Home Q & A: the Know & Tell column

Simplify your house cleaning – and everything really, answers questions Alex Brooks for Know & Tell, a column about homes and renovation she wrote for Sydney Morning Herald.

House Q & A

Q: No way am I using those eco cleaning products! Cleaning is hard enough without making it take more time than necessary.

Good point. Cleaning sucks. But using cleaning products that are labelled as green or eco means you are introducing fewer chemicals into the home. A new book from Canadian researchers, titled Slow Chemical Death by Rubber Duck, reveals that everything in our house, from mattresses to frying pans, shampoo bottles and dozens of other objects, contains synthetic chemicals that build up in the human body, slowly crippling our health. Do you really want to add to the indoor chemical cocktail by squirting chemical cleaners around the house? Triclosan, which is found in products such as cleaners, wet wipes, hand wash, shower curtains and even toothpaste, has been linked to a weakening of the immune system. The founder of Fresh Green Clean, Bridget Gardner, has been involved with university research that discovered cleaning with warm soapy water can disinfect as effectively as stronger cleaners such as bleach or harsh chemicals. Plenty of people think that green cleaners aren’t as effective as chemicals but products made by market leaders such as Ecostore, method, Seventh Generation and Ecover are worth trying if you want to give your housekeeping a green makeover.

Q: How can you clean a bathroom effectively without using bleach? All those mould germs need to be killed by hospital-grade disinfectant, right?

Chlorine bleach is a great disinfectant but household bleach can also contain lye, which means skin contact produces caustic burns – that slippery feel of bleach on your hands is the chemical de-fatting your skin. There are better alternatives to clean the bathroom easily and effectively. Hydrogen peroxide is a cleaner that will whiten clothes and kill mould with slightly less impact on humans. White vinegar – especially if you clean with a smidge of bicarb soda first – will also kill mould by making the walls and surfaces too acidic for grime to grow and multiply. So does Bridget Gardner’s soapy-water cleaning method – scrubbing or washing with a brush or microfibre cloth then wiping the newly cleaned surface dry with an old towel to prevent moisture allowing mould to regrow.

Q: I have a baby who has just started crawling. His clothes are so dirty at the end of the day that I have realised I need to improve my cleaning but don’t want to use harsh products.

American writer Deirdre Imus, who founded the Environmental Centre for Pediatric Oncology and wrote Greening Your Cleaning, says the floor is often the most dangerous place in a house for babies and pets. Imus insists that the gases given off by cleaning products and our furniture, paint or curtains often hover down at floor level, ready for the most vulnerable household members to breathe in. Ick. Carpets should be vacuumed at least once a week and ideally with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter vacuum cleaner that won’t recirculate the dust and dirt. Hard floors such as timber, tiles or vinyl are easier to keep clean by sweeping daily and then mopping once or twice a week. One of the best ways to keep floors clean is to make like the Chinese and insist shoes stay off inside the house – that way dirt stays on the shoes instead of being tracked in to your floors.

Q: Sounds stupid but how do I hang a framed picture on a wall without it looking like some cack-handed teenager has slapped up a poster?

Hanging prints and paintings is not an easy DIY task. There are two issues to tackle: the first is aesthetics – where is the best place to hang it? The second is functional – how will you fasten it? The nuts and bolts (and hooks) of hanging pictures will be dictated by the type of wall to which the art will be attached. Is it a gyprock or plasterboard wall, or is it a solid plaster or brick wall? Both are easy enough to hang items on but require different fasteners. The easiest way to hang a light picture (weighing less than two kilograms) is to grab those 3M removable hooks, which are available at hardware stores and even some supermarkets. I really like the Velcro strips and they are perfect for small prints or block-mounted photos. You can also buy Velcro mounting tape from places like Spotlight or art supply shops for a similar effect, but – be warned – don’t hang anything heavy with Velcro and expect it to stay in place. Most glass-framed prints or paintings will require a more secure hanging system. Gyprock or stud walls require a toggle of some kind to make sure the picture hook doesn’t pull straight out of the wall. If you don’t use a toggle, then make sure you have a stud finder and bang a nail or screw straight into the stud supporting the wall. A masonry wall requires a hammer drill and a wall plug for secure hanging. There is a range of expandable wall plugs you can buy at the hardware store for secure picture hanging, as well as myriad hooks and other systems. The best system will depend on how heavy the artwork is, the tools you already have and whether you feel comfortable permanently butchering your walls if you make a mistake or want to move the picture later on. Smaller picture hooks can leave dainty little holes that are easy to paint over if they need removing, but may not have the strength to hold a large artwork.

Q: I have a great photo of my family I want to hang in my house – but how do you find the right place?

Searching for the right blank wall to hang a picture can be harder than trying to take a great photo in the first place – it’s all about finding the best angle for the dangle. Taking time to plan where you will hang a piece means thinking about everything from the furniture, function and lighting of the room. Will the picture create the right mood for the room? Will it need a spotlight to be seen if you plan on hanging it in a dim hallway, or will the picture fade if the sun hits it for most of the day? Most people hang their pictures too high – a good height is often when your eye level is about a quarter of the way down the image. Will you be looking at the picture from a seated position or a standing position? If you want to hit the right balance then you need to think about how the art will affect the design of the room.

Q: I live in a warehouse apartment and the last owner left so many picture hooks in the walls my home looks like a pincushion. How do you remove them?

You will need pliers and good judgment, as well as a pot of putty, a spatula and a desire to repaint the wall. You need to work out whether the picture hooks have been inserted with toggles or not, as toggled fastenings are not so easy to remove. You can snip the hook that protrudes from the wall but the toggle that remains behind the gyprock will simply fall down inside the wall, to rust away forever. If you can live with the hook or find something to hang on it, then you have found a simpler solution than trying to remove the hook. Most walls that have been pricked with arty holes can be filled with the appropriate putty for the surface. Then lightly sand the wall and give it a fresh coat of paint. Yes, it’s a big job to remove a small hole.

Q: How can I hang multiple pictures on a wall and make it look good?

The first task is to design your arrangement of pictures on the floor. Decide which picture will be the first to hang, or become the “anchor” of the arrangement. Next, you need to measure the length of the wall, divide it by two to find the centre and then mark it with a pencil. Now, measure again and CHECK that you’ve done it right. Do you want the picture that anchors your arrangement to hang dead in the centre of the wall or off to one side? How far off? Use that centre mark to calculate the best place. Nail the anchor picture on the mark and place your first picture on the wall. Choose the spacing between your pictures – a tight arrangement always looks best (no more than 15 centimetres between pics) and then measure the correct distances for your next hanging points. Measure the distance from the hanging bracket on the back of the frame to the top of the frame. Add that distance to the spacing that you chose. For example, if the distance from the bracket to the top of the frame is three centimetres and the distance you chose for spacing is 10 centimetres, make your mark 13 centimetres below (or next to, or above) your anchor picture. Keep the second picture centred on the wall. Measure the wall again. Divide the measurement by two to find the centre and make a mark for your spacing intersect. It’s complex but you need to be meticulous. Hang each picture and step away from the wall to judge whether the arrangement looks as good once it is hanging as it did on the floor. Alternatively, there are some great track systems from which to hang multiple artworks. There are also services that will come to your home and hang pictures for you.

Q: My house is so old that it has more cracks than a politician’s press release – should I repair them or will it cost so much that I will faint?

You’d crack up too if you were a brick house built on Sydney’s clay soils, which expand and contract with our rainfall faster than your local MP can say: “Photograph me with this baby.” Archicentre compiled a list of Sydney’s worst suburbs for cracking in 2008 and included some of our most expensive areas, usually where Federation-era houses abound, such as Roseville and inner-west Croydon. Most cracks are cosmetic but the danger sign is when you can fit a dinner plate through one. Building engineers are divided over whether expensive work such as underpinning foundations should be undertaken when cracking is severe – it’s an expensive and invasive renovation that can cost thousands. Archicentre recommends wetting the ground around the foundations of the house to restore moisture levels and stop the soils shifting about and causing more cracks. Other crack-makers are trees planted too close to the house. Fixing cracks with flexible silicone filler and painting over them should always be your first solution – much cheaper than calling in an engineer.

Q: My drains smell worse than a baby’s nappy – do I need to call a plumber?

Bad-smelling drains are a sign things are not good. Just like clogged arteries lead to heart attacks, stinky drains are blocking something more sinister and sending the smell back up to let you know. It could be tree roots, it could be broken clay pipes, it could even be a blockage further down the line causing the stink – and don’t be misled into thinking it’s only sewer pipes that stink. Black water – or the fat-laden water we throw down the kitchen sink – will often cause more stench than sewage. You can try traditional DIY drain-cleaning methods such as a plunger or drain-clearing products but if the smell persists, call a plumber who has an “eel”. It will cost a couple of hundred bucks for the call-out and then you can work out whether you are up for a bigger bill to replace your pipes or can find a cheaper, stop-gap measure such as water-blasting the pipes to clear them.

Q: How much does it cost to get a new ceiling? I have those bad spray-on ceilings they did in the 1970s and think a new plaster ceiling is in order.

False ceilings aren’t as cheap as we would like them to be. According to ServiceSeeking.com.au, the average ceiling and wall-cladding job costs about $53 an hour for labour, plus materials. Those old spray-on ceilings – which are made of vermiculite and were considered to aid with noise reduction and fireproofing between apartments – commonly turn grey or yellow with dust and age and start to make an apartment look particularly cramped if they become too dark. A new plaster ceiling gives a smooth finish that can be painted white but you will also need to pay an electrician to cap off the light fittings and work out whether you will paint the ceilings yourself or call in a painter. And beware the ceiling installers who get happy whacking long bolts into the ceiling – it can be easy to drill through a water pipe or fire sprinkler system pipe if you don’t know the layout of the plumbing through the slab. It always helps to obtain strata approval for the job and request the plans through the managing agent to avoid any floods.

Q: The carpets in my apartment are that rental shade of grey, dappled with stains. What can I do?

If flooring didn’t dominate the appearance of a room, living with ugly stuff beneath your feet would be so much easier. The simplest solution is a rug, one that will cover as much of the room as possible. Designer Rugs owner Yosi Tal says a quality rug should be made of wool, a fibre that resists stains and wear. There are plenty of cheap acrylic rugs. These are available everywhere, from the two-dollar shop through to high-end furniture retailers. Some cost as little as $200 and are perfect for renters who want a short-term cover-up. You can also beg the landlord to try dyeing the carpets a different colour to blot out the stains. Revive Carpet Dyeing says it costs about 20 to 25 per cent of the price of replacement and the dye will clean the carpet. Wool, silk and nylon carpets can be dyed but some synthetics refuse to absorb colour.

Q: I have a rug that starts the week at one end of the lounge room but moves to the other end by Saturday. How can I keep it still?

Ah, you have a case of rug creep. In 99 per cent of cases, buying a non-slip underlay should keep your rug anchored to the floor and prevent buckling. It also helps to place heavy furniture on top of the rug, such as a couch or a coffee table that requires the help of Hulk Hogan to lift. Rug creep usually happens when a rug is placed on top of carpet and those tufts of carpet beneath the rug are pushing the rug in the direction of its pile. A quality rug should not creep if it is on timber floors although rugs on tile floors can get slippy. Again, an underlay is the solution and most rug shops will sell something to solve the problem.

Q: I’ve just moved into a house where the carpets absolutely stink. What can I do?

Stinky carpets are a no-no. If a good vacuum doesn’t lift odours, it might be time to try some drastic action. Sprinkling bicarb soda over the carpet and leaving it for half a day before vacuuming should be a good odour remover but you will have white powder floating around. Carpet experts suggest avoiding any spot removers or shampoos that don’t rinse out, as these can ruin the fibres or attract more dirt to the area. The best thing to do is use your nose to find the super-smelly bits and try washing with cold water and then standing on a folded towel to reabsorb the water. Otherwise, try cleaning with methylated spirits or a white spirit but test an inconspicuous area first. Carpets can be steam cleaned but a quality wool carpet may lose some of its natural stain resistance. One of the best odour removers is sunlight. If you can let the sun stream into your rooms and air the carpets, that may help. Rugs can be taken outside, turned face down on a blanket or sheet and left in the sun. But sunlight will bleach and fade colours, so be careful.

Q: I just bought a new rug but my puppy has chewed a hole in one corner. What can I do?

There are plenty of invisible mending services for carpets and rugs but the quality can vary and it’s good to check some pictures of your service provider’s handiwork before committing to one. Just Google rug or carpet repairs and ask for a quote. The prices can be as much as $500 a repair, which is fine if that is cheaper than replacing the rug or carpet but a bit of a waste if it’s only a $500 rug. If the puppy keeps chewing the area, sprinkle some cayenne pepper on the rug. Better still, remove the rugs until the puppy has grown out of the destructive phase. Yosi Tal says there are only two stains you can never get out of carpets wee and cordial.

Q: I have one of those silly little hideaway laundries in a hallway – it would be fine for a single person, but we have four people in this house. What can I do?

The laundry is an underrated room. In recent years, someone deemed them a waste of space and architects and builders happily squished them behind folding doors in the hope we wouldn’t notice that we’d lost a laundry room while gaining a large, open-plan living area. Laundries however have an important function. They are not just a space to store a washing machine and perhaps a clothes dryer, but they are also a stash room – a place to store brooms, boots, cleaning products and the assorted gumph that goes with living in a house that needs to be cleaned. To make the most of a small space, it might be worth investing in a washer-dryer – one of those marvellous inventions that requires just one machine to do both tasks and is easy on energy. Be warned, though, most washer-dryers will not dry the same size load that you can wash, so you still need to find a place to hang smalls.

Q: I live in an apartment with a share laundry that’s so dark and horrible only spiders hang out in it – how can I convince the body corporate to upgrade it?

Laundries are oddly spooky places, especially if the spiders take up residence. Every apartment building will have its own bylaws governing the common property of a shared laundry – some buildings are extremely well-run, with private washing machine spaces for each apartment, while others have a horrid coin-operated communal machine that instantly screams “dirty grundies – wash here”. Improving lighting, installing energy and water-efficient washing machines and investing in a gas-powered communal clothes drier (if natural gas is available) can lower the ongoing energy bills that all apartment owners pay as part of their strata levies. A well-planned and inviting laundry that stops owners hanging their underwear out on balconies can also make a building more appealing and valuable. It’s all about common sense and doing a cost versus benefits analysis. Fresh paint and lighting would probably immediately make a shared apartment laundry more appealing for relatively little cost – you may even be able to get other apartment owners to join you in a DIY day to reduce the costs.

Q: Why can’t children (and husbands) ever manage to put clothes in the dirty clothes basket? Is there anything that can solve this problem?

There’s nothing like a room littered with dirty laundry to make you wonder why you ever bothered buying a hamper or bag for dirty clothes that stands empty. The dirty clothes basket is avoided for two reasons: one, it is rarely stored at the point of first use; and two, it usually requires two motions – open the lid and put the clothes in. The more motions it takes to use something, the less likely we are to execute and enforce using it. Remedy this by thinking like a frightening army drill sergeant. Store items as close as possible to where they are used – so if your kids take off their clothes in the bathroom each night, put the basket in there. If they strip off in the bedroom, put it there. And try to use an open-topped clothes hamper without a lid – it might not look as nice but let the kids throw their clothes in and get a goal every time.

Q: My house is still coated in a fine dusting of central Australia’s best soil after the dust storm. How can I get rid of it once and for all?

That dust storm has a lot to answer for. The problem with inexperienced housekeepers is they tend to swish the dust around the house so it can recirculate, rather than clean it away. To get rid of all that dust, make sure you open your windows for a good few hours to air out the house the day before. Then close all windows and doors, ideally blocking out drafts and airflow as best you can for about half a day. Allow dust to settle before tackling each and every surface in the house you can go over everything with a static or feather duster (ostrich feathers come highly recommended for their dust-attracting capabilities) and then wipe surfaces with a microfibre cloth, which will actually suck up all the dust. Fold the cloth in four and keep changing the surface as you move about the room so the cloth remains clean. Keep changing the cloth as more dust is collected (throw it in the laundry or seal it in a bag so the dust can’t escape). You need to start at the ceiling and work your way down the room to the skirtings and floors. Once you’ve done the dust, whip out the vacuum cleaner, put a clean bag in it and go for your life. Use the brush attachment to go over curtains, lampshades and furniture and make sure you empty the vacuum bag as it fills up (ideally into a sealed plastic bag to stop that dust gathering momentum and coming back to haunt you).

Q: Cleaning my house depresses me. How can I avoid it?

Hiring a cleaner is the only way. But beware the trap of cleaning up for the cleaner a complete waste of time and money. If you’re ashamed of your household grime, it’s likely you will spend just as much time cleaning your house for the cleaner as you did before you were forking out money for someone to do your dirty work. ServiceSeeking.com.au, a services website where you can ask local cleaners to quote on your job, says cleaners start at $15 an hour but larger agencies such as Dial-An-Angel charge more for professionally screened cleaners. Dial-An-Angel still has a waiting list for people wanting spring cleans after the dust storm a team of two cleaners will cost $336 for a four-hour spring clean plus an extra $66 an hour. For regular domestic cleaning on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis, it’s $118.50 for the minimum three-hour booking and $27.50 an hour for extras. Most cleaners run their own business and rates will vary according to whether they bring cleaning equipment and cleaning products and how much time it will take to clean your house. And apparently, Friday is the hardest day to get a cleaner booking as everyone wants to clean up before the weekend.

Q: What is the quickest way to clean up the whole house?

Shut your eyes. Imagine the house is clean. Don’t open your eyes again until someone has cleaned up for you.

Q: No, seriously, I don’t want to spend five hours on a weekend cleaning. How can I make it more time efficient?

The art of effective house cleaning is all about routines, good tools and simple techniques. Gabrielle Simpson, the founder of Clean Queens, a domestic, commercial and forensic cleaning service, says a two-bedroom unit that’s cleaned weekly should take no more than two hours. A family home with three bedrooms and two bathrooms should take no more than three hours. “Bathrooms take the longest to clean, followed by the kitchen,” she says, explaining people who have dogs, cats or kids will have to spend longer cleaning. “Pet hair and greasy fingerprints slow you down. And teenagers who leave clothes and underwear all over their bedroom are the worst.” Clean Queens relies on simple cleaning tools 99-cent scourers to clean oven racks and sinks, static dusters rather than feather dusters, cotton tea towels to polish surfaces and the all-important scourer with a plastic handle to clean the bathroom. Her speedy technique is due to her “dry first, water last” method, which means tidying and dusting, then vacuuming and then finally spraying all surfaces and mopping floors. “The last thing you do is add water, mop the floors and scoot out the door,” she says.

Q: I can’t stand the smell of bleach and all those cleaning products but how else do you get a bathroom clean?

Fresh air and sunshine are actually natural cleaners. The more fresh air you can get into a bathroom, the easier it will be to clean. It’s even better if sunlight can enter the room as the UV from the sun is a great germ killer and deodoriser. Ecospecifier founder David Baggs recommends white vinegar as one of the best disinfectants and mould killers for the bathroom and it won’t harm your lungs. Sure, you’ll smell like a salad for a while but Baggs says the acidity of vinegar actually makes it impossible for mould to grow. Wiping bathroom surfaces with a small amount of bicarb soda (small you don’t want a white dust storm) and then wiping over with white vinegar should be enough to clean up even scungy showers. If you really don’t trust the natural approach, there’s a great range of environmentally friendly and low-allergy cleaners on the market, with brands such as Earth Choice, Seventh Generation and Ecover all making bathroom cleaning products that shouldn’t have any toxic smells.

Q: I bought my first house and the urge to collect tools and spend weekends fixing the house has kicked in what do I need to know?

Tools are like black shoes you probably already own as many as you need. It’s best to buy tools as you require them. Roaming the aisles of the mega hardware stores can seem daunting. Grabbing a nice salesperson by the throat and never letting them go until they have answered your questions is a good way to gain knowledge about which tools offer the best quality for the price. Sandra Dobbin, the managing director of DIY Woman, which makes tools especially for females, says women need tools with handles that are comfortable to use. Most tools are designed for hunky males, so tools with smaller handles and comfortable grips are often better for women. And just like shoes, price is an indicator of quality. Cheap paintbrushes that leave bristles in your freshly painted surface are actually an expensive and time-wasting choice. Buy the best quality you can afford.

Q:Which tools are vital and which aren’t?

Most of us need some basic hand tools to hang pictures, assemble the Ikea furniture or put together a child’s bicycle on Christmas Eve. A German newspaper report found that 70 per cent of females put together the maze that is Ikea flat-pack furniture, so a set of Allen keys, a good Phillips-head screwdriver and a comfortable hammer are a good start. Hammers are a tricky purchase, because the best ones feel heavy and uncomfortable when you try them in the store but often give the greatest power when you need to use it on a job. A pair of slip-joint pliers is also handy to help you get a grip on bits and pieces like pipes and nuts. Dobbin also suggests investing in a sharp pair of scissors that are kept for special use rather than thrown in the top drawer.

Q:What about power tools?

There is something scary about a loud, throbbing thing that makes holes in walls. But once you get the hang of it, drilling is strangely thrilling. A cordless drill is a tool that even the laziest DIYer would pick up once a year or so it is a valuable aid to assembling furniture, putting up shelves and hanging pictures. They are super cheap now that China has started manufacturing them but the more expensive brands have better battery life and grunt. You’ll probably need to collect a few drill bits, too. Again, price is the indicator of quality.

Q:I grew up in an all-female household where tools where kept in a pink Tupperware container. Is this normal?

Who said tools have to reek of testosterone and hang on a pegboard in a garage? Tools can be kept anywhere the third drawer down in the kitchen, an ice-cream container or even in the top of the wardrobe. Naturally it makes sense to store tools in a manner where one can access them as needs dictate. Not everyone has a requirement to store masses of tools and simple containers can work best for those with small collections. Kmart sells a good range of plastic storage crates that stack on top of each other or have slide-out drawers. Those who really want to create a storage palace for their tools should head to Supercheap Auto, where large lockable metal toolboxes on castors can be picked up for less than $200.

Q: I have ducted natural gas underfloor heating but it turns itself off for no apparent reason, leaving us freezing in the middle of the night.

Be grateful, that toasty underfloor ducted heating is probably turning itself off so it doesn’t gas you in your sleep. Modern gas heaters automatically cut out on detection of any hint of a fault, so while the shutdown mechanism does make for a cold night, it could well be saving your family from going the way of poet Sylvia Plath. Best get a gas plumber or heating expert out to have a look. Natural gas, which is normally odourless, has a distinct smell added to it so leaks can be detected. It is one of the best forms of energy for heating; it is cheaper and more effective in large spaces and has about one-third the greenhouse emissions of coal-fired electricity. Natural gas, especially when used for heating without a flue, can, however, create higher levels of indoor air pollution than electric heating.

Q: I tried lighting an open fire in my terrace’s fireplace but the grate was so tiny, there was no room for firewood. How on earth did those original terrace dwellers ever use the thing?

Coal was usually the heating fuel of choice in Sydney’s worker houses and the tell-tale sign is those tiny cast-iron fireplace grates that have the same space as a peanut bowl to burn fuel. It’s likely your terrace had a coal fireplace rather than a wood-burner. Be happy, burning coal in your lounge room creates house dust worse than Sydney’s traffic pollution and would leave more than a smudge on your white CaesarStone benchtops (which was why Victorian houses tended to be painted in those dark colours). It’s no use trying to use your coal fireplace to burn firewood, even if your chimney is in good enough condition to draw the smoke. Open fires are much more about atmosphere than heat, with experts estimating that 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the heat from an open fireplace goes straight up the chimney. If you like the look of a natural flame, you can retrofit a fireplace that burns either natural gas or methylated spirits. Check out realflame.com.au for pictures of modern fireplaces. Not bad. And so much cleaner than coal.

Q: My husband objects to me using the wood-combustion heater in our rumpus room, claiming I will pollute the neighbourhood. Surely burning timber is a better way than using greenhouse-polluting electricity?

The carbon stored in timber and that used to get electricity into our homes both create greenhouse gases when burnt. But your hubby might be right – wood smoke creates large-particle pollution, which can be a real problem in urban areas. Launceston used to have the highest levels of particle pollution in Australia thanks to the city’s reliance on wood-burning fires to stay snug in winter. A federal government initiative to give residents rebates to use less-polluting forms of heating resulted in a 30 per cent decrease in the use of residential fireplaces and an even more significant reduction in air pollution. Environmental experts such as Ecospecifier’s David Baggs say wood-combustion heaters are perfect for rural and semi-rural areas, where pollution is not such a problem and there is an abundant supply of timber and fallen trees to gather a sustainable source of firewood. In urban areas, however, heating by burning wood isn’t always the best solution to improving the environment.

Q: What should you do when tradespeople stomp muddy footprints stomped through the house?

Naughty, naughty. A nice tradesperson would clean up after themselves. And say “please”, “thank you” and “what a nice home you have”. Unfortunately, not all tradies are as well bred as we home-loving types expect. The correct thing to do is ask the installers to clean up their mess before they leave rather than let them escape to take their muddy boots elsewhere. Most tradies carry some basic cleaning tools or will obligingly ask to borrow yours to leave a job spotless. But be nice to those insulation installers. There’s going to be a rush on, given the Government is handing out $1600 freebies, and they probably have to hire a heap of fresh, muddy newbies who are willing to wear those silly overalls and climb into ceiling cavities.

Q:I was charged $180 by a plumber just to fix my garden tap! I think that’s outrageous.

Tradespeople are a delicate breed and should be handled with the utmost care, especially if you don’t wish to undertake a four-year apprenticeship or invest thousands of dollars in tools to do the job yourself. It might seem as though $180 is a large sum to pay for such a paltry job but did you have the tools and training to complete it? Even if it only took five minutes, the tradesperson had to drive to your house, speak to you (probably on a mobile phone) and try to make a living being self-employed. Yes, there are dodgy rip-off merchants but those who hold a licence which all plumbers, electricians and air-conditioning and refrigeration tradies must have and other tradies may apply for are usually pretty good. You can check their licence first at www.fairtrading.nsw.gov.au or on 133 220.

Q:I cannot find a builder to give me a decent quote so we can get started constructing the additions to our house. Help!

NSW builders seem to be a rare and dying breed. In fact, many may not even build houses any more but spend their days co-ordinating building projects and tradespeople and running around handing out their quotes while putting ice packs to people’s foreheads. You see, building and renovating are expensive. NSW builders also have to pay heinously expensive home warranty insurance as part of a scam, err scheme, that supposedly protects renovators from builders who “disappear” from a job. Not only does the insurance add to building costs, it rarely helps consumers. You just have to be patient and keep asking builders to quote the best ones will have a waiting list.

Q: Where can I find one of these elusive species known as tradespeople? I call but none of them turn up to quote.

In the old days, you simply looked in your local paper and found the plumber or sparky who worked in your suburb. While the internet might have changed a few things, word-of-mouth from experienced renovators is still the best way to find a quality tradesperson. Ideally, though, you need a tradie who works regularly in your locality. The founder of homedesignplus.com.au, Chris Herrmann, also suggests contacting your local real estate agent to find out which tradies they recommend. Most local agents commission building and renovation work for the properties on their rental books and have a good idea of who is reliable and who isn’t.

Q: I’m going to try planting a few herbs but which ones are the easiest to grow?

Most of the Italian and French herbs are a cinch to grow – mainly because the best culinary herbs were weeds that would grow in all conditions. The Green Room’s Jock Gammon says thyme is indestructible and can actually be planted as a groundcover. Parsley – both flat leaf and curly – will grow in pots but don’t let the pots dry out or they can be difficult to return to good growing conditions. Chives and mint are a cinch in most areas of Sydney, too. Most herbs need plenty of sun and well-drained soil. They also need regular watering, although not excessive amounts. Basil grows best in sunny positions. All herbs like a weekly watering of seaweed solution, which gives them a nutrient boost to keep the leaves flavoursome.

Q: Why can’t I grow lettuce? I planted salad greens but most of them died while two plants grew into steroid-pumped tall shrubs with flowers.

Lettuce remember there is a reason we don’t ALL grow our own food in gardens and try to subsist from grow-your-own greens. Unlike its good friend the tomato, lettuce is much easier to buy at the supermarket than grow in our own garden or courtyard. While it is true lettuce will grow in pots, a humid Sydney summer is rarely kind to leafy green delicates. Lettuce has a shallow root system so reacts quickly to heat, humidity or water stress. Cool-weather-loving lettuce varieties tend to bolt to seed when planted during a warm Sydney summer. And most lettuce can’t stand being blown about in the wind. It’s best grown by those who can offer tender loving care and understand the growing conditions needed. There are some easy varieties to grow, like cos or rocket, which have tougher leaves and can withstand Sydney heat but it’s important to select the right plant for your soil, weather conditions and patience.

Q: I read about people growing vegies on the street outside their house. Do councils allow this?

The short official answer is “no” but many councils will turn a blind eye to lovingly tended public spaces bursting forth with greens, vegies and herbs. As long as the publicly grown gardens don’t cause a safety hazard or become too obtrusive, most councils (especially the eco-loving variety such as Marrickville or Sydney) will not send their brown bombers out to rip them up.

Q: I have a balcony and a few pot plants what can I grow?

Anything you want. If you want an edible garden, then you need to stick to hardy plant varieties that you can water easily. There are new vertical wall systems that are being marketed to unit and inner-city dwellers who want greenery without it taking up much room. These are a series of modular boxes that can be planted with seedlings and grown horizontally for a few weeks before mounting the boxes to the wall and having them grow vertically. Most require a solid wall or structure to anchor to. They can also be used to disguise ugly walls and are great for those who want to grow something without losing all their floor space to pots. Some apartments have a sunny window sill large enough to install a planter box. If you don’t have enough sunlight, try boosting a window box with a UV light.

Q: I can live with everything in my ugly bathroom except the bad wall tiles what can I do?

Bathrooms are a lot like women’s fashion: what you consider passe right now could be fashionable in another two minutes. If those brown 1970s tiles or sappy 1960s pink, blue or green mosaics are getting you down, think how lucky you are to have a bathroom that is such a classic representation of its era! It’s better to accept your bathroom for what it is than try to make over just one part of the room and risk it looking like some awful morph between modern minimalism and Tupperware party. Embrace its era if it’s pink and gaudy, then find some kitsch accessories to play it up. If it’s twee timber and ye olde cottage with 1980s brass fittings, then crack out a basket of potpourri and some Norsca bath gel. And real estate experts like L.J. Hooker managing director Warren McCarthy will tell you that most buyers can handle any style of bathroom as long as it is clean and has plenty of natural light.

Q: I read that painting tiles is a cheap way to make over my bathroom.

Eager do-it-yourselfers may be bold enough to use specially formulated tile paints available at the hardware store but it’s only for those who are a dab hand with a paint roller. Painting over tiles sounds so easy but involves putting your bathroom out of action for a couple of days and spending tedious preparation time to make sure the paint bonds properly with the surface and doesn’t bubble off after the first shower. And it’s way too easy to leave brush marks, scuff marks or dusty bits in the coating. Bathroom resurfacing will give a more professional look, although it costs more. For about $80 a square metre, the room can be entirely resurfaced with coatings that spray over the old bathroom and look like new porcelain, laminate or enamel. Worldwide Refinishing’s Ray Bush says resurfacing takes only 48 hours to dry and costs about one-quarter to a half the price of stripping out the old bathroom and replacing it with new fittings and tiles.

Q: How can I make my really small bathroom feel less pokey?

Space is like money there’s never enough to go around. Adding natural light and a sense of openness creates an illusion of more room, even if it doesn’t actually add square metres. Solatubes which can be installed for less than $500 are a great way to add a sky light to a bathroom and flood it with sunlight. Another trick is to fit a mirror to an entire wall of the room, ideally the first wall you see when you walk in, to reflect more light. Mirrors are relatively cheap with Palmers Glass in Gladesville saying it’s $200 a square metre to supply and install them in a bathroom. The company can even laser cut designs on them from $15 a cut. Interior designer Garth Barnett says he always makes the basin or vanity the focal point of a bathroom to draw the eye away from toilets, clunky showers and big tubs and make the room feel more generous.

Q: My bathroom is a mould monster and always looks grungey.

If it’s not your bad housekeeping skills, then it’s likely your bathroom has waterproofing failure. Once a bathroom turns into a black monster that not even harsh bleach can keep at bay, then it’s likely your old bathroom needs some repairs. In old houses and apartments, it’s common that water gets behind the old tiles and wets the wall, creating a mould-tastic breeding ground that cannot be cleaned. There are new waterproofing solutions that involve cleaning out the mouldy grout, re-grouting and spraying over a clear waterproof coating, sometimes for less than $500. Some in the industry doubt these solutions last very long but it’s cheaper than stripping out all the tiles to renew a waterproof membrane.

Q: My kitchen looks like it threw up all over itself – there are tiles from the 1970s on the splashbacks, ’60s timber cabinets and a laminate benchtop circa 1992. Help!

Long-term rental properties are notorious for containing bitsy, piecey renovations – perhaps due to landlords being able to deduct the improvements as “repairs” rather than capitalise renovation costs? Whatever, tenants either have to shut their eyes or do something to make it bearable. You don’t want to spend a lot of money but there’s plenty you can do. Shiny new accessories can brighten a bad room instantly – a new dish drainer, tool storage and tea towels in the kitchen; or try getting creative with the overhead cabinets. If they are timber, unscrew the doors and openly display your nice things to draw the eye away from the rest of the kitchen. The backs of the cupboards may be unfinished timber or plywood, so buy cheap, sturdy paper or decorative card to tape over the top of the cupboard backs. Hanging a pot rack or pegboard is usually within renters’ rights and will give you more storage. You’ll need to keep the doors (and screws) somewhere safe to reattach when you move out.

Q: Our carpet has rainbow-coloured swirls and a black chewing gum stain in the middle of the hallway.

Rugs. There are cheap and cheerful Chinese-made options around that don’t have to break the bank. A good steam-clean works wonders on a carpet and most managing agents will ensure carpet is clean (if stained) when tenants move on. If your carpets don’t look as though they have been done, put in a request. Patterned carpets tend to make a room look busy and overwhelmed, so a big, bold rug or runner in one block of colour might be the best option. Cheap woven cotton rugs often don’t stay in place, so you may need a grip or underlay to keep it down. Some people resort to double-sided tape. That might be what you think is the gum stain. Have you tried rubbing ice over it to harden the gum and brushing it out with a stiff brush? Eucalyptus oil can also work wonders on gummy stains.

Q: The light fittings are hideous and we don’t seem able to change without them spending a bomb.

Light fittings always, always, always require an electrician to remove or connect. If you’re lucky enough to have daggy hanging pendant lamps, you can try removing the shade around the fitting. Many simply unscrew or can be removed for cleaning. That leaves you with a bare hanging bulb. You can then pop into IKEA and pick up a cheap light shade to self-install around the bulb. Just make sure you don’t accidentally buy a whole new light fitting that needs wired installation – you will only want the shade. Fluoro light fittings and recessed lights are more difficult to work with. Sometimes it’s best to simply leave them off – you notice light fittings more when they are the illumination source – and invest in floor and table lamps as a light source that will stop people looking up at the ceiling.

Q: Darling, I’m a designer and I can’t stand the idea of people trying to fix up their pads without experienced help.

Oh be quiet. Decorating is about adding warmth and your own style to a house. Work with the colours and textures that are already in place, even if they aren’t your idea of perfection.