This Old Apartment

Neil Conway can always tell when school is about to start by the influx of parents and students in his hardware store just off Dupont Circle. Most are looking for basic tools to fix things or keep around residence hall rooms and apartments, but some return for friendly personal advice about common home ailments.

District Hardware, a Truvalue store, has been at the same location at 2003 P St. since 1971. For more than 30 years, Conway and his employees have helped customers find the right tools they need to fix basic problems around their homes.

The store is not your typical Home Depot. The aisles do not stretch for miles on end, past horizons of power saws, paint cans and cardboard boxes. It does not take endless amounts of time walking around intricate mazes of hardware equipment to find the right aisle or the right person who will know how to fix a problem.

“We give advice on every opportunity we get,” Conway said. “It’s part of what (the customer) is paying for. People here know how to give advice.”

Just like there is a first aid kit of tools to help fix human problems, the first step to being prepared for solving hardware problems is to keep basic set of tools. Six items came to Conway’s mind: pliers, different sized screwdrivers, small hammer, adjustable wrench, tape measure and blade knife. These tools are often needed to fix little nuisances around the house, whether it is a stuck window or a screw loose in a piece of furniture, Conway said.

It is easy for students with their first apartment or even in residence halls to learn how to fix simple problems in their living space. Although there is a limit to what repairs a novice can do, Conway said he advises customers based on their familiarity with tools and the ease of the repair.
“Sometimes its better to get a handyman,” he said. “The average person that walks in doesn’t know (about intricate repairs).”

Common repairs for the novice:

Conway gave advice about the common repairs his customers, especially students, find around their homes.

Holes in the wall: Often a result of nails or thumbtacks that are used to hang pictures and posters on the wall. Conway said the remedy is simply to use spackle and a spackle knife to cover up the holes.

Toilets: Tank flappers often go bad because of hard minerals in city water, Conway said. Tank flappers allow the water to flush the toilet and stop it from leaking. His specialty is giving advice to customers on their simple replacement.

To change a flapper, shut off the water supply to the toilet. Flush the toilet twice to get the majority of the water out of the tank and remove the tank lid. Unscrew or unsnap the flapper from its mount and replace it so the chain connects in the same place as the old one. Finally, turn the water back on and check for leaks.

Flappers only cost $5. Simon Conway, Neil’s brother and coworker, said fixing the toilet yourself means big savings.

“A plumber might charge you $100 just to replace it,” Conway said. “They’re pretty easy to put in yourself.”

Common repairs not for the novice
Installing dimmers: Many of Conway’s customers ask about adding dimmers to their lights, which he usually recommends having professionally done.

Clogged sinks: Conway said that trying to fix a clogged sink is usually tricky, especially when a garbage disposal is involved. If some hair has fallen down the drain causing a clog, Conway said the problem can be fixed simply with a plunger. Otherwise, he advises hiring someone to do the job because it would involve removing parts of the pipes underneath the sink.

Online resources
In the case of a time crunch and less basic repairs need to be done immediately, doityourself.com gives step-by-step instructions on how conduct around-the-home repairs. The Web site also includes more complicated sections on remodeling and decorating.

Stuck windows: Taking a utility knife or X-acto knife and tracing the frame to crack the paint or glazing compound bond that may be the cause of the problem can quickly open a stuck window. If the window is still stuck, take a two-by-four piece of wood, place it along the frame and tap it gently with a small hammer.

Broken windows: Replacing a broken window can be more complicated than it seems. After all the broken pieces of glass have been discarded from the window frame, the old putty that keeps the windows weatherproof needs to be chipped away with a chisel or jackknife.

Remove the glaziers points, small metal triangles that keep the glass in place. Evenly coat the groove of the frame with glazing compound and press the glass into the frame. Replace the glaziers points by pushing them back in with a large screwdriver. Fill in the sides of the glass with more glazing compound to keep the glass firmly fixed.

Doityourself.com includes many links to other basic home improvement tips, like painting, wallpapering and even fixing broken bicycles.

Hardware stores around D.C., like District Hardware, can also give personal advice if talking to a professional face-to-face is a better option. And when worse come to worst, a handyman is always a phone call away.

-Adina Matusow contributed to this report.

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