You flush the toilet and the water level rises instead of falls. You open the refrigerator to discover it's dark inside and the ice cream in the freezer is mushy. You notice water puddling around the base of your hot water heater.
Panic time. I used to pull out the yellow pages and put myself at the mercy of the first repairman who'd agree to show up. Often, he'd fiddle around for a few minutes and fix the problem. I'd be left with a valuable lesson (how to reset a circuit breaker, say, to get the refrigerator going again), a sheepish look on my face, and a hefty bill.
No more. When it comes to minor fix-ups around the house, I now head for the Internet. It's the modern-day equivalent of the corner hardware store, a source of expert advice, tools and supplies, and even moral support. O.K., once you understand what's involved in the project, you may decide to call in a professional. (You can do that over the Internet, too.) But for many smaller jobs, you'll probably find that you're handier than you ever imagined.
The best strategy is simply to surf to a search engine such as Google or Ask.com and describe your problem. After a long and fruitless search of fix-it sites, from Homestore.com to HowStuffWorks.com, for the best way to fix a jammed garbage disposal, I typed "unclog a garbage disposal" into Google and had my answer on the first page of results--from a bulletin board that's part of GardenWeb, a site I never would have thought to check. The writer suggested using a broom handle to jar the grinders loose.
The best of the home repair and improvement sites are those that offer a mix of boilerplate tutorials and everyday, practical advice from their members. Check out DoItYourself.com, one of the oldest and most complete of the Net's home-repair sites. You won't find all the answers in its how-to section, though, and some of the advice goes overboard when it comes to recommending products you can buy elsewhere on the Web site.
But DoItYourself.com has a very active member community that answers each other's questions on dozens of bulletin boards, covering topics ranging from project bloopers (62 posts) to plumbing (more than 30,000). GardenWeb's That Home Site! (ths.gardenweb.com), which is solely devoted to member forums, is almost as good for getting fast answers to any specific questions that you post.
The problem with most home-repair and improvement sites is that advice is merely a sideline. Instead, their main mission is selling magazine subscriptions (handymanclub.com, familyhandyman.com), videos of TV shows (hometime.com), or hardware and appliances (homedepot.com, lowes.com). So, while it's difficult to find out how to fix a garbage disposal, for example, it's easy to learn how to install one--presumably the one you purchased on the same Web site.
The tips are often random collections of articles licensed from how-to magazines and books. Some can be virtually useless. ("First, find the Self-Service Wrench that came with your In-Sink-Erator." Yeah, right.) Some can be just plain wrong, so it pays to use a little common sense. If you're unsure, post your plan on a bulletin board and see what its members think. Some forums, such as those at DoItYourself.com, use volunteer moderators to weed out bad information and to make sure that queries get answered promptly.
Navigation, too, can sometimes be a nightmare. You can't search homedepot.com's Project Index or Homestore.com's tips by key words, for example. Instead, you must page through lists of hundreds of article titles. By far the most sluggish site is Better Homes and Gardens' (bhg.com) online how-to encyclopedia. Each time you move to a new page you're greeted with a fresh barrage of advertising. Recently, I sat through a slide-show from the Maryland Tourism Development Board, a 30-second radio ad for the movie White Oleander, and numerous pop-ups and pop-unders offering discount magazine subscriptions, all while waiting for the next page to come up. Too bad, because the advice is excellent, and there are lots of illustrations. Your time would be better spent waiting for the Sears repairman.
That's how I became a reluctant handyman in the first place. I took a day off from work to get the icemaker in my refrigerator fixed, and the Sears repairman never showed up. When he stood me up the next day as well, I called a local "appliance doctor." For $175, he installed an obviously used icemaker, which he had to come back to replace a week later. One icemaker, four days lost.
So the next time I had one of those little household emergencies that seem to pop up around the holidays, I was primed. Just days before a big family dinner, my oven went on the fritz. General Electric wanted $50 just to walk through the front door, and couldn't schedule a visit until long after the turkey should have been a bare carcass.
I turned to RepairClinic.com instead. Its RepairGuru guided me through a series of questions that concluded the heating element was damaged. (If it's stumped, the company will attempt a diagnosis via e-mail.) A second Q&A figured out the part that needed to be replaced. Cost: $23.21, plus $4.59 for a quarter-inch nut driver it suggested that I might need. Everything arrived four days later and I had my oven heating again in 10 minutes flat.
Google's latest find for me? Toiletology.com. Another specialized site, this one was put together by an instructor at the Montgomery County (Md.) Recreation Dept. who discovered that toilets were the biggest headache for the participants in her home-repair classes. So far, Toiletology.com has probably saved me hundreds of dollars. I installed a new flush valve in one toilet to stop an internal leak that was wasting water, and I replaced the wax seal on another toilet that was leaking water onto a linoleum floor.
Sure, it's still not the way that I want to spend my weekends. But if I have to, thanks to the Internet, I now can manage those minor crises around the house. That doesn't mean, though, that I'm on call to friends who think of me every time one of their faucets develops a drip.
By Larry Armstrong