9 Surefire Fixes for Common Household Problems

Spot, stain, leak or tear, our experts have a solution.

woman-fixing-piece-furniture
Photo by Kathrin Ziegler / Getty Images

"My houseplants are turning yellow." — K. Miller, via e-mail

THE FIX: Tweak your watering routine. If the leaves are yellowing from the tips inward, it means the plant has not been getting enough water, says Heather Rhoades of GardeningKnowHow.com, an advice site. But if entire leaves are yellowing and falling off, the problem is overwatering. Make sure the planters have drainage holes, and place pebble-covered saucers under them. The evaporating water will increase the humidity, which houseplants love. Another good general rule: Water when the soil feels barely damp, like a wrung-out sponge.

"Mice got into a basement box filled with photos. How can I safely disinfect my prints?" — Alexis Faulkner, via e-mail

THE FIX: Move the box to a dry indoor area that's free of rodents (like a garage) for one week. This should be long enough to prevent the potential spread of germs from hantavirus, which is transmitted by mice droppings, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After the quarantine period, you can begin salvaging. Wearing rubber or vinyl gloves and a surgical mask (just in case), says Lisa Duncan, a conservator in Seattle, "wipe debris into a trash can with a new, soft paintbrush. Then air out the prints for up to two weeks in a dark place with good airflow." If the photos are soiled, dry them faceup so they don't stick together, and have them assessed by a conservator. Consult the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works to find a professional near you.

"I have heat spots on my wood table. Any cure other than refinishing?" — Jill Austin Brega, via Facebook

THE FIX: For fresh spots (created within the last couple of hours), try this quick trick: Aim a hair dryer set on low to medium at the area from a foot away for a minute, says Christophe Pourny, a furniture restorer in New York City and the author of The Furniture Bible. This could evaporate the moisture trapped in that layer of finish, which is what causes those white, cloudy spots. To tackle older stains, apply a layer of tung oil (like Sutherland Welles Tung Oil Sealer; $35, garrettwade.com) to the stains, let stand for 10 to 15 minutes, then wipe off. If you don't want to go through the hassle of ordering online, apply a thin layer of mayonnaise to the area for one to two minutes. The oil from the mayo may clear up the cloudy areas. No luck? Time to bring in a pro.

"A pumpkin left a dark stain on my wood floor." — Donnie Herrington, via Facebook

THE FIX: The stain, a result of the wood absorbing the pumpkin's oils and sugars, can't be entirely eliminated. But a wood amalgamator (a solvent that removes blemishes from the finish) will reduce the discoloration, says Lou Manfredini, the home expert for Ace Hardware. Put on rubber gloves, then dip an extra-fine steel-wool pad (grade No. 0000) in the solvent (such as Howard Restor-A-Finish; $11, amazon.com). Gently rub the stain, not in circles but with the grain. After 10 seconds, wipe with a cloth to see if the stain is coming off. Continue alternating steel wool and cloth. Keep an eye on the wood. When it starts to lose its sheen, stop and immediately wipe off any solvent with a fresh rag. If the remaining mark is in an inconspicuous area, you may be able to live with it. But if you want to restore the color, apply a coat of satin varnish to the floor with a foam brush. And next Halloween, slip a plastic place mat between the pumpkin and the floor.

"Lipstick got smushed into my deep-pile carpet." — Monica J., via e-mail

THE FIX: First use a spoon to scoop up any solids, says Chris Hix, a product-care specialist at Shaw Floors, in Dalton, Georgia. Then dab a tiny amount of cleaning solvent, like WoolClean Dry Spot Remover #2 ($24 for two bottles, 800-367-0462), on a white cotton cloth, says Shawn Bisaillon, the owner of Professional Carpet Systems, in Superior, Colorado. Blot the mark, working from the outside in and alternating between the solvent cloth and a clean towel, until every trace of color has disappeared. Wait a few minutes. Fill a spray bottle with hot water and spritz the area until it's saturated. Pat with a clean towel.

"I left a pan on a high flame, and now there's a black ring on my glass stovetop that won't come off." — Pamela Bjarno, via e-mail

THE FIX: Rub the stain with a silicone spatula; small circular motions will loosen debris and fade the color, says Meg Roberts, the president of Molly Maid, a nationwide cleaning service. Then make a paste with 4 tablespoons of baking soda plus a little water and spread it on the stain. Place a warm damp rag on top and let it sit for 30 minutes. Wipe the area clean. If the stain persists, make another paste using 4 tablespoons of baking soda and 1 tablespoon of distilled vinegar. Let the mixture sit for about a minute on the stain, scrub it in with a microfiber cloth, then remove the residue with a wet cloth. The next time you clean the stove, apply a glass-cooktop cleaner (such as Cerama Bryte cooktop cleaner; $12, acehardware.com) to the stovetop, then polish with a paper towel, says Bridgid Blocker, the test-kitchen manager for GE appliances.

"Someone had a sharp object in his pocket when he sat on my microfiber couch. Now there's a small slit in it." — Nancy Richardson, via Facebook

THE FIX: Take the cover off the cushion and use an iron, set on low, to flatten the edges of the rip, says Shelly Leer, a sewing and upholstery instructor in Carmel, Indiana. Next, turn the cover inside out. Cut out a piece of fusible web tape (try Pellon Wonder-Under; $2.50 a yard, onlinefabricstore.net) about 1 square inch larger than the rip and lay it over the hole. Place a piece of cotton cloth, ideally one that matches the couch, on top. Iron the patch on medium to high heat until it merges with the cushion cover, about 5 seconds.

"I have marker stains on my vinyl upholstery." — Diana Chiodo, via e-mail

THE FIX: If the spots stem from a permanent marker, you're probably out of luck. But if the culprit was washable ink (say, from a Crayola or Rose Art marker), rubbing alcohol may work—provided you apply it immediately, says Jotham Hatch, the training director at Chem-Dry, a cleaning company. First dab some alcohol on a white towel and spot-test on an inconspicuous part of the upholstery. If the vinyl's color isn't affected, blot alcohol onto the stain. It should disappear quickly. If it doesn't, don't persist. Instead, says Neeraj Gupta, the director of product research and development for the cleaning company ServiceMaster Clean, try the same method with a water-based solution (like Goof Off Spot Heavy Duty, $4, goofoffstainremover.com). If that tactic fails, consult a furniture-restoration professional. He can repigment the fabric ($100 to $200, depending on size) or replace the marred section.

"A leak in our attic caused the paint on the ceiling below to bubble." — Alisa, via Facebook

THE FIX: Bubbles indicate that water may have damaged the drywall, says Tom Pawlowski, a building contractor in New York City. To repair it, start by scraping off the loose paint with a metal putty knife. (If this step reveals large holes or mushy material, call in a pro. But if you're faced with just a bit of flaking, keep going.) Smooth the surface of the ceiling with 120-grit sandpaper, then apply a coat of oil-based primer and let dry for 1 to 2 hours. Next, apply a thin layer of Spackle with a metal knife, let it dry (this could take up to 24 hours, depending on size), then sand the area thoroughly. Repeat the spackling process. When the surface is nice and smooth, apply primer and then repaint.