Home ownership is part of the
American dream. A home is a major investment, and with proper care it
will provide shelter and satisfaction for many generations. Timely maintenance
and well-planned improvements can enhance the value and usefulness of
your home. How can you maintain and improve your home if you are not a
What to Do
There are three basic reasons
to work on your house. The first is maintenance, and money spent here
can save plenty of grief and expense later. These are areas that require
constant vigilance, even within the first year after completion. Moisture
damage can occur without obvious signs in the early stages, and routine
inspections can help detect and correct these and other problems.
|Inspecting Your House||
One of the biggest enemies of your house is water. Everyone has seen houses sitting in floodwater on television. These images are dramatic, as floods occur somewhere in the country every year. On the other hand, a leaky roof can allow damage to occur that you can't even see.
Regular inspection of your house is critical to catching problems early, and shouldn't take too much time. A good time to inspect is in the fall, before the rainy season begins. Use the checklist in Chapter 11 or take a pad of paper and write down everything that you think needs attention. You may also need a flashlight and a ladder, and should wear comfortable old clothes. The inspection items shown here are a guide, but you may have other things that are specific to your house.
Before you proceed with your detailed inspection, stand in front of the house and note the appearance from the street. Is there anything that stands out that needs correcting? How does it compare with other homes in the area? Check the roof condition from a distance, as you will get a better perspective on a pitched roof if you stand back.
Most roof covers need to be
replaced eventually. Tar-and-gravel on a flat roof usually needs replacing
more often than shingles on a pitched roof, but be aware of the age of
the roof and the many factors that determine how long it will last. Extremes
of hot and cold, high winds, and the quality of the installation all affect
roof life. You may need binoculars to get a better view of the condition
of your roof, especially if the house is more than one story high.
Check to be sure the paint is still protecting the exposed wood at eaves, rafter tails, and other trim. The eave vents should be intact (with no holes large enough to admit birds or bats into your attic) and free from obstruction. Sometimes attic insulation migrates due to wind and settling; be sure it is not blocking the vents. Good ventilation in the attic area helps prevent dryrot.
Paint provides moisture protection
for wood, whether it is plywood siding, horizontal siding, or trim. It's
a good idea to repaint before too much weathering occurs, as this reduces
preparation time. Preparation includes cleaning and scraping the surface,
sealing cracks, and filling holes. It also includes masking and preventing
paint from winding up where it shouldn't be, such as on your concrete
walkways or as overspray on your neighbor's car.
|Stucco, Brick, and Stone||
Think twice before painting exterior siding materials that were not painted when installed. If these surfaces have never been painted, contact a supplier for the trade and ask what procedure is best to maintain the product. For example, stucco can be recoated with a stucco color coat for a fresh look that will not chip or peel over time. If the stucco has been painted once, you will be faced with wirebrushing or sandblasting the paint off when it begins to split and peel and you need to repaint. This process can be avoided if the stucco has never been painted in the first place.
Check to see if there are obvious problems with the chimney, such as a missing cap, damaged mortar, significant leaning (cracks between the chimney and wall should be sealed). While many chimneys experience some movement in relationship to the house, have a professional inspector check any defects that appear significant.
Be sure that your windows operate
smoothly and lock securely. Replace cracked, broken, or missing panes.
Clean the tracks and be sure the weep-holes (small drain holes at the
bottom of metal slide-by windows) are clear. Be sure wood windows will
open freely, as this is a safety item as well as a ventilation issue.
Bedrooms must have operable windows to allow for escape in case of fire.
Check the locks to be sure they operate correctly; consider installing a dead-bolt lock if you don't already have one. Be sure your door is intended for exterior use; it should be solid-core, wood, or steel (not lightweight hollow-core, which is used for interior doors). Seal or paint the exterior of the door if the finish is aging. Be sure the weatherstripping is correctly adjusted to minimize heat loss and drafts.
It's a good idea to keep the
perimeter of your house accessible, so you can check for termite activity,
standing water, or actual damage. If your house is on a raised foundation
and has a crawl space, be sure there is no water standing under the house.
Keep the access cover secure to prevent animals from entering the underfloor
area. Ventilation is important under your floor as well as in your attic.
Be sure the foundation vents provide for cross-ventilation if you have
a wood subfloor over a crawl space. The vents should be securely screened.
Be sure you know where your
electrical panel is, and be sure it is properly secured. Neither you nor
your neighbor's kids should be able to touch anything dangerous, so verify
that the interior cover is secured in place even when the outside cover
is opened. You may also have sub-panels in other places, such as next
to your air conditioner. All outside wiring should be protected from moisture,
damage, and access by children and pets. If you see exposed wire or connections,
contact an electrician to install the proper conduit or junction boxes.
Correcting exposed wiring could prevent serious injury to a child or pet,
and can also prevent a short that causes the power to go off to part of
Locate the main shut-off for
the water supply. Try turning the valve once or twice a year, to make
sure it is still operational. Repair or replace any leaking hose bibbs
(outside water faucets). This will save water and help prevent other water-related
problems (including unseasonal mud).
In very cold weather pipes can freeze even in the attic. This can split the pipe, which allows a pressurized flow of water into your insulation when the pipe finally thaws. As the water soaks into the sheetrock in the ceiling, and a good-sized lake forms in the attic, the weight of the water will cause the ceiling to give way. Sheetrock, insulation, water, and accumulated attic dirt then cascade into your bedroom or living room! This disaster is avoidable if you have sufficient insulation in the attic around the pipes. Leave the heat on in your home if an unusually cold spell is expected, even if your area does not usually freeze.
Wrap your exposed hose bibbs and exterior pipes with insulation if it ever gets below freezing in your area. If you are caught with an unexpected freeze, cover exposed pipes with towels or anything else you can find to protect them until the danger has passed. It's easier to tie on towels or rags than it is to replace damaged pipes or hose bibbs, especially if they are leaking so much you have to turn off the water to prevent a flood. (This is especially annoying if your first damaging freeze occurs during the Thanksgiving weekend!) Plan ahead--wrap your pipes before it is necessary.
|Walkways, Porches, Decks, and Steps||
Be sure to eliminate trip hazards anywhere people walk around the house, including the driveway. If you have areas that get muddy every winter, consider adding walkways or stepping stones before the next rainy season. Be sure there is no earth-to-wood contact, as termites can enter your home if wood that is attached to the house also touches the earth. A common place for this to occur is where a gate or deck was added to your house after the house was finished.
|Yard, Fences, and Gates||
At minimum, the yard should be free from debris, with the vegetation under control. Excessive weeds can create a fire hazard in the summer, and can invade crevices in the sidewalks, driveways, and house siding. Fences should be sound, with solid posts and secure fence boards. Gates should swing freely and latch securely. Try to determine if the property drains properly; water should flow away from the structure without creating a problem for your neighbor.
When you inspect the interior of your house, you are still looking for water damage. Leaking water pipes can cause serious problems. It might be a tiny drip from an old washer connection, or a drain that is leaking under a sink inside a cabinet. Check your house carefully once or twice a year for signs of moisture in places that should normally be dry. Bathrooms are especially vulnerable to concealed damage, but kitchens and other areas can also be affected.
|Kitchens and Bathrooms||
Look under the sink or vanity
cabinet to be sure there are no leaks. You will probably smell a musty
odor even before you see the actual leak. Correct any such problem immediately
to avoid mildew and dryrot. Some interior molds can also cause respiratory
problems for those living in the house. Be sure the moldy area is clean
and dry after the leak is corrected.
|Other Interior Items||
The interior paint should not
be flaking or peeling. If it is, it could pose a serious health hazard
if it is lead-based paint, which may have been applied years earlier.
If your house was built before 1978 there is a chance that lead-based
paint was used. Anyone (especially a child) who ingests lead-based paint
can suffer permanent health problems, including brain damage. Do not let
children chew on any painted wood surfaces, and check with your local
health department if you have any questions about whether your house has
lead-based paint. See Chapter 8 for more information about this hazard.
Check your water heater for
a temperature/pressure relief valve. Water heaters have a thermostat that
controls the internal temperature. If it ever malfunctions and the water
boils, the resulting steam can cause the water heater to explode. This
is a rare occurrence, but it is like having a bomb go off in your house
if it happens. The temperature/pressure relief valve is an important safety
device to prevent this from happening. Be sure you have one and that the
drain line is properly installed. Do not lift the handle on the temperature/pressure
relief valve during a routine inspection, especially if the drain line
is not installed, as hot water or steam may be released.
The cover for your attic access
should always be in place unless you are actually going into the attic.
This is true whether the access is from your garage or the inside of the
house. An accessible attic should have insulation, and will also give
you a chance to look at the roof framing. Even if you do not want to go
in the attic yourself, you can look through the access hatch with a flashlight
and check the amount of insulation. Be prepared to vacuum up a bit of
a mess if you are opening the attic access for the first time.
Water seepage can result in stains and mineral deposits on the basement walls. The problem may have been corrected in the past, or may occur only occasionally. If you have a severe moisture problem, contact a specialist. In the meantime, you can check to be sure that surface water drains away from your house and that downspouts are directed into splashblocks that carry the water away from the foundation. Correcting a seepage problem may be simple or complex, depending on the source of the water and the magnitude of the problem. If you have this problem, consult a knowledgeable professional.
Planning Your Projects
Every project requires some estimating--even minor repairs. If you decide to re-caulk the fixtures and tub surround in your bathroom yourself, you will quickly guess at the price of the caulking product and the time it will take to do the job. This may seem like a small job, but it will probably require a trip to the store, more time than you thought possible reading labels on several somewhat similar products, the risk of a messy job, silicone sealant on your fingers and clothes, and half a day shot. For some, this is an unduly discouraging picture, but it does illustrate the pitfalls of being unfamiliar with a project. What do we learn from this example?
It is always easier to plan
a project before it is absolutely necessary to be done. In the above example,
you can buy the caulking product when you have to go shopping for other
things, to avoid an extra trip.
Make a complete list of the
materials needed, including applicators and cleaning products. Call for
prices if you are not sure how much money you are going to have to spend.
You'd be surprised at how much a gallon of paint costs!
Look at the whole project before
you make a decision. What are the consequences of not doing the project
at all? Do you want to do it yourself? Could it be done by a handyman
or a subcontractor? Should you find a licensed general contractor to do
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