Handyman on Call

Spruce up basements with semitransparent stain

By Peter Hotton
Globe Correspondent / June 19, 2011

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Q. We have been advised by a broker to freshen up our unfinished basement with paint, to increase the overall appearance of the house as we prepare to put it on the market. But can you paint concrete floors and cinder block walls? This basement gets damp in the summer if the dehumidifier isn’t running around the clock.

BARBARA, by e-mail

A. Spruce up an unfinished basement? Ridiculous. There is no need, and will make very little difference, if any, on the asking price or marketability. But if you want to you can paint the walls and floor with a semitransparent stain. Paint will fail. So use semitransparent stain. One coat only. I suggest a light gray stain. You can instead paint the walls with Drylock, cement-based paint, which will help stop seepage. But not the floors with Drylock.

You might be able to stop or slow down the use of a dehumidifier if you open the basement windows for ventilation. Keep them open and you can put an exhaust fan in one of the windows. And be careful running that dehumidifier constantly. It’s doing a good job taking moisture out of the air, but it may be doing too good a job. It is taking the humidity out of the air, but after that it may be pulling water vapor through the concrete slab, adding greatly to the humidity that has to be removed.

Q. I saw snakes in a pond near my backyard. I don’t want them near my kids or when I take a stroll nearby. Is there a way of keeping them away from the yard?

JEREMY, in Hotton’s chat room

A. I know of no poisonous snakes that take up residence in ponds, at least in northern climes. I think they are beneficial, eating rodents. Leave them alone and they will leave you alone. And walk carefully. Call a wildlife expert for more info.

Q. I was told to use WonderBoard (cement board) for underlaying new ceramic tile. Trouble is, the WonderBoard, with thin-set mortar under it, plus the tile and thin set, bring the tiles 1/8 inch higher than the adjacent wood floor. How can I make the tiles even with the wood floor?


A. Try this: Omit the thin-set adhesive under the cement board. Since you are omitting the thin-set, make sure the cement board it is screwed down securely. Use more solid brass screws than normal.

Q. My siding is called Dutch board, 3/4-inch-thick overlapped boards that are face-nailed with nails that have rusted badly. How can I prevent further rusting?


A. They sound like bright nails, nongalvanized nails, which are the wrong type to use. Since you cannot practically pull them and replace with stainless steel, try this: countersink them at least 1/4 inch, treat them with Rust Reformer, and fill them with an adhesive caulk, or a wood filler that hardens as it sets. Then repaint. Rust Reformer and other similar brands contain phosphoric acid, which turns the rust black and makes it paintable. There is no need to paint.

Q. I was wondering whether you had any advice for keeping mice away from outside wiring. Our home is in a rural area, bordered by rock walls, a.k.a. mouse hotels. Mice have done damage to our vehicles (they ate the ignition wires on one car), chewed the wiring on our tractor, and recently ate the wiring on our outdoor A/C units, causing $1,200 in damage. Should we use moth ball flakes, plant mint leaves, or tuck in dryer sheets? All of the above? We don’t want to kill them, but this is turning into a Us-vs.-Them situation.

EILEEN WOODS, by e-mail

A. You can try any number of repellents or deterrents: coyote urine, fox urine, or repellents for various critters sold in hardware and big-box stores and garden centers. Moth balls can also work.

Or, try anything hot on the tongue and mucous membranes. Only humans like hot pepper stuff. So, sprinkle cayenne powder around the air conditioner and vehicles. Be very careful with cayenne powder and other fine-grained hot stuff. Inhaled, it can cause anaphylactic shock. If you are allergic, don’t use it. Try red pepper flakes, garlic powder, or crushed garlic cloves. Theresa Hanafin, one of my many editors, said she was told something that can be effective: fill a large jar with ammonia, put a slit in the lid, and insert a cloth wick, with a bit of the wick sticking up out of the lid.

All these repellents will need renewing, especially after rains. Maybe the ammonia wick can be inserted in the tractor and vehicles, and of course removed when you operate the vehicles. Any outside wires to the house can be armored.

I suggest you screen the air conditioner with hardware cloth, a tough 1/4-inch steel mesh. Set up screens with wood frames that can form a box over the unit. In fact, a garage, new or old, can be mouse-proofed.

Hotton is also in the g section on Thursdays. He is available 1-6 p.m. Tuesdays to answer questions. Call 617-929-2930. Hotton ( also chats online about house matters 2-3 p.m. Thursdays. To participate, go to