New switches are easy way to update home

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Q: I have an older house and I want to update the look a little at a time. I recently painted it and thought I would add some rocker-type switches. Is it just a matter of replacing the wires in the same spot?

A: Sometimes, updating the look of an older house can be cheap and easy, and this is one of those cases.

I see people spending money on improving their homes, but they often miss the small details. One of our customers spent several thousand dollars on a custom paint job with multiple colors and sheens. The paint scheme was beautiful, but then they put the same drab ivory-colored, 20-year-old light switches and covers back on the wall. The duty is in the detail.

Replacing the switches with rocker-style switches is easy and will make a dramatic change. In addition to the switches and cover plates, you also must replace the outlets to match. They come in various colors to blend in or contrast with your wall.

When you go to the home center, you will be inundated with choices, but the style will come down to either a standard outlet or a decorative outlet, also known as a decora. The decora outlet is rectangular and has a flat face, whereas the standard outlet has two octagonal faces.

Replacing the switches and outlets really is a wire-for-wire exchange. Make sure you turn off the power at the main panel before you start work, test for power and then unscrew the cover plate.

For most switches, you will have only two wires attached to separate screws. You also will have three-way or four-way switches that will operate a single light fixture. These will be found in hallways or in larger rooms. They can be tricky, so make sure you take pictures, draw a diagram or mark the wires with tape so that you replace the wires in the correct positions on the rocker switch.

You can take the switch with you to buy a replacement with the same configuration.

Replacing the outlets is just as easy. Some outlets will have only one cable entering the box and some will have two. It’s the same deal: Replace with wires in the same location on the new outlet as you found them on the old. The black hot wires are secured to the brass screw terminal, the white neutral wires connect to the silver screw terminal, and the green or bare wires connect to the ground screw terminal.

You will probably run into an outlet that is upside down. This is a “half-hot” and unique to other outlets. It is the same type of outlet, but the top of the outlet will be controlled by a wall switch, while the bottom will be hot all the time.

Take note of how the wires run and you will notice that there is a breakaway tab on the back of the outlet. This tab (all outlets have this tab) extends power from the top plug to the bottom (and vice versa).

On a half-hot outlet, this tab is removed between the top and bottom plugs so that each half operates independently of the other. You can just grab the tab with pliers and twist it out.

Once everything is back in place with cover plates on, turn the power back on and enjoy your updated look.

Mike Klimek is a licensed contractor and owner of Las Vegas Handyman. Questions may be sent by email to Or, mail to 4710 W. Dewey Drive, No. 100, Las Vegas, NV 89118. His web address is