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House Calls

A "savvy" Vermonter nails down home maintenance hints


Published April 30, 2003 at 3:56 p.m.

Waitsfield writer Kitty Werner sure knows her way around a toolbox. From the ripe age of 7, she tells us in The Savvy Woman's Guide to Owning a Home, she was "handy" -- helping dad with construction projects and taking things apart to see how they worked. But as the title of her 2002 book implies, most girls still grow up thinking competence in the kitchen meant making dinner, not fixing the garbage disposal.

In just 249 pages, Werner dispenses a compendium of sensible advice for "how to care for, improve and maintain your home." Her style is breezy, supportive and nonjudgmental, e.g. "There is a huge sense of pride when you know you can do it yourself, and it works. Don't ever underestimate yourself, or your intelligence. Don't let anyone else do that, either."

But never mind the title: Male homeowners can learn a thing or two from this book, too. Werner herself illustrates that guys are not necessarily born with fix-it skills --one anecdote describes her grandfather repairing a toilet only to have hot, steaming water appear when it flushed. The Guide advises on everything from how to use a fire extinguisher to choosing homeowner's insurance to checking vents, foundations and roofs. Lerner even tells you what to put in a basic first-aid kit, how to deal with "pesky things" -- a.k.a. insects -- and the best way to dry cord wood. Not least, she helps you distinguish what you could probably learn to fix yourself from what truly should be left to the professionals.

From her own 28-year-old, added-on-to home in Waitsfield, Lerner talks house with Seven Days.

Seven Days: Why direct your book to women?

Kitty Lerner: I had a sister who was divorced, my mom didn't have a clue, my neighbor didn't have a clue. A lot of men are expected to know these things but women aren't. A lot of my friends have called me over 30 years and asked me how to fix things... I directed this book to the general public, but a lot of books do that, so I suggested to my agent naming it The Savvy Woman's Guide... and it's selling.

SD: You didn't address actually buying a house in this book. Do you have any rule-of-thumb advice for what to look for in a house before you move in?

KL: I did have two chapters on buying and inspections, but to cover that it would take another book. The biggest point I would have to say is, have the house inspected by a reputable inspector. People have to understand they can only cover what can be seen; they can't tear things apart and look inside.

SD: What system in the house is the most expensive to repair?

KL: Probably a complete roof, if it fails. And I'm talking not just the tiles or shingles, but if anything in the roof goes, you're in trouble. Other than that, probably the heating system. Or the electrical or plumbing system in an old house.

SD: What's the most dangerous? That is, when is it better to call in the pros?

KL: Anything to do with gas or electric. Do not play around with that stuff. I wired our home addition, but I know what I'm doing with that. Then again, there are parts I wouldn't touch.

SD: What are the most important annual maintenance-type jobs a homeowner should do to prevent problems?

KL: First of all, you need to check foundations, inside and out. Look for cracks, leaking water, any signs like that. Check your roof, especially after the snow melts off. Doors, windows, woodwork. You have to walk around the house and have a good look, and you should understand and know your house so you recognize when things are different. If you have things dealt with right away, you can avoid big things later on. Chimneys are vital, too -- they have to be cleaned and inspected.

SD: Do you think learning to make simple repairs on your own is mostly a matter of having the right tool?

KL: That's an interesting question. Some of it is just so simple... for example, I was just talking to my mom, who was having problems with her disposal and didn't know there was a reset button on the bottom. There are some really easy things like that. It's OK to look and see if you can make sense of it. And yes, having the right tool is great.

SD: Are you a loser if you never want to fix anything at all?

KL: Hell, no. Seriously, there are more important things. I don't clean my house that much; I'd rather go out into the woods or play with my dog. But it's empowering to be able to make the decision and know why you did it, and that's the most important part of the book to me.

SD: Frozen pipes are a perennial problem for Vermonters. Why hasn't someone figured out a more sensible system for keeping pipes warm? Or if someone has, what is it?

KL: The smart thing to do is when the house is built, you put the pipes away from the outside of the walls. In an old home, a lot of them are downstairs and exposed -- you can just wrap those. Also under sinks you'll see the pipes, and you can do something about them there.

SD: How do you get bats out of an attic and keep them out?

KL: Seal it up. Bats go out at night -- you may have to wait until night. They don't like light, so you could keep the lights on until they all leave. But bats eat a lot of insects, so they're not bad to have around -- though not necessarily in the attic. You can build bat houses outside.

SD: What's the deal with radon?

KL: That's one of the leading causes of lung cancer in this country. It's radioactive, and it comes out of the earth. The only way to find out if you have it is to get a kit and test it -- a short-term or a long-term test. My dad recommends the long-term -- just buy it and leave it in a room, then eventually pack it up and send it in for testing.

SD: How do you get rid of radon?

KL: That's tough; it can be inexpensive or really expensive -- generally around $5000. It has to be made to bypass the house; it permeates the concrete and everything else.

SD: How should an owner of an old house deal with lead paint and asbestos?

KL: Hire pros. You don't even want to breathe it.

SD: It's not the purpose of this book to address home decorating, but do you have any plans for a do-it-yourself book that would tell us how to make curtains or strip the woodwork or pick out bathroom tiles?

KL: We could handle the tiles -- my husband is a masonry contractor. But there are so many books on decorating. We're planning to do cars --The Savvy Woman's Guide to Owning Wheels -- travel and gardening.

SD: A lot of people seem to have the romantic notion of moving to Vermont, or from a city to the country in Vermont. What's the number-one surprise in store for new owners of an old farmhouse?

KL: It probably doesn't work very well. It's going to be a hell of a lot more work than they can ever imagine. You have to be willing to put in so many hours...

SD: When can we take the plastic sheeting off the windows? Or put another way, how can a Vermonter tell when it's really spring?

KL: Oh, we took ours off weeks ago. When I'm willing to walk outside in a T-shirt, it's time to take everything off. Even if it's 45 degrees.