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You need to know a little DIY home repair to be a landlord

by retirebyforty on August 12, 2013 · 41 comments

in income, rental property

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Are you a landlord or an aspiring landlord? Rental properties are a great way to generate passive income, but it could be a lot of work, too. We have a property manager for our 4 plex, but I manage our old house and another condo myself. One of the requirements of managing your own rentals is at least a little DIY ability.

Now, I am not the handiest guy around and we don’t have a lot of tools because our small condo doesn’t have a lot of storage space. That’s too bad because if we had storage, I could build a nice tool library and charge everything to the business account. While I’m not that handy, my tenants are completely hopeless. So I have had to learn how to deal with a few simple things.

Garbage disposal unit

This year, both the tenants from our rental home and condo called me about the garbage disposal unit. They said it stopped working and the water backed up when they ran the dishwasher. One tenant actually called twice.  Here is what I found from the 3 incidents.

  • A metal soup spoon stuck in the mechanism.
  • Found an olive pit stuck in the mechanism.
  • Found a small rock…

I unplugged the unit (very important), cleaned out the obstruction, checked the catch, and then reset the unit. It started right up and is working well again. When I got the first call, I was afraid I’d have to replace the unit and I was pretty happy that I just need to service it. A plumbing company charges $80 to $100 just to come out to take a look.

Fence Post

While I was at the rental home, I did a walk around and found a few more things that needed repairs. One fence post is broken. At first I thought – “UGH, this is going to be a pain in the ass!” It’s going to be hell to dig out the broken post and concrete ball. I talked to my friend about this when we got together for a drink and he told me about a local product, the Stur-D fence Post Bracket.

broken fence post repair

Picture from Stur D fence’s website

I called the Stur-D fence folks and they said they can fix the broken post for $105 each. Now, I’m thinking that’s not too bad, but let’s go price out the necessary materials first.

  • $42 Stur-D bracket
  • $3 Three 2-1/2? x 3/8? lag screws
  •  $6 Two 60lbs bags of quick concrete
  • $2.50 garden stakes for bracing. We had an old 2×4 for bracing so at least we didn’t have to buy that.

That’s about $55 so I could save $50 to fix this myself. Luckily, I already had some digging tools so I didn’t have to buy new shovels. That might have been the deal breaker. We had a post hole digging bar and a medium width square shovel for this job.

A digging bar looks like this.

On Sunday, I went out to the house with my dad and spent about 75 minutes digging and installing the bracket. I thought it would take 2 hours just to dig the hole, but it turned out to be easier than I thought. The digging bar was the key and it got us down in the clay soil relatively quickly. If we just used a post hole digger, it really would have taken 2 hours just to dig a hole.

More pending projects

Unfortunately, we still have a few more things on the repair list.

  • $165 Shake gables – clean and stain.
  • $90 Fence staining – pressure wash and stain street side.
  • $325 Roof – pressure wash, moss clean up, and treat with Moss B Ware.
  • $3,500 – Exterior paint…

We don’t have a ladder and I actually don’t really want to deal with it. I can’t risk any injury right now and going up on the roof is an easy way to get hurt. The only thing I could DIY here is the fence, but I’d have to rent a pressure washer. My friend would have been able to do the top 3 items himself since he is a lot handier than I am.

Anyway, I think I’ll capitulate and hire a handy man to do the first 3 items this year and save up for the exterior paint job next year.

Landlord DIY

Being a landlord isn’t just about collecting the rent check. It could be a lot of work too. Even if you have a property manager, you’ll have to work with them to figure out what to fix and when . That’s why I think renting out your old home is a great first step to being a landlord. You know how everything works and you can fix a few things already.

Are you a landlord? What’s your experience with DIY? Do you think I should try to do more home repair myself?

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{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Holly@ClubThrifty August 12, 2013 at 9:01 am

We own two rental properties and I am fortunate that my husband is able to do basic plumbing and electrical work. We always call in professionals for the big stuff but doing some of the basic maintenance and troubleshooting ourselves has saved us a lot of money and time!

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retirebyforty August 13, 2013 at 12:04 am

That’s great! I can do some very very basic plumbing and electrical work. It would be nice to be able to do even more.

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Corey August 12, 2013 at 9:03 am

That sounds like a ton of work, but that’s partially because I’m not handy at all. I’m so glad that I got started in real estate investing the passive way. I still need to write that post that details it (and offers a comparison). Part of me looks forward to owning my own home so that I can learn some of the basic home maintenance stuff.

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UrbanSaltLake August 12, 2013 at 9:38 am

I’m a little handy when it comes to home repairs. I also have two tool boxes specifically for maintaining rentals. When looking for rental properties, I only look for low maintenance ones. Condos with low HOA are best for me, because I never have to worry about renters not up keeping the yard and the exterior walls are insured by the HOA. In addition, cleaning up for the next renter is quick and easy, so I don’t have to hire a cleaning company. They are also cheaper to invest so I can pay it with cash thus saving a lot of money on closing cost. Property taxes and landlord insurance are cheaper as well. Location is key. I always ask myself “Would I be willing to live here?” If no, then it’s not the right investment. I want to make sure I attract good renters.

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retirebyforty August 13, 2013 at 12:05 am

I like condos with low HOA too. There aren’t too many in this area that fits the bill though. Thanks for your input.

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steve August 12, 2013 at 10:11 am

I’m pretty handy and do most of the repairs on my rentals. If you’re not in a position to do repairs yourself then it’s important to find a dependable local handyman you can call on a regular basis. At around $20/hour a hanyman can do 90% of the normal repairs and maintenance, which is a lot cheaper than calling a plumber or electrician or fence company.

There are also contractors out there that specialize in working with landlords and are generally a lot cheaper than homeowner-oriented contractors. For example, I use a painting contractor that charges me $120 (plus paint at wholesale price) to repaint a 1 bedroom apartment. You can find these contractors through your local apartment-owner’s association.

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retirebyforty August 13, 2013 at 12:07 am

Thanks for the tips.
I’ll see if I can find both a local handyman and a contractor that can help us out.

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Done by Forty August 12, 2013 at 10:41 am

Thanks for these tips, Joe. We are considering buying a rental property locally, and the ability to DIY is a big part of it.

And I hadn’t heard of a digging bar but I can see how that would make quicker work of the job.

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retirebyforty August 13, 2013 at 12:07 am

It made a huge difference in hard clay soil. :)

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Insourcelife August 12, 2013 at 10:43 am

Being a landlord is NOT for everyone. I still don’t know why people refer to managing your own rentals as “passive” income. In my 10 year experience with a condo there is nothing “passive” about it. There are things needing attention all the time like garbage disposal issues, plumbing, toilets, leaking faucets/showers, damaged walls, painting, HVAC issues, ceiling fan issues… and that’s not even including keeping the unit rented out, dealing with renters some of whom may even decide to steal your Tivo :) I actually wrote a similar post about being a landlord here: http://insourcelife.com/are-you-ready-to-be-a-landlord/

DIY skills are essential if you want to have a profitable rental. My net rental income would not be as good if I outsourced all the work to contractors or depended on a management company to run the rental. If that was the case I think I would much rather just invest into REITs instead to fully benefit from the hands-off approach.

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retirebyforty August 13, 2013 at 12:08 am

You are right. It’s not passive at all unless you have many units and can hire out everything.
I’m really thinking about moving everything to REITs when the time is right…

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Arlen August 19, 2013 at 2:39 pm

just a side note, Joe – you may already know or suspect this, but – Kaycee Kristy (financial planner here in Seattle) has always recommended the approach “tip-toe in, tip-toe out” when EVER making a financial “move”… thanks for the great blog!

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cj August 12, 2013 at 11:58 am

Every time I think I might like to own rental properties, I see a post like this that reminds me what a pain in the ass it would be and how limited I am in my DIY skills;) I’ll stick to guitar lessons, investing and blogging for now. Nice article though and very entertaining, RB40!

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retirebyforty August 13, 2013 at 12:10 am

It’s hard for me because I don’t have a lot of time. If I have more time, I probably would do the fence and gables myself. I still need tools too…

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Kurt @ Money Counselor August 12, 2013 at 1:43 pm

I’ve never heard of a digging bar! As usual, the right tools make every job easier…

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jim August 12, 2013 at 1:47 pm

DIY maintenance and repair can make a huge difference in rental finances.

My dad has been a landlord for a long time and he’s saved huge amounts of money by doing virtually everything himself. Rather than pay a plumber $200 he’ll spend 1-2 hr and a 10¢ washer. Its almost always cheaper to do it yourself.

I have done a lot of DIY myself but I’m not as knowledgeable or capable as my dad so I can’t do everything. I also now find myself weighing the pros and cons of DIY versus paying someone. When we rented out my wifes old house for the first time we tried to everything ourselves but it ended up taking a long time and we ended up losing rent. We probably would have been better off paying people. You just have to keep in mind that if a place is vacant then time is money since you’re losing rent. WE didn’t really think it would take too long but its hard to get work done in your spare time on weekends and evenings especially when the rental isn’t close by.

Another exception when DIY doesn’t really pay is if its damages caused by the tenant that you’re repairing after they moved out. The former tenant responsible for the damages is liable for the cost of repair and you can use their security deposit. If you do the work yourself then you’re technically not allowed to charge for your own time, but if you hire the work done you can bill the tenant for the cost.

Another way DIY is important is that if even if you do hire someone else then if you know how the repair should be done and know what it ought to cause you can help keep yourself from overpaying or getting ripped off if you hire it done.

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retirebyforty August 13, 2013 at 12:12 am

Time is a big problem. I don’t have a lot of time to make repairs. If it’s low priority, then I can try to fit it into my schedule. But if it needs to be fixed fast, then I would just call someone.

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so August 12, 2013 at 2:00 pm

DIY can help but is not a necessity for profitable rentals.

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Jon August 12, 2013 at 3:11 pm

That is one of the things that worries me most about potentially having rental property… I am TERRIBLE at DIY projects! My brain just does not seem to work that way, unfortunately. Definitely something to keep in mind as part of the financial analysis of having rental property.

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krantcents August 12, 2013 at 5:06 pm

One of the advantages of owning apartment buildings vs. individual homes is a resident manager. The manager can perform some of these functions, but more importantly access to inexpensive repair people is paramount.

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[email protected] August 13, 2013 at 1:26 am

I am terrible at DIY. My mother befriended the maintenance man at her condo, I use him for all of our rentals. I pay him cash and he charges me very cheap. I would recommend being on the lookout for the maintenance guys at complexes, they have saved me a lot of money.

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retirebyforty August 13, 2013 at 2:12 pm

That’s a great idea. I need some maintenance man friends. :)

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[email protected] August 13, 2013 at 2:28 am

I looked at trying to do a rental once and got a book about dealing with it – a lot more to think about than I had imagined. I was in a condo at the time, and thought I might rent it, and there was an HOA to handle much. But now in my house, I don’t have enough time to maintain it on my own, let alone a rental, and do a full time job, and working on a side business – had to pick priorities on where I wanted to put my time.
And doing the condo as a rental lost out.

But then I have a co-worker that had a condo, and she has had it rented for a little over 15 years to the same small family, and she’s not a DIY person. She loves it, and just retired at about the same time the family was ready to move on.

The house across the street from me is rented – to hoodlums. The people living there are always changing, except for 2 of them. So it’s the same renters, but there’s always different people that seem to be ‘living there’ for weeks at a time. I can only imagine what it looks like inside it. I think they lost their trash service for a few weeks, so stole my trash bins and put their trash back in front of my house then for pickup!
Finding good renters is probably a key piece in making it work and financially feasible.

I’m a DIY person, but not necessarily with all the home stuff.
I’ll do basic electrical and plumbing, and can do my own tile, wood flooring and a lot of fixes.
But to me, electrical and plumbing in a house are kind of like brakes and steering in a car – they have to be good or people can die. So, I want people that know that side well if it’s beyond a disposer replacement, toilet replacement, or light switch replacement or similar.
I am running some conduit for data/audio/video jacks to a central structured panel, but a surge of data packets won’t kill anybody :-)
Windows are another thing I’d outsource.

Re: fences,
On those brackets you used, how far up does it go? Looks like it was maybe about 1.5-2′ high? Would it work if the fence has a downslope right next to it, or best if it’s level where the bracket goes?
Would it make sense to put those brackets maybe on every other post for you? More as preventative maintenance? If one post is bad, it’s probably likely others are old enough to be similar unless that one had a reason to have more water buildup there?
If you can add the bracket to others, it may help keep the fence from blowing down in a heavy wind, which may then be harder to fix.
I had fence problems, posts were all water rotted and heavy winds blew down 8 and 12′ sections a year apart. The posts on the side were not in cement, just ground. And the posts in the back were in cement, but the cement was actually the ‘gutter’ that runs along the back – so water saturated when it rained.
I had a fence company re-do the whole fence for both of them – ouch… still probably paying off those credit card charges, but they used http://www.valleycitiesfence.com/bproducts/ for the posts, in the Quickcrete balls for all.
So I’m feeling confident that I’ll not need to replace the posts again – and can then get a handyman type person to just replace the wood slats, and can probably do that myself if needed.

Drywall and trim can be good to DIY also I think. Often rentals just get ‘paint-overs’ between renters. Baseboards, casings, etc… all start to blend together. But the more attention to detail there, the more it can make a place stand out from the rest, and get a better renter at a higher price. Also helps in resale value if/when you decide to sell the place/s.
Don’t underestimate the time needed to re-do the baseboards/casings if they’ve been painted over for years :-)

And another ‘thank you’ for the digging bar info. I’ve got much sprinkler work to do, and the digging to find out what’s going where has driven me a bit crazy(er) – just learning some landscaping sides now, and I think I also have hard clay soil and it’s very rocky, too. My digging tools aren’t getting me where I need to be, and I think a digging bar might help in that area.

Re: pressure washer, roof work, and more,
Have a co-worker that did some roof work for another co-worker. He fell off the roof and hurt his back. Took a week off work.
20′s and 30′s are probably a good time to be doing roof work.
When you get into 40′s and 50′s, I think it’s time to hire people in their 20′s and 30′s to do it, and supervise them so it done right, or find somebody else that knows what they’re doing to make sure it’s done right.

Do you have a nearby friend you can tool-share with in a way?
Somebody that has room to store the pressure washer, tools, etc…
You buy the pressure washer, the friend stores in his/her garage, both have access to use it?
I went to the local big box store to rent a pressure washer, and didn’t want electric, but the gas powered was more than I could lift in/out of my truck – too heavy and awkward.
I ended up buying a Homelite 2700 – paid too much probably.
But I’m willing to let friends/co-workers borrow it for half price of the rentals.
Actually, I let them use it for free – I need to get better on the sales side, but it doesn’t happen with friends :-)
Joe, you’re welcome to use my pressure washer for free, but you’ll have to pay for shipping or gas to come pick it up and return it :-)

I’d say…
Outsource the pieces that can cause major problems (things that renters can sue you on for millions) to people that deal with that daily.
Do the pieces you like doing yourself – you’ll do them well.
Most outsourced people don’t focus on details, from what I’ve seen – focus on that aspect for what you do do.
And it may be good to bring in Mrs. RB40 to add a more personal touch when you have a renter leaving, and a new one coming in. What changes would appeal to her in a rental place if it were her looking for that new place to move into?

Greg

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[email protected] August 13, 2013 at 2:30 am

Wow…

Can I get long-winded, or what!?

Greg

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retirebyforty August 13, 2013 at 2:17 pm

The bracket stick out about 2 feet. I think I’ll just repair the posts as they go down… Hopefully, they don’t all fail at once. We’ll be able to share the cost with the neighbor too if more failure happens.
That steel post looks good. I’ll keep that in mind if I need to replace the whole thing. It’ll cost a pretty penny though.
I think I’ll have to start a forum just for you. :)

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No Waste August 13, 2013 at 6:49 am

Jim – REITS, REITS, REITS…

Truly passive income with exposure to real estate plus none of the headaches.

Look for non-traded REITs from highly reputable firms though. I earn around 7% on my investment.

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No Waste August 13, 2013 at 6:51 am

Sorry, I should have dropped this under Jim’s comment…

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jim August 13, 2013 at 2:55 pm

How do you get non-traded REITs?

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Pretired Nick August 13, 2013 at 11:06 am

I’ve done both: Hired nearly everything out and done nearly everything out depending on where I was in life and which property I was dealing with. You save a lot doing it yourself, but the two main disadvantages are you spend all your time fixing stuff, especially with a fourplex and you have to actually see your tenants, which is by far the worst part.
But, hey, Joe, you actually have multiple REAL tool libraries in Portland. For example: http://tools.greenlents.org/
I wrote something on our local tool library that I helped start quite awhile back if you need background:
http://pretired.org/saving-money/save-money-with-a-tool-library/

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Pauline August 13, 2013 at 6:18 pm

My tenants are on another continent so I can’t DIY, I just pay for convenience but I am blessed with the best tenants and they always try to fix things themselves before they call me to hire some help.

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Bryce @ Save and Conquer August 13, 2013 at 6:52 pm

That Stur-D fence pole repair looks interesting. How sturdy was the fence after the repair. Could a 150-pound person lean on or climb over the fence without fear of it coming down?

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retirebyforty August 14, 2013 at 8:17 am

It’s not as sturdy as the good fence post. I wouldn’t climb over it. I’m pretty sure it can’t take 150 lbs with 6 feet of leverage.

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Financial Independence August 14, 2013 at 4:50 am

My theory when it comes to home repair is that I can either hire someone to do the work or attempt it myself. If I attempt to fix my sink and fail, it will probably cost me the same to get the plumber out than if I never tried. Best case scenario is I learn how to fix something new and save some cash, worst case is that I end up calling in someone anyway.

To date I haven’t come across anything that wasn’t easy enough after a few hours of google research – including painting, plastering and even mounting a TV antenna on the roof.

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Marissa @ Thirty Six Months August 15, 2013 at 6:50 am

I am an aspiring landlord and am definitely taking all these in consideration. Thanks so much.

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Woman with a Plan August 16, 2013 at 11:35 pm

I just found your site today and am enjoying it! I just started my quest to retire early (by 35!) and one of my goals is to have 5 rental units by then, without financing them. We (hubby and I) already own one and it has been quite the learning experience for the last 4 years.

We’ve replaced the roof, fence, added more fence, installed new flooring, stained concrete, repaired plumbing, replaced the HVAC, and the granddaddy of them all… replaced the entire sewer line (6 days before being scheduled to pay off the mortgage!). Being a landlord is not for the faint of heart, but I look at that house and am darn proud of us for making the investment and sticking with it. I love getting those monthly checks in the mail.

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retirebyforty August 18, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Welcome! Glad to have you. Good luck with the rentals. You are doing so well with the repair and maintenance. I don’t think I can do everything like you did. Good luck! sewer line! That’s a lot of work.

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Daisy @ Prairie Eco Thrifter August 18, 2013 at 10:15 am

I agree that you need to be able to DIY to be a landlord. Otherwise, it can get expensive! We are landlords to my brother, but he’s been pretty easy. There have been a few things we’ve had to do though. Thankfully J and I are both really good DIYers.

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Caleb September 25, 2013 at 11:20 am

It can only benefit you as a landlord to be able to handle small projects yourself. It will save you money and allow you to keep your property clean and maintained.

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Alan October 21, 2013 at 12:24 pm

I think you should have taken out the disposals, not repaired them! One Thanksgiving day my plumbing backed up in the lower level of the house. Potato peels were coming up in the downstairs shower! My sister was peeling potatoes in the kitchen sink upstairs and putting them down the disposal. Disposals should only be used for the small items that slip through the strainer, not as a composter! But the plumber who came out that Thanksgiving day (at a premium) told me he takes them out of all his rentals for this very reason. People put too much down the drain when they have them. It does not grind things well enough to let that much stuff go down the drain. Take out the disposal and put in a permanent sink strainer to avoid these costly repairs.

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Alan October 21, 2013 at 12:30 pm

Regarding DIY & being a landlord – My partner and I have 8 houses combined. Two are vacation rentals (one month minimum, although only 3-4 months a year during the winter) in Florida. We also have 4 full-time year long rentals (and one vacation home). I think it is important to be an active landlord and at least look at the problems before calling a repair person. You can fix many items yourself for 10% of the cost of a repair company. Also, by looking at it, you can ensure that the quote you receive is not “over doing it” by replacing things or repairing things that do not need to be replaced/repaired. Everything you do yourself, saves you money. Also shopping around and having a reasonable handyman to call will save you money. All the money you save is yours. I was not born a handyman, I have always worked in an office, but I have learned to do a lot of things. At at the minimum, I learned to understand the problem to help troubleshoot and make sure the repairs are correct and reasonably priced.

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Brian Gaerlan December 30, 2013 at 4:11 am

My mom do have house rentals. And what she usually do is to strictly remind or discuss the rules especially about disposal and any future house problem. She even regularly check the bathroom strainer if its still usable. She don’t even want the hair to fall on the drainage. She always suggest to use old toothbrush in getting the hair in the bathroom strainer and recommended to dispose it in your trashcan because hair fall into the drainage can also be one source of clogged. :)

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