Common Home Problems -- Solved!

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From expert tips and tricks to do-it-yourself repairs, Better Homes and Gardens contributing editor Danny Lipford answers your toughest questions and makes home maintenance manageable for all.

Lighten Up

Q: "The lighting in my house is horrible. How can I fix this?"

A: Try these options for brightening up the rooms in your house. Replace bulbs: New CFL bulbs use less electricity and produce less heat than traditional bulbs, so you can replace the bulbs in your existing ceiling fixture with brighter ones without exceeding the maximum wattage rating of the fixture. Add lamps: Standing accent lamps in corners and smaller lamps on tables can brighten up a room without having to rewire. New fixture: Replace an existing ceiling fixture with a multiple-bulb fixture or hanging chandelier to greatly increase the available lighting. Paint: Painting ceilings white and walls and woodwork a light color can go a long way toward brightening up a dim room. Mirrors: Installing mirrors on the wall can magnify existing light by reflecting it back into the room.

Five big trends in lighting fixtures and lamps/

Lighting Trends to Try

See the newest trends in lighting, plus get tips and inspiration for illuminating your rooms.

Trick the Eye

Q: "Do you have any tricks for making a small room look spacious?"

A: To make a small room look and feel larger, avoid busy wallpaper as well as vivid- or dark-color paint. Instead, paint your walls a light, pastel color. Also, take down heavy drapes to leave the windows uncovered. Reduce the clutter and furniture in the room. Install mirrors on the wall, and add natural and artificial light.

Smart Surfaces

Q: "What are your thoughts on marble in the kitchen? Is it worth the upkeep?"

A: Marble is a porous stone that can stain easily if not sealed properly or resealed periodically. If you install marble tiles, be sure you seal the grout lines, as well. Marble is much softer than granite, making it more prone to scratching. While marble is heat-resistant, placing hot items directly on a marble countertop is not recommended since it can result in an irreparable discoloration. The bottom line is that though marble is beautiful, it has some significant disadvantages that make it less durable and require more maintenance than some of the other countertop options available.

Hang Your TV in a Safe Spot

Q: "What do I need to know about hanging a TV on the wall above a fireplace?"

A: Depending on the type and design of the fireplace, it might generate more heat than the TV is designed to handle. To find out, attach a thermometer to the wall above the fireplace while a fire is burning. Temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit are considered too high for most sets. Check the manual that comes with the TV to find the maximum temperature for your set. A wood-burning fireplace can also emit smoke, ash, soot, and other particulate matter into the room. Since hot air rises, these contaminants will be drawn into your TV. If the area over the fireplace wasn't prewired, electrical and transmission wires will need to be run in the wall above the fireplace. This can be extremely difficult if the wall is brick. Flat-screen TVs are made to be viewed at eye level. When mounted higher, the screen might need to be angled downward for optimal viewing. When attaching a TV to a wall, make sure it is properly anchored. This is particularly true when mounting a TV on a brick wall.

Mold Troubles

Q: "How can I eliminate a mold problem in my house?"

A. Since mold requires warm, moist conditions to grow, start by eliminating any unwanted sources of water, such as roof or plumbing leaks, defective weather stripping around windows and doors, and seepage through walls. Monitor the relative humidity in your home with a humidity gauge (hygrometer). If the humidity is high, lower it with air-conditioning or a dehumidifier. You can also reduce moisture by using kitchen and bath fans that vent to the outside, and improve air circulation with ceiling or portable fans. To remove small amounts of mold and mildew, scrub the surfaces with water and detergent, then dry thoroughly. For more serious cases, use a product that is specifically made to kill mold.

Material Matters

Q: "Is porcelain tile a good product to use for a shower's floor and walls?"

A: Porcelain tile is a great choice for a shower since it's made from finer clay and fired at higher temperatures than standard ceramic tile. This makes porcelain tile harder, more durable, and less porous than regular ceramic tile. That last quality is particularly important in a shower -- porcelain tile absorbs less water than other ceramic tile.

Paint Spills

Q: "I accidentally spilled latex paint down the side of an oak cabinet. How can I remove it?"

A: If the woodwork was finished with an oil-base varnish, such as polyurethane, denatured alcohol can be used to remove the latex paint without damaging the underlying finish. Test the woodwork in an inconspicuous spot first to be sure the alcohol won't soften the finish. If it's good to go, dampen a rag with alcohol, rub it on the paint spots, and wipe off any residue with a clean rag.

Primer Problem

Q: "The primer I used on a wall dripped, and bumps have developed. How can I fix this?"

A: Painting your walls with flat paint will hide wall imperfections better than glossier sheens, but it doesn't clean as easily. To remove drips of dried paints on your wall, use a sharp chisel or razor blade to carefully slice the drip off the wall, then lightly sand the spot until it's smooth with the surrounding surface. Touch up the spot using matching wall paint. If the fresh paint stands out too much, you might need to reroll the entire wall to make it blend.

Water Marks

Q: "A plant sitting on a piece of wood furniture leaked. How do I remove the water mark?"

A: There are two types of common water stains on furniture. White stains indicate that water has become trapped in the finish itself or in a layer of wax on the surface. Dark stains indicate where the water has penetrated all the way through the finish and into the wood beneath. A white stain will often disappear on its own after drying for a day or two. If it doesn't, try placing a dry cotton cloth over the stain and go over it with a hot iron for just a few seconds at a time (do not use steam). If this doesn't work, try wiping the spot lightly with a cloth dampened with denatured alcohol. Don't overdo it, as alcohol can soften some finishes. Dark stains are hard to remove without stripping, sanding, and refinishing the piece.

Window Worries

Q: "Why does moisture build up between the panes of my double-paned window?"

A: Double-paned insulated glass consists of two layers of glass that are sealed together around the edges with an inert gas injected in the insulating gap between them. Over time, the differences in expansion and contraction -- from the effects of heat, sun, and cold -- between the two panes can cause the seal to fail. This allows the gas to slowly leak out and be replaced by moisture-laden outside air, which can give the window a hazy appearance between the panes. Check the warranty that came with your windows to see if the glass is still covered. If it isn't, you will either need to replace the glass or hire a service that removes the moisture.

Rotting Wood

Q: "The frame around my front door is rotting. Do I need to hire a contractor to replace the entire frame?"

A: The extent of the damage to your door frame will determine how you go about fixing it. Remove the rotten section using a handsaw or sharp chisel and hammer. If the damage is confined to the bottom inch or two of the door casing, use auto-body filler to fill it. Drive a few screws into the void to provide support, mix the filler and hardener together, and fill the opening. Once the filler begins to harden, use a sharp chisel to remove the excess, and mold it to the shape of the casing. When the filler has cured, sand and paint it. If the damage to the door casing is more extensive, you will need to remove the damaged piece and replace it with a matching casing from a building supply store. If the rot extends to the door jamb (the side pieces of the door frame), it will be much harder to repair, so seek professional help.

Scale Back on Solar Rays/Heat

Q: "How can I reduce the summer sun/heat on windows while retaining the views?"

A: UV rays and solar heat from windows can damage furniture and fabrics and increase air-conditioning bills. To prevent this, consider installing special window film on the inside of your glass that blocks UV and solar heat. Do-it-yourself window film is available at home centers, or you can have it professionally done. If your windows are double-pane glass, check with the window manufacturer first to be sure installing window film won't damage the glass or void your warranty. Another option is to replace your existing windows with ones that are designed for your particular climate and that feature insulated, low-E glass.

Wood Table Touch-Up

Q: "My iron left a burn impression on a newly stained wooden table. How can I remove it without having to refinish the whole table?"

A: If the burn is only on the surface of the finish, try automobile rubbing and polishing compounds available at auto supply stores. These paste compounds contain a fine abrasive material that slowly wears away the surface layer of finish. Apply the compound to a soft cotton cloth and rub the surface in a circular motion. Once the burn has disappeared, use a damp cloth to remove any residue, then follow up with the finer-grit polishing compound on a clean cloth to restore the shine. If the burn is too deep for a rubbing compound to work, try sanding it out with fine (220 grit) sandpaper, being careful not to sand all the way through the finish; add another coat of finish. If all else fails, strip and refinish the entire top.

Basement Refinishing

Q: "I'm finishing my basement in stages. What has to get done first? Second? And so on ... "

A. When finishing a basement in phases, tackle the job in this order: 1. Check your local building codes for requirements such as ceiling height, stair proportions, and the location and size requirements of egress windows and doors. 2. Make sure the envelope around your basement is waterproof, and correct any moisture or humidity problems that exist. 3. Test the basement for the presence of radon gas, and take steps to lower it if needed. 4. Draw a detailed plan for the space. 5. Frame up any interior walls. 6. Rough in the wiring, plumbing, and ductwork. 7. Hang and finish the drywall on ceiling and walls. 8. Install interior door units. 9. Install trim molding. 10. Paint walls and trim. 11. Install any built-in cabinets. 12. Finish up plumbing and wiring. 13. Install flooring.

Money Matters

Q: "Is it energy-efficient to install storm windows over vinyl-wrapped windows?"

A: While you could add storm windows to your existing double-pane windows, the energy savings would not be nearly as great as installing them over single-pane windows. When used over single-pane glass in colder climates, storm windows can reduce heating costs by 13 percent and pay for themselves in 10 years. If a low-E coating is applied to the storm window, the savings increase to over 20 percent, with payback in fewer than five years. Since you already have insulated glass windows, the payback period would be much longer in your case. To increase the energy efficiency of your existing windows, be sure the sashes fit snugly in the casing and the weather stripping around the window blocks air infiltration.

Correct a Ceiling Fan

Q: "How can I fix a ceiling fan that wobbles?"

A: Turn the fan off at the breaker and check to see if it's securely attached to the ceiling. If the fan feels loose, tighten the supporting screws at the ceiling, and see if the ceiling box itself needs reinforcement. Next, make sure the screws that attach the blades to the blade mounts and the mounts to the fan motor are tight. If the fan still wobbles, check the blade alignment by holding a tape measure or yardstick against the ceiling even with the end of the blade; rotate the fan by hand to see if each blade measures the same distance. If one of the blades is off, you might be able to slightly bend the metal blade mount to align it, but don't apply too much pressure. If the fan still isn't running smoothly, the blades are either warped and need to be replaced, or they are out of balance. Balancing kits -- which include weights, a testing clip, and detailed instructions -- are available at home centers.

Stop Seepage

Q: "When it rains, water seeps through the block foundation and into my garage. How can I stop this?"

A: Whether it's a garage, crawlspace, basement, or the interior of your home, it's important to keep water from seeping into or under your home. Since it's easier to block water outside than inside, start by making sure the ground around the foundation slopes away from your home. If you don't already have gutters, install them, and extend the downspouts so they direct rainwater away from your home. Make sure borders around planting beds don't hold moisture. Allow rainwater to drain away from your home. If you're still having seepage problems, dig down around the foundation to below the level of the garage floor, fill any cracks in the concrete-block walls, and apply a waterproofing sealer to the outside of the blocks.

Unfinished Flooring Fix

Q: "I have a patch of wood flooring that was not refinished with the rest several years ago. Is there a way to refinish that patch of the floor and not have to do the whole thing?"

A: Since both the stain and wood can change color over time, it will be difficult to match. If you know the stain and finish that were used, you can give it a try, but don't expect miracles. Consider hiding it with a rug or piece of furniture. If you have some of the old flooring left -- or can find a close match -- you can make it blend in better by staggering every other joint. Start by removing the old patch, then use a square and utility knife to mark each cut so they are centered on a floor joist. Next, use a sharp wood chisel and a mallet or hammer to cut each board to the mark. You will have to remove the wood on the bottom of the groove to fit some of the new boards in place.

Shingle Stains

Q: "I live in Florida and the trees cause stains on the roof shingles. How can I fix this?"

A: Your stains are probably caused by the airborne spores of blue-green algae known as Gloeocapsa magma, which are common in the South. While doing little harm to your shingles, the black streaks are unsightly. Algae stains can be removed with chemical cleaners, though they usually return over time. Repeated use of harsh chemicals (such as bleach) or pressure-washing can damage or shorten the life of your shingles. One option for preventing stains is to install strips of zinc or copper -- which are toxic to algae -- along your roof below the ridge. Molecules of the metal then wash down the roof each time it rains to keep new algae from forming. A better long-term solution is to specify algae-resistant shingles, which have copper granules embedded in them, next time you have your roof replaced.

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