Best Home Repair Books for the Reluctant Handy Woman in Training

Unclogging a garbage disposer can be intimidating when you have no idea what’s happening down that drain...
Publish date:
May 8, 2015
home, entertainment, DIY, repairs, Handyman, Home Repair

Two years ago, my husband and I moved into a big, old (built in 1930) house in a historic neighborhood. I refused to consider anything in the “fixer-upper” category, but any house this old comes with its share of maintenance and repair projects.

Unfortunately, I am not terribly handy.

I grew up in a family of handy DIYers, but somehow I failed to absorb any of their skills. I was probably reading a book when I could have been apprenticing my plumbing, building, and repairing parents and brother. I'm not proud to admit that I put my handy parents to work when they make the 12-hour drive to visit my daughter.

Still, there are nagging little projects everywhere — too small to call a professional, but too annoying to live with indefinitely. There’s the running toilet upstairs, loose switch plates, and cabinet hardware that needs to be replaced.

I know it's time to up my "Handy Anna" game. Since I tend to solve problems by throwing books at them, I searched in the library to figure out what books a girl needs in order to get the skills and confidence to do her own (minor) home repairs. You can trust me, I’m a librarian.

I won't do anything as complex as installing floors or replacing windows. I won't rebuild or remodel anything. Most of my projects can be handled with a screwdriver, a drill, and maybe some epoxy. Psych! I just totally threw some random hardware store terms together, and you thought I knew what I was talking about!

With a little bit of study, homeowners can learn enough to decide when to DIY and when to call a pro - when to repair something or when to toss it. Performing some simple home repairs on your own begins to rewire the DIY circuits in your brain. Once you learn how things work, you start to see solutions, or at least know where to look up answers.

My picks for a well-rounded reference library for the beginner do-it-yourselfer.

1. "The Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual" from Reader’s Digest and The Family Handyman

This may be the only home repair book you'll need. I have the 1991 version that was a gift from my parents when I was newly married (or newly off to college?). Either way, it is a great gift that I am now mature enough to appreciate. My husband also holds it in high esteem.

This manual covers many topics most rookies won’t attempt — framing, roofing and remodeling bathrooms — but these are processes any homeowner should be somewhat informed about before hiring a professional.

Of all the books I evaluated for this article (dozens), this is the most thorough. Maybe you are not going to turn your garage into a workshop, but it still helps to know what nine different saws looks like and their purpose. However, if you're easily overwhelmed with too much information, this book is not for you (check out No. 2 instead).

Bonus Content: Furniture repair and storage projects

I am a long-time fan of "The Complete Idiot’s Guide" series because I am a natural dilettante. When I get interested in a topic, I want to learn about it in a broad, superficial way. This book is simple in its presentation of information and focuses on the most basic projects. I found several that I need to get to work on right away:

  • squeaky stairs
  • doors that won’t stay closed
  • loose doorknob
  • clogged faucet aerator
  • cleaning a shower head
  • running toilet
  • cleaning a stove filter
  • emptying the clothes dryer filter cavity

Bonus Content: Your Perfect Tool Kit and Inspection Checklists

3. "How Your House Works" by Charlie Wing

This book includes cutaway diagrams of every structure and system in your house, with labeled parts and descriptions of how each thing works. The level of detail is useful for certain “black box” repairs.

For example, unclogging a garbage disposer can be intimidating when you have no idea what’s happening down that drain other than a certainty that poltergeists will wait until you are elbow deep to flip the switch and turn your hand to hamburger.

And the iffy light switch that sometimes crackles and shuts off if you nudge it the wrong way? Understanding how electricity and switches operate in your home can make repairs easier and safer.

The “Before Calling for Help” sidebars offer tips for easy fixes before you spend a lot of money on a professional. Explanations of how systems might be different if your house is really old and descriptions of features that I don’t have — like a water softener, heat pump, or tankless water heater — can help me decide whether to upgrade in the future.

4. "Popular Mechanics 500 Simple Home Repair Solutions" by Norman Becker

I recommend this book for the person who is just getting into home repairs and looooooves reading about it. It’s written in Q&A advice column style, but it's a good encyclopedic reference to almost any home repair issue. I appreciate that the book is arranged by areas of the house (including exterior and outbuildings). It also has a good index, which makes finding what you need very easy.

A few words about DIY books for “chicks.”

I am a little uneasy about guides targeted at women when there’s nothing particularly gender-specific about the topic. While the ability to perform home repairs is totally unrelated to gender, I suppose the culture of learning to repair things favors men.

As I mentioned before, this was not my experience growing up! My mom is at least as handy as my dad, and not learning those skills when I could have was due to my lack of interest and foresight. I can, however, see how some women who didn’t have the opportunity to learn would appreciate a guide that makes them feel like they are just as capable as a dude. I’m including the following two books targeting women — one I recommend and one I heartily do not.


"The Tuff Chix Guide to Easy Home Improvement" by Paige Hemmis

You have to get past all of the pink flourishes and pictures of paint dripping off roses, but at least this book is not condescending. I like that each project is broken down with required tools, timeframe for completion, difficulty level, DIY cost, and estimated cost to hire a professional for the same job. I will personally use the tips for fixing a sticky door, updating cabinet hardware and loose knobs, and installing motion sensor security lights.

Yeah, the pink gimmick is intended to tell women they can use a hammer too, but the book is still well-written and useful.


"Dare to Repair: A Do-It Herself Guide to Fixing (Almost) Anything in the Home" by Julie Susan and Stephanie Glakas-Tenet

I bought this book based on how useful the specific repair tips seemed in the table of contents. It wasn’t until I read the introduction that I realized it makes some groan-worthy assumptions about why a woman would attempt home repair and how “simple” instructions should be for women.

The authors start with the premise that if a woman needs home repair and a man is around she will ask him rather than do it herself. Ugh. I want to beg them to stop perpetuating the idea that a woman’s main thought is, “I wish I had a man, but I guess I can do this if I HAVE to.” The book actually states, “We wanted to do the home repairs ourselves, but the do-it-yourself books on the market were written for tool-belted men, not for female rookies like us.” No, girls, there are books targeted at a range of abilities, and anyone can wear a tool belt.

I can only recommend this book to women who believe “fixing stuff” is a man’s job that they will attempt begrudgingly if there are special “lady” instructions.

Bonus Books

I’m also happy to recommend two more books to help homeowners be green and save energy, if that’s your thing!

"The Complete Guide to a Green Home" from Black & Decker"Save Energy Save Money!" from The Family Handyman and Reader’s Digest