Fix It Myself?

by Gary Foreman


Dear Dollar Stretcher,
Recently we thought our microwave had died for good. It acted as if it had no power so my husband checked the breaker box and the fuse wasn't blown. He unplugged it, popped off the top and looked at all the wires and they looked as if all were connected. Then he noticed a fuse in it. He took it out and took it to an appliance store. He was able to buy a replacement fuse for $4, put it in, put the top on, plugged it in and now it's working again. The guy at the appliance store said they go out once in a while. Saved us the cost of a new microwave.
Joanne H. in Enumclaw, WA

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 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 disassembled item. 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 expensive.

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 okay. 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 search. You'd be surprised how many do-it-yourself videos are available.

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 10 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 either the hoses and mixing valve that let 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. I 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

Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar Stretcher.com website and newsletters in 1996. He's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money and he's a regular contributor to CreditCards.com. You can follow Gary on Twitter or visit Gary Foreman on Google+. Gary is also available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.

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