Homeowner's first-aid kit

Houses don't come with instruction manuals. Little emergencies inevitably crop up, and new homeowners aren't always equipped to deal with them.

To help, we've put together a list of tasks every homeowner should know how to do. Think of it as you own homeland security strategy. It certainly doesn't represent everything you'll need to know about your house, but it's a good start.

We compiled our list with help from Chuck Kester of DC Home Inspection Services, Chris Havlik of BEI Maintenance & Repair, Kenneth S. Parker of H.L. Parker Electric, all of Akron, Ohio, Inspector Sierjie Lash of the Akron Fire Department, http://www.energystar.gov and the books "Tools" by Steve Dodds and "What's a Homeowner to Do?" by Stephen Fanuka and Edward Lewine.

Put together a tool kit

At the very least, you should own a curved-claw hammer, an adjustable wrench, needle-nose and standard pliers, slotted and Phillips screwdrivers in a couple of sizes and a pair of safety glasses.

An electric drill and a set of twist bits are also invaluable. Cordless drills are convenient but may not have enough torque to handle heavy-duty jobs. Start with a corded drill, and save the purchase of a cordless model for later.

It's worth investing in good-quality tools that feel comfortable in your hand. They'll last years, maybe even a lifetime.

Find water main shutoff

When a water pipe leaks, you need to stop it right away. Otherwise the water can do extensive damage to your home and your bank account.

Shutoff valves for individual pipes are typically found along supply lines and near fixtures, but those valves can break or freeze up. So it's important to know how to stop the water supply to the whole house.

The main shutoff valve is found where the water supply enters the house, near the water meter. Look along the basement wall nearest the street. If you don't have a basement, the shutoff is probably near the water heater but might also be under a sink.

The valve might be right next to an outdoor meter or inside the house. Some water meters have two shutoff valves, one on each side. If yours does, use the valve farthest from the street.

It's a good idea to close and open the main shutoff valve once a year to prevent it from corroding and freezing in an open position.

Unclog a toilet

Everybody hates this chore, but sometimes you just have to take the plunge - or more accurately, take up the plunger.

Use a flange plunger, which has a cone extending from the bottom of the bell. It creates a better seal in a toilet than a cup plunger, so you can create the suction you need to clear the clog.

Put on rubber gloves, and if necessary, bail out the toilet bowl until it's only half-full. (Yeah, we know. It's gross.) Then position the plunger over the drain hole, and pump up and down a few times to let the air out and create a vacuum seal.

Once you feel the resistance that indicates you have a good seal, pump in rapid, short strokes four or five times without breaking the seal, and then pull out the plunger. If you're lucky, the clog will clear. If you're not, repeat.

For really tough clogs, you may need to use a toilet auger. It has a rubberized guard, so it won't scratch the porcelain the way a regular plumber's snake might.

By the way, you can use a similar technique to unclog a sink, but use a cup plunger. In addition, use a wet rag to plug the overflow drain or the second drain in a double kitchen sink.