Always check your lease and send a written heads up to your landlord before tinkering around in your apartment.
It's practical to assume that the fragility of an object increases in direct proportion to the number of moving parts contained inside. This is why there are so many businesses dedicated to maintaining complex things like cars, computers and human bodies. This assumption also holds true for apartments - every additional feature is something else that can break. It is in fact quite common for landlords who specialize in section 8 housing to strip out as many moving parts as possible, since annual government inspections will fail if landlord-provided items are broken regardless of the cause.
We all know what a pain it is to ask your landlord to fix broken things. It's time consuming, you might have to rearrange furniture, you might have to take time off from work to meet with maintenance workers, you might have to kennel your pet for a day. You might have to make multiple requests before broken items get fixed. Or you might even throw up your hands and resign yourself to living out the rest of your lease without the broken item. But many simple fixes are things you can do yourself without waiting for a landlord or their crew to show up. Doing these projects yourself can not only make your daily life more comfortable, but they keep your rent lower and can be great little confidence boosters.
The less handy of you may balk at doing some of these tasks, but they're all pretty simple, especially if you can finagle a friend into helping you out. If you can assemble Ikea furniture you can probably take on anything on this list with a little help from Youtube.
Notes: You may be able to submit your receipts to your landlord for reimbursement depending on the laws of your city, state, and the covenants of your lease. You may also be completely forbidden from making these repairs. Cited costs are based on current Amazon prices as of July 2018.
Reset a Breaker or Fuse
Cost: $7 for a pack of 3 fuses, $0 for tripped breakers.
Time: 15 minutes.
If some of your power outlets or lights stop working and there isn't a neighborhood power outage, you probably blew the breaker or fuse. This one is probably the easiest of them all provided you have access to the power box. Your power box will contain either circuit breakers, which look like chunky light switches, or fuses, which are small screw-in cylinders about 2 inches wide.
How to: If you tripped a breaker, it will be in a different position from all the other breakers in its column. Simply shift it all the way into the off position and then back to the on position so it lines up with its friends and your power should be back on.
If you blew a fuse it will be a little more complicated. Fuses will usually have a clear top allowing you to see the guts inside. The blown one will usually be very obviously blown. Unscrew it and bring it with you to the hardware store to purchase an identical replacement. Your local supermarket or drugstore may also carry a basic selection of fuses.
Some outlets in newer apartments have ground fault circuit interrupters ("GFCIs") built in. You usually find these in kitchens and bathrooms. They will have two small buttons in the middle and a little green light to indicate that outlet is working. If you lose power to any outlet in the vicinity of one with a built-in GFCI, try hitting the little reset button in the center before heading to the power box.
When to call the landlord: If you're constantly tripping breakers or blowing fuses you'll want to first try redistributing your electronics between rooms so you aren't putting everything on one circuit. If that doesn't work, call the landlord.
If you look at a fuse box and see that the blown fuse is a higher capacity than anything else in the box you'll want to talk with the landlord to find out the proper amperage before replacing it. It's possible that a prior tenant put in a more hefty fuse to handle their own power problems, but this doesn't necessarily guarantee that the wiring can safely handle that much power.
Relight a Stove Pilot
Cost: $10 for a pack of six long nosed lighters.
Time: 1-5 minutes.
If you grew up with modern gas stoves or electric stoves you may never have encountered a pilot light. Older gas stoves have tiny pilot lights that are always burning if the gas is on. Without them your burners and oven won't heat up. There's lots of reasons why a pilot light might blow out. Strong gusts of wind or vigorous cleaning can sometimes extinguish them. Construction workers may turn off the gas to the building temporarily, or you may have your gas shut off for nonpayment. If you have a gas stove and don't here the familiar 'click click click' of an electric pilot when you turn on a burner, you've got a flame pilot light and you should keep one of those long-nosed cigarette lighters on hand.
How to: I recommend that you locate your pilot lights at a time when your stove is working. Finding the pilot can be tricky if it's blown out. There will usually be one under the lid of your stove for the burners and a separate one down by the heating element of your oven. You may need to pull out your broiler bin to reach that one. It's a small open pipe that points upwards. If it is lit there will be a little blue flame coming out. This is normal, do not blow it out!
Should your pilot light go out, first make sure to open a window and air out the place before attempting to relight it. Flammable cooking gas can build up without the pilot to burn it off. Once you've aired out the room, hold your lighter directly above the pilot pipe and it should light back up again with a bright blue flame.
When to call the landlord: Furnaces and hot water heaters often have pilot lights as well. If those blow out it's best to get the landlord involved. Also, if the stove pilot keeps going out for no reason you should call the landlord as you might have a blockage or gas leak in the pipes somewhere.
Replace Mini Blinds
Cost: $15-20 for a new blind plus standard tools.
Time: 1-2 hrs.
There are very few things in apartments that break more often than mini-blinds. Pets can mangle them, they get discolored and brittle from sun exposure, their cords get tangled and knotted. Fortunately they are very easy and relatively cheap to replace.
How to: You will need a tape measure to get the window dimensions, a screwdriver or power drill to replace the mounting brackets, a level to make sure they aren't crooked, and possibly a step ladder if you're short like me. You might want to get a friend to spot you while you're up in the air.
Pop the flat bracket covers off. Slide out the old blinds from their mounting brackets. Unscrew and replace the old brackets. Slide the new blinds in.
When to call the landlord: If you slide out the broken blinds and see that the window frame is severely damaged or shot through with old screw holes you should hold off on adding more without first contacting the landlord. In the interim consider covering the windows using shower curtains hung from removable stick on hooks, or even some pieces of cardboard. Also, while most stores carry blinds for standard window widths, very old buildings may have oddly sized windows that require custom blinds. In that case, contact your landlord as they may have some in a storeroom.
Secure Wobbly Ceiling Fans
Cost: Nothing provided you have some standard tools.
Time: 1 hr.
This one should only be attempted if you have access to your power box. Most ceiling fans have several points of attachment. A mounting bracket is attached to the studs in your ceiling. The motor connects to the bracket. The blades connect to the motor. Any of these screws coming loose could cause your fan to wobble as it spins.
How to: Turn off the power to the fan at the power box. Get up on your trusty stepladder with a Phillips screwdriver and look at every single screw on the housing. There may also be a few hidden underneath the housing attaching the blades to the motor. Re-tighten all of them, get off the ladder, turn the power back on and test the fan again. It may take some trial and error but you'll probably find the problem faster than you expected.
When to call the landlord: If you see burn marks or signs of water damage on the ceiling around your fan's motor you've got bigger problems than a wobble. If you see either of these issues, sparks or smell smoke when you turn on the fan, leave it alone, leave the power off and get some outside assistance.
Patch or Replace Torn Window Screens
Cost: $10 for a patch kit or a roll of replacement mesh, plus $4 for a spline roller. Some patch kits may also require a heat gun - check the instructions before you buy.
Time: 1 hr.
Torn screens in windows and screen doors are also very common in apartments, especially pet friendly ones. You can find plenty of screen patching kits in hardware stores that will help you fix up smaller holes such as those left by kitty claws, but severe tears may require a full replacement of the entire screen. Either way it's a simple process that shouldn't take you more than an hour with the help of a tutorial video or two.
How to: Remove the screen from the window and put it on a flat surface. Patching kits are applied directly over small holes. If you need to replace the whole screen, pop out the rubber or plastic edging that holds the old one in place - these are called "splines." Remove the old screen carefully using pliers. Trim the new screen to fit, leaving a couple of inches on all sides. Make sure the screen is straight, then use the pointed end of the spline roller to gently push it into place. Re-insert the spline on each side as you go. The following day please make comments to all your gamer friends about how you actually reticulated a spline.
When to call the landlord: If the screen frame is bent or damaged it may be faster to call the landlord and ask if you can swap out an intact screen from a vacant unit instead. Also if you are in an apartment that is very high up in the air you should get a professional to handle it. You don't want to accidentally drop your screen 30 stories onto someone's head.
Clear a Clogged Drain
Cost: $10 for a bucket, $20 for a basic auger, plus a wire coat hanger, rubber gloves and old towels or rags.
Time: 30 min, preferably not before dinner.
Most renters have hair. Most renters cook with things like coffee grounds, eggshells and grease. Sink and shower drains do not like these objects. They build up and eventually you get no drainage at all. Fortunately in most cases it's pretty easy, albeit really gross and smelly, to clear out your clogged drain.
How to: If you are dealing with a sink the clog is probably in the P-trap. Clear most of the backed up water out of the sink with your bucket, then put the empty bucket under the sink pipes themselves. Unscrew the two flanges that hold the P-Trap in place and pull straight down. Take the P-Trap outside and clear it out with a long, narrow pushing tool. I like to use an old wire clothes hanger for this.
If you're dealing with a clogged shower drain things get a little tougher as the trap is usually underground. For these clogs you'll want to pry off the drain cover with a flat head screw driver and then use a flexible drain auger to push down, grab the blockage and pull it out again. Please for everyone's sake use a mechanical auger, do not use chemical drain cleaners like Drano. They can disintegrate your pipes, blind you, and they wind up in the water system we all share.
When to call the landlord: If you check the P-Trap and it's empty, your clog is probably further down and will need a plumber's assistance to clear up. Also, if your toilet is clogged or any drain is clogged with something that should not be flushed down the pipes (like rocks, toys, cell phones... oops...) you will want to get some professional help.
Replace a Toilet Seat
Cost: $10-30 for a replacement seat, plus some sponges, a wrench and rubber gloves.
Time: 15-20 minutes.
Broken toilet seats are more common than you'd think, especially among the heavier renters and those who tend to drink a lot of alcohol. Toilet seats are designed to take a certain amount of weight in certain areas. If you weigh too much or pass out on the throne it's very easy for the seat to fatigue and crack, or come loose. Fortunately they are easy to replace. Toilet seats come in two shapes: oval and round. It's pretty easy looking at your toilet to figure out which one you need.
How to: Put on your gloves and clean around the two big bolts that hold the seat in place inside the bowl. Unscrew the bolts using your wrench, and then remove and discard the old broken seat. Clean off any grime that may have built up under the bolts. Follow the instructions on the replacement seat to secure it to the same holes in the toilet that were used by the old seat.
When to call the landlord: If after removing the seat you notice that the porcelain itself is cracked you will want to get a replacement toilet instead of mounting anything to the damaged unit.
Change a Lock
Cost: $22 for a deadbolt and doorknob combo plus $1.50 for each extra key.
Time: 20 minutes.
This one is the first that gets into the laws of Illinois. You are legally permitted to request that a landlord change your locks before you move in, and you are legally permitted to change the locks yourself if the landlord refuses. Your lease may specify that you need to provide your landlord with a certain number of keys to any new locks you install, which is a reasonable demand. Your lease may also specify that the landlord must perform any lock changes themselves, which is also fine. They may have master keys which require specific locks.
How to: Before you go to the store, temporarily remove the existing knob and lock and take some measurements. Measure the diameter of each hole, and the distance from the center of each hole to the edge of the door. You also may want to check the depth of the existing deadbolt receptacle on the door frame. Don't forget to reattach the knob and lock before you head out to the store! To save yourself some travel, when you choose your new locks you can bring them straight to the key copy department and have them make extra copies. Test them in the new locks before you check out.
If you did your measurements correctly your new doorknob and lock should fit nicely into the holes from the old ones. Most of them secure into place with a Phillips head screwdriver. I personally recommend using the longest one you've got on hand.
When to call the landlord: If your door has a whole bunch of old and useless locks you may want to contact them to have them removed and the holes patched up. You don't want to accidentally lock something for which you have no key. Also if you want to add a lock and there is no existing hole for it, contact the landlord before drilling.
Fix a Dripping Faucet
Cost: $1 for a replacement washer or $2 for some plumbing putty.
Time: 1 hour
Most dripping sink faucets are caused by heavy use of the tap handles. Rough treatment of the taps - be it from children hanging off them or simply tightening them too much when turning off the water - can eventually damage the rubber washers that ensure a properly tight seal. Fortunately most drips can be fixed with a simple replacement of the little rubber washer. On older sinks there may not be a washer, and instead you will need to seal the threads of the screw-in tap using some plumbing putty or plumbing tape. There are plenty of videos out there that will quickly explain the process to you.
How to: In a nutshell, turn off the water, unscrew the decorative handle, remove the exposed tap from the sink with a wrench, replace the washer, reassemble everything and turn the water back on.
When to call the landlord: If for some reason you cannot access the water shutoff valves for your sink you will want to contact the landlord first. Also if the drip is something other than clear water or it has eroded the enamel coating on your sink to reveal metal underneath, the leak is only a symptom of a greater issue. Dripping faucets can cost landlords a huge amount of money, especially in a city like Chicago where most landlords pay for their tenants' water usage. If you tell your landlord you've got a drip chances are they will be at your door in a heartbeat.
Have you ever done a quick fix in your apartment that we didn't mention here? Did you manage to solve the problem? Did your DIY attempt simply make things worse? Let us know in the comments!