Archive | March 2016

More Misadventures in Appliance Repair: The Oven

I was trying to cook dinner one night and just not making much progress. The pork chops were still pink inside after what seemed like a long time. And the apples underneath them were still crunchy. I couldn’t understand why.

And then Mr. FP realized that the top heating element in our oven (it’s called the broil element, and you should remember that because it’s going to be important later in the story) was not working. The bottom element was working, so the oven felt generally hot, but it was not hot enough to cook pork chops. I finished dinner in the toaster oven.

So I needed a new heating element. No problem; I did a little Internet searching and ordered the cheapest new OEM part. In the meantime, at least I could use the toaster oven and the cooktop, right?

That was true until I blew the circuit breaker. When the new part arrived, I flipped off the circuit breaker, then I remembered I wanted to use the stove and tried to flip it back on. Except it wouldn’t go back. It was stuck in the middle, tripped position.

Also, I had ordered the wrong part. I had ordered the BAKE element; I needed the BROIL element. Silly me, thinking they would be interchangeable.

Well, I know my limits. The thing about electricity is that if you do it wrong, you burn your house down. So I called an electrician to replace the circuit breaker. It wasn’t done quite right before and neither was the one for the dryer, so he fixed, that, too. This repair totalled a princely $311. Evidently my circuit breakers are manufactured by unicorns.

The electrician informs me it is not uncommon for a bad oven heating element to take the circuit breaker with it. I am told that in the future, immediately cutting power and not using any part of the range until it is repaired may spare the breaker.

A few days later, the correct part arrived. (The part was $40 and it cost me $12 to ship back the one that was wrong, for a total cost of $52.) I flipped off my brand-new circuit breaker and removed the old element. Here, I hit a snag. See, here’s the number one rule of replacing oven heating elements: Do not let the wires fall back inside the oven.

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Close-up of the hole that the wire had fallen through, seen from the back. The little metal doodad you see hanging down is what connects to the element.

You see where this is going, right? Well, when pulling out the old element caused the wires to snap back inside the oven, I nearly despaired and called a repair person. Then I thought, well, how would the repair person get those wires out? I asked Google. Turns out all I had to do was pull the oven out from the wall and remove the back. Now, I could tell this wasn’t going to be hard because it came off with a regular screwdriver. I have a theory that when a manufacturer wants to keep you from messing with something, they use oddly shaped screws. (Like the star-shaped screwdrivers I needed to take my dishwasher apart.)

Once the back was off, I easily located the wires. It actually made installing the new element easier, because I could attach the wires from behind the oven rather than inserting the top half of my person inside the oven. My arms aren’t long enough, anyway. Several more minutes with the screwdriver and we were back in business.

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Re-assembled back of oven. Sorry for bad photo quality–as you can imagine, it was dark behind my oven. And kinda filthy.

I don’t know how much money we saved, paying for the circuit breaker but fixing the oven myself. But I had a plumber at my house a few months ago and I asked him how much it would cost if, in addition to the job for which I had hired him, he also tightened my loose faucet. To tighten this screw, he said, he would charge $179. So I’m guessing I saved three figures.

And equally importantly, it was extremely satisfying. I would like it noted that at no point did I ask for or receive any assistance from Mr. FP. This was my show.

What home repair successes or debacles have you experienced recently?

Well, That Could Have Been Worse: I Screwed Up Our Withholding

I have been in charge of taxes at Casa FP ever since we were married in 2001. (Prior to that, my parents’ accountant did my taxes, and Mr. FP did his by hand, on paper.) In the early years, I used to take them to H&R Block or some other tax place, but these days I do them with tax software.

Some years we’ve owed several hundred dollars, depending on my self-employment income (which has been as high as about $10K). One memorable year, we got a large refund. In fact, we got back more than we paid–when Mr. FP was teaching at a boarding school, we qualified for the EITC. (Since we were getting free housing, we were actually doing pretty well, but the IRS didn’t ask if we had to pay rent.)

I thought this year would be pretty neutral. Maybe a small refund. I made just a few thousand on the side and we have kids.

Then I found out I made a mistake. A big one. See, we both have dependent care FSAs. I thought that we could withhold, pre-tax, five thousand dollars each in those accounts. So… that’s what I did. Our child care expenses were about $9370, so that’s what I had withheld.

Turns out, that five thousand dollar limit is per family. Not per person. That means we had about $4730 on which we owed taxes, but had not had taxes withheld.

See that line that says "Taxable Benefit"? That's where the wheels came off.

See line 26 that says “Taxable Benefit”? That’s where the wheels came off.

Why didn’t I know that? I have no idea. You’d think I would have noticed. Or researched it. Or something. But neither employer’s paperwork mentioned it and I didn’t think to look it up. Oops. Friends, learn from my example. You gotta Google this stuff. You can find all kinds of reasonably clearly worded explanations of tax stuff online*.

TaxAct keeps a little running tally of how much it thinks you owe, and at one time, this was close to two thousand dollars for federal and state, including a federal penalty as federal owed was over a grand. I began to panic. I contemplated freezing all purchases even though I have been wearing the same sweat pants since 1998.

Happily, I had two more pieces of info to put in. The first was one last IRA contribution of $500. That actually tipped us under a thousand owed and did away with the penalty. The second was Mr. FP’s tuition paid. He learned that with a few easy classes, he could up his paycheck (by getting to “master’s plus 15” on the pay scale). He did that, and spent around $1500 in the process. That was good enough for a $300 Lifetime Learning tax credit.

Total owed, federal and state, came to $1499. No penalties. It’s money we were always going to owe, it’s just that instead of paying it throughout the year, we’re paying it now. It sucks. It stings. But it could have been worse. And while it’s going to eat up a lot of our cash savings, it’s not going to clean us out. We’ll still have enough left for, say, one major car repair after we pay. I decided I was not so destitute that I had to mend 18-year-old sweatpants and bought sleek new exercise pants with some belated birthday gift money. (Thanks again, Auntie B.)

How did your tax season go? Do you DIY?

*Obligatory disclaimer that if in doubt, you should talk to a CPA. I am obviously not one and have, as evidenced here, absolutely no expertise in this area.