of a stud via “sound” (or using an electronic stud finder); that’s because any heavier objects — like a mirror, for example — should be hung on a stud instead of just drywall for extra security. 

T: Time and Materials Contract

A time and materials contract (T&M) is a pay structure common in construction. Instead of a fixed quote for an entire project, a T&M contract consists of a fixed hourly wage plus the cost of any materials and overhead.  

U: Utility Knife

A utility knife is a handy do-it-all accessory for any home repair project: It can be used to score drywall during installation, to help rip up carpet, and so much more. Some utility knives are super basic and just consist of an angled blade (sometimes also called a box cutter); others offer “upgraded” features similar to those on a Swiss Army knife. 

V: Valuation

A valuation is a means of determining the estimated total cost of a home, renovation, or project — including any electrical, plumbing, or permanent fixtures. It’s important to note that a valuation does not indicate the market value of a property, which can come in higher or lower than a valuation depending on many factors (hello, hot real estate market!). Anytime you pull a permit for a project or make an improvement — like upgrading your hot water heater — you can change the valuation of your home, but this typically isn’t reflected until you refinance your home or put it up for sale. 

W: WD-40

There’s a reason the term WD-40 probably looks so familiar to you: It’s been around for over half a century and considered a home repair must-have for just about as long. It’s known primarily as a penetrating oil lubricant meant to better squeaky metal parts and prevent rust, but over the years has earned a reputation as a universal solution for all sorts of issues, from removing paint smudges to eliminating scuff marks on floors. 

X: EpoXy

A cheat, we know — but stick with us here. Epoxy is a durable, strong, chemical-resistant adhesive that can range from formulations you can buy at your local hardware store to a pro-grade version used for bonding concrete, and can be used for repairing pipes, window and door molding, and beyond.

Y: Yardscape

Also often called “softscape,” yardscape refers to the living part of a landscape plan, including plants, trees, flowers, turf, soil, and more. The other component of a landscape plan, known as “hardscape,” involves nonliving (and thus more permanent) additions, like pavers, patios, retaining walls, driveways, and more. Consider eyeing these aspects of your home’s exterior twice a year in case they’re in need of any repairs. 

Z: Zoning 

According to Jackson and Sherrod, there can be several different types or classifications of zoning. “There’s industrial, agricultural, residential, commercial, historic, rural, retail, and more,” they say. “The zoning process is typically handled by local governments, which can approve or restrict the use of properties within its jurisdiction. Zoning can also involve coding that dictates how a property can be used within a certain geographic zone.” Zoning often comes into play with home repairs: Redoing your driveway? Be wary of widening it, which could be against zoning codes. The same goes for building a too-tall fence in front of your property or switching up the color of your house — make sure to check local zoning laws before taking any big leaps!