DIY 005: Fixer Upper

Why yes, I have binged all five seasons of Fixer Upper during quarantine. Thanks for asking.

While it is my dream to someday do some full-on home renos, I have had to settle for some small-time projects on our rental properties. We have six small houses in the Lancaster area that were built in the 1960s and regularly require some love. We recently had a tenant move out so I went to go do a little fixin’.

Isn’t she sweet?

Side Note: The first time we fixed up one of the units, I got a little overambitious. I started working on forty different projects (including refinishing all the kitchen cabinets, painting the entire house, and repairing the patio trellis). Did I mention I thought I could do all this in a single weekend? Yeah. No way. My in-laws, aka our property managers, had to call in a handyman to finish all my projects. So I have a more realistic idea of my limitations now.

Project 1: Changing out the Locks

I’m pretty sure the locks on the doors hadn’t been changed for a decade or two. The metal was rusted, dented, and didn’t latch well. When the tenant turned in her keys, she mentioned that on windy days the door would bang open if she didn’t have it bolted! We would definitely have fixed that if we’d known, but better late than never.

I had never switched out a lock before, but after watching a couple YouTube videos I was fairly sure I could make it happen. I bought two sets of Kwikset Entry Locks— one for the front door and one for the exterior entrance to the garage. Thankfully, I remembered to find two matching sets (so the same key works on all the locks). Wouldn’t have known to look for that without a tutorial video!

How to match multiple locks to the same key. The things they don’t teach you in college…

I began unscrewing the old deadbolt and everything was looking pretty straightforward. Then, I hit a speedbump: one of the screws holding the bottom lock in place was completely stripped. I tried all of my various screwdriver heads, but the hole was completely circular. I googled various ways of getting out a stripped screw (use pliers! nope. jam a rubber band in and twist with screwdriver! nope).

Finally, my mother-in-law, Marlene, said, “We have a good drill you could use”.

Marlene is from Argentina and sometimes there’s a communication issue. I looked at her quizzically, “What do you mean?”

She answered excitedly, “If you push hard, it might come out.”

I tried to picture it happening and while I wasn’t totally convinced, I figured it was worth a shot. I picked up the drill and rammed it into the nail. It was super powerful and as soon as I put my weight into it, I felt the screw move! In my excitement, I only moved the screw out halfway and ended up having to use pliers to unscrew it the rest of the way. Yeah, yeah, I’ve got a bit of a learning curve y’all. But thank you, Marlene!!

The doorknob install went very smoothly, but the lower latch was still not catching very well. I jiggled the door and when I lifted it up, the latch slid right in. Hmm. I opened the door and took a look at the hinges. The top hinge turned out to be really loose. As soon as I tightened the screws, the whole door stood up straighter and locked properly. Calling it a win.

Project 2: Installing a Thermostat

After my success with the doorknobs, I felt invincible. The wall thermostat was ancient and cracked– quite the eyesore. I was confident that I could replace it with a sharper looking one… event though I had never taken on electrical wiring before. (Confidence or arrogance? It’s a fine line.) I picked up a basic Honeywell Home thermostat and went to work.

I knew the first step was turning off the power to the HVAC system. Well, I had no idea where the main service panel was located. After looking through all the rooms, then the garage, I finally found the box on the far side of the house just above some shrubs. Aaaand most of the controls weren’t labeled. For fear of getting shocked, I switched them ALL off.

It was a great start.

I went back into the dark, no-longer-air-conditioned house, and started prying off the old thermostat. With a little jiggling, the cover popped off the wall. I then unscrewed the panel and carefully unscrewed the two wires connected to the plate (an “R” and a “W”). I connected the wires to the new panel and screwed it into the wall… before realizing there was a “cover plate” that would hide the part of the wall where the old thermostat had rested. So, I took the panel off, put the cover on, then reattached the wires, and screwed it all into the wall. Whew. Second times a charm, eh? Then, I turned back on the electricity, crossed my fingers, and turned the heat on. It worked.

Moral of the Story: Electrical work is really not all that scary.

Project 3: Repairing a Baseboard

My last project of the day was to install a new piece of baseboard in the living room. There was a seven-inch gap right next to the door where a piece was clearly missing. After measuring the section, I went to Home Depot and found a similar piece of baseboard for sale. The baseboard was sold by the foot and I definitely didn’t need all 10-ft of the piece I was holding. With nary a worker in site, I took it to the self-service cart and took a handsaw to it.

Side Note: From now on, I will exclusively request tools as birthday and Christmas gifts. Using the drill and handsaw this weekend were crack. I want more of that in my life.

Armed with my perfectly cut piece of baseboard, I lined it up on the wall… only to find that there was a little bit of tile jutting out above the floor about 1/4″. This made my piece sit up higher than the rest of the baseboard, but I couldn’t worry about it at that point. I popped in a couple finishing nails and set about caulking. I tried to make the caulk help the height difference “disappear”, but it wasn’t all that effective. Regardless, the gap was filled. I was ready to hit the road, so I asked Marlene if she wouldn’t mind painting it the next day. She readily obliged.

Still needs painting, but hey! It’s an improvement.

Side Note: Marlene spent the entire afternoon and evening putting contact paper in all the kitchen cabinets. She’s a trooper.

So, unfortunately, none of these projects will likely land me my own HGTV show. But, I did want to share my adventures to hopefully encourage you to take on tasks around your house. There’s so much you can do with a little help from YouTube! It’s empowering to fix things. And we could all use that bit of morale boost these days…