Your home: Real estate

House beautiful

With spring open-house season approaching, it's time to start the sprucing up process. Here's all you need to know to tackle 7 do-it-yourself projects that will make your place stand out.

By Elizabeth Gehrman
February 20, 2011

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Patch a hole in the wall

Consulting expert: Frank Harris, owner, Drywall Plus Inc., Dorchester, 617-445-4287,

Estimated cost: less than $100

Difficulty rating: 3 out of 5


  • dropcloth
  • scrap or sheet of drywall (depending on the size of the damage)
  • pencil
  • utility knife
  • T square
  • level
  • 1¼-inch coarse drywall screws
  • screw gun
  • scrap wood
  • self-adhesive mesh joint tape
  • 6-, 8-, and 10-inch joint knives
  • joint compound
  • 120-grit mesh sandpaper and hand sander
  • dust mask
  • Paint and primer
Prep work Lay dropcloth. If repair is just a few inches in diameter, first cut a square piece of drywall slightly larger than the damage and use the pencil to trace its outline on the wall over the damage. Score the pencil lines with the utility knife and remove plaster or drywall.

For a bigger hole, cut an opening in the wall large enough to reveal studs, using the T square and level to ensure straight lines.

In older homes with plaster walls, you can use 38-inch drywall. In newer construction, you’ll need 12-inch or 58-inch drywall.

How to Large patches are easier than small ones: You simply screw the new piece of drywall to the studs. But when fixing a small hole in plaster, drill pilot holes into the lath using the screw gun, then screw the patch to it. For a small hole in drywall behind which there is no stud, slip a piece of scrap wood that is either taller or wider than the damage inside the hole and screw it to the wall. Screw the drywall patch onto the wood without tearing the paper surface.

Next, apply mesh joint tape over seams where patch meets wall. Using a 6-inch joint knife, apply a thin coat of joint compound over screws and tape, wiping smooth any high spots with flat of knife blade. Let dry and sand any high spots, but not so agressively that y ou expose the tape. Apply second coat of joint compound using 8-inch knife, feathering compound a bit farther from patch. Sand. Apply final coat using 10-inch joint knife, feathering again.Thoroughly sand final coat, wearing mask, and apply primer before painting.

Watch for Dried clumps of joint compound. Harris says, “It’s very important to keep your knife and the medium you’re working with clean.”

Insider’s tip Put compound on thin enough to avoid bubbles, air pockets, and ridges. “Allow the knife to float over the tape but drag on the existing work,” Harris says.
Replace a bathroom vanity

Consulting expert: Jim McGrath, owner, J. McGrath Plumbing, Saugus, 781-844-9272

Estimated cost: $100 to $1,000-plus

Difficulty rating: 3 out of 5


  • vanity that fits space
  • 8-inch adjustable wrench
  • 10-inch slip-joint pliers
  • utility knife
  • screw gun
  • 2-inch drywall screws
  • faucet
  • new 38-inch stainless-steel braided supply lines
  • clear acrylic caulk
  • pipe thread compound
Prep work Measure distance from wall to center of drain, and buy a vanity with the same dimension. Shut off water to the sink and test by opening both spigots.

Use adjustable wrench to disconnect supply lines from faucet. Disconnect drain using pliers. Remove old vanity top, cutting any stubborn caulking with utility knife. Unscrew base from wall, using screw gun.

How to Screw new base to studs in wall, referring to manufacturer’s instructions. Before attaching vanity top, secure the faucet to the sink and attach the new supply lines to the faucet lines using the wrench.

Install drain’s “pop-up assembly” in the sink according to instructions.

Run bead of caulk around the edge of the base, and seat new vanity into it. Then, says McGrath, “it’s just a matter of hooking up the hot and cold supply lines and the drain.” Hot should be on the left and cold on the right, but you can always switch the supply lines later, if necessary.

Be sure to brush pipe thread compound (a chemical lubricant and sealant) on the male end of the drain-pipe connector before putting on the drain’s slip nut.

Watch for stains. “Don’t use plumber’s putty or anything oil-based with a marble or granite top,” McGrath says. “Most faucets have rubber gaskets now.”

Insider’s tip When tightening the supply lines, hold the shut-off valves still with pliers. “That keeps all the force on the supply line and keeps it from twisting in the wall,” McGrath says.
Paint a room

Consulting expert: Michael Noel, owner, Michael Noel Painting, Dorchester, 617-293-4951,

Estimated cost under $100 (based on an 11-by-12 room)

Difficulty rating: 1 out of 4


  • dropcloth or damp rag
  • paintable caulk
  • spackle
  • 220-grit sandpaper
  • self-priming paint (a gallon covers about 350 square feet)
  • 2½-inch angled interior-grade paintbrushes
  • 9-inch rollers with 38-inch nap
  • stepladder
  • roller pan
  • extension pole
Prep work Remove switch-plate covers, towel bars, or handrails. Lay a dropcloth or have a damp rag on hand to wipe up paint drips. Noel says it’s better not to use tape for edge work and just take your time. Caulk any cracks in the wall. Fill holes with spackle, let dry, and sand.

How to Painting order is important: Tackle ceiling, then trim, then walls. Let ceiling and trim dry for at least six hours before painting walls.

First, use the brush to paint the edges of flat surfaces, such as where the molding meets the wall. Keep the brush’s pointed end nearest the edge you want clean and straight. And “don’t cheap out on the brush or roller,” says Noel. He prefers Purdy brand.

Stand on a stepladder only for edging. “The pan never leaves the ground,” Noel says. Use an extension pole to roll paint onto ceiling and walls. Starting in the middle of the wall, work outward in 6-by-6-foot squares. Go over each section several times for good coverage.

Watch for streaks. If the roller is leaving lines, you’re pressing too hard.

Insider’s tip Hold the brush close to the bristles rather than by its handle; it gives you more control. “You really need to be driving that bus,” Noel says.
Replace a window

Consulting expert: Pernell Jackson, owner, The Carpenter Home Improvement, Dorchester, 617-201-6340

Estimated cost: $400 to $700

Difficulty rating: 4 out of 5


  • Window zipper tool
  • flat pry bar
  • primer and paint
  • fiberglass insulation, cut into strips
  • replacement window
  • pencil
  • utility knife
  • level
  • wooden shims (if using)
  • screw gun
  • caulk (check the temperature rating)
Prep work Take careful measurements before ordering a replacement window. Open bottom sash and measure from side to side at both bottom and middle of space. Open top sash to measure horizontally at top of space. Use smallest of the three figures.

Standing inside, carefully remove and set aside side and top stops from inside of old window frame. If they’re held in by paint, use zipper tool and pry bar.

Remove bottom sash. If rope or chain holds it in, cut it and carefully let weights fall into their pockets in the window frame. Remove pulley hardware. Open access panels to get to weights. You can donate them to the Boston Building Materials Co-op in Roxbury Crossing.

Pry off parting bead (the strip of wood holding in the top sash) and set aside. Remove top sash.

Remove the old storm window, if any, and scrape, prime, and paint exterior trim, if necessary.

How to Stuff insulation into area around window through pulley holes and weight access holes, using the parting bead to reach tight spots. Reattach access panels.

Remove header on new window and put thin strip of insulation under it. Hold new sill expander against your exterior trim, mark edges with pencil, then notch trim using utility knife. Slip or snap expander onto bottom of window.

Insert window into opening, bottom first. Remove balance covers, the thin strips along sides of the window, to expose screw holes. If replacement window is vinyl, shim it to level using level and built-in shim screws on each side; if it’s wood, use wooden shims.

Once window is in place, use screw gun to drive window’s top screws into wall first, followed by the bottom ones. “Just snug them to the window,” Jackson says. Too much pressure can skew the window out of plumb. Replace balance covers and run bead of caulk along inside and outside of window. Cut top stop to fit, and then reinstall it and the two side stops.

Watch for smashed fingers. “Always hold the top sash up with one hand when unlocking an old window,” Jackson says. “Otherwise, it might shoot down like a guillotine.”

Insider’s tip Jackson always locks the new window before putting it in place. “That way I know it’s staying square and true,” he says.
Refinish a hardwood floor

Consulting expert: Gareth Higgins, owner, Higgins Floors, Brighton, 617-254-2558,

Estimated cost: $100 to $150

Difficulty rating: 4 out of 5


  • square buff sander (rent from home improvement store)
  • buffer pad that fits the machine
  • 80- and 120-grit sandpaper
  • mouse sander
  • shop vacuum (rent from home improvement store)
  • tack cloths or rags moistened With mineral spirits
  • 3-inch paintbrush
  • oil-based polyurethane (a gallon covers about 500 square feet)
  • roller pan
  • flat lamb’s wool applicator
Prep work Remove all furniture from room. Seal off doorways to keep dust contained.

How to Attach buffer pad then 80-grit sandpaper to buff sander, then adjust handle to a comfortable level. Turn on buffer and begin sanding, pushing the machine like a lawn mower in the direction of the wood grain. Make sure each pass overlaps the previous one by a few inches. Use mouse sander to get corners. When finished, thoroughly vacuum up dust. Go over entire room again using 120-grit sandpaper. Vacuum again.

On hands and knees, use tack cloths or rags moistened with mineral spirits to get up any remaining dust, dog hair, or other debris. Repeat until tack cloth or rag comes away clean.

Use paintbrush to apply polyurethane to two edges of the floor. “Don’t do all four walls, because you don’t want the poly to dry too quickly,” Higgins says.

Using roller pan and lamb’s wool applicator, begin applying polyurethane to floor in the direction of the wood grain. “Feather in from the side of the room,” says Higgins. “That way you won’t leave any applicator marks.” When you’re about halfway done with the room, edge the other two sides. Let dry for 24 hours before applying second coat and do the same before applying third.

Watch for Tiny bits of debris that can ruin a finish. Change your clothes after sanding but before applying polyurethane, and tuck hair into a net or up into a hat.

Insider tip Before using, rinse the lamb’s wool applicator until fibers stop coming off. Let dry thoroughly.
Put up a cedar fence

Consulting expert: Mike Theriault, director, Reliable Fence Boston, Boston, 800-321-9363,

Estimated cost: about $15 a linear foot

Difficulty rating: 2 out of 5


  • Manual posthole digger or auger (rent from home improvement store)
  • digging bar
  • 5-inch diameter posts
  • tamper
  • level
  • 6-by-8-foot panels
  • hammer
  • 2- to 3-inch aluminum nails
Prep work If you’re not sure about the property line, hire a surveyor. “Depending on your neighbor relations,” Theriault says, “you might want to keep the fence a couple of inches inside the property line.” It’s also a good idea to call Dig Safe (888-344-7233) to make sure you don’t hit any underground utility lines.

How to “Most of the job is digging the hole,” says Theriault. If using a manual digger, loosen several inches of soil at a time before removing any. Spread the handles apart to close the blades and bring the soil up. If using an auger, dig one-third of the hole at a time, lifting auger straight up to remove dirt. Use digging bar to pry away any stones in your way.

After digging first hole (2 to 3 feet deep is enough), settle post in it. Pack the dirt in around it using the tamper, periodically checking with level to keep post plumb.

Dig next hole 8 feet down the line. Slip one end of fencing panel into post that’s already in ground, hammering dowels that come with panel into hole and using nails to secure them. Place next post in ground and attach it to dowels before tamping dirt back into hole. Continue down the line, leveling and hammering each post.

Watch for Tricky gates. If you’re having one installed, measure carefully and put a post on each side of it, then work outward. Hire an expert to attach the gate itself. “I never could get the gates quite right,” says Theriault.

Insider’s tip Unless you’re placing a post on a rock ledge or tree root, don’t use cement. “Cement holds water against the fence post and rots it quite a bit sooner,” says Theriault.
Tile a backsplash

Consulting expert: Declan Walsh, owner, Siveen Construction, Dedham, 781-686-1082

Estimated cost: $10 to $30-plus per square foot

Difficulty rating: 2 out of 5


  • paper or plastic to cover countertop
  • tape
  • pencil
  • tiles
  • pre-mixed mastic or thin-set mortar
  • notched trowel
  • tile cutter (rent from home improvement store)
  • sponges
  • pre-mixed grout
  • grouting float
  • rags
Prep work Cover countertop with paper or plastic and tape edges. Measure middle of wall above countertop and mark with pencil. Lay out a row of dry tiles against wall to make sure you won’t be left with small pieces; adjust starting location accordingly.

For affixing ceramic tiles, use pre-mixed mastic. For glass, use thin-set mortar.

How to Spread the adhesive on wall, “just a couple of square feet at a time until you see how fast you can go,” says Walsh. Use flat side of notched trowel to put a layer on, then go over it with notched side at a 45-degree angle to create a ridged bonding surface. Lay tile and wiggle it a bit to ensure good contact. “Then just keep going,” Walsh says, continuing both horizontally and vertically. You’ll probably have to cut tiles to fit at the ends.

Wipe down tile with sponges as you go along and again when finished. Let dry for 24 hours.

Apply pre-mixed grout with grouting float diagonally across rows. “Smear it on, let it set, then wipe it off with a sponge using a circular motion,” says Walsh. When the grout dries to a white haze, wipe it down once more using thin rags.

Watch for Mastic sticking out between the tiles. Chip away pieces that would show through the grout.

Insider’s tip “The [dry] layout is critical,” Walsh says. “If you don’t have it right, you’ll get screwed up in the middle of tiling. When tiling goes wrong, it can really go wrong.”

Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to