Chapter 1


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 professional tradesman?

This book is a management guide, not a do-it-yourself manual. Most homeowners couldn't even think about remodeling their own kitchen or installing a new roof. Even small projects can be too much for a busy professional to tackle after-hours. Still, your house is aging--they all do, from the first day after completion. Sooner or later it will need maintenance or repair. This book will guide you through the process of maintaining and improving your house as the project manager, not as the tradesman. You must be able to plan, negotiate, analyze, and monitor the job even if you have found someone else to do the work. Maintaining your home is necessary to protect a major investment, and the responsibility is yours. This book is your roadmap for the process.

Deciding What to Do

Maintenance, Repair, and Improvement

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.

The second reason is repair. These jobs usually become necessary after a house is several years old. If a basic system breaks down, it must be repaired or replaced. Roof covers have a life-span, and you can usually predict the need to replace your roof cover a few years in advance. Furnaces and other appliances may fail unexpectedly if they are beyond a certain age. Repair can also be necessary in case of an accident, and you will need to have emergency work done to your house. A broken window or kitchen fire damage will require attention immediately.

The third reason to work on your house is to make improvements. Sometimes you have the luxury of planning a major change. A good remodeling project can make you feel like you have a new house, and if the job is extensive you practically will.

As the proposed projects increase in complexity, you will be more apt to hire professional help. Still, every job begins with you. Some simple tasks you will do yourself. Other projects will be done by others, but even hiring help is easier if you know what you want. Before you plan repairs or improvements, it is a good idea to know your house well. Take the time to do a routine check-up and it could save you money and grief later on.

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.

If you can see evidence of missing shingles or damage (curling, cracking, etc.) you should check with a roofing specialist. Some problems are simple to correct, and doing the repair will extend the life of the roof. Other problems relate to the overall condition of the roofing material, and you will need to replace the entire roof cover. Many components make up a complete roof, including the deck (the wood under the roof material), flashings, fasteners, valleys, and other joints. The failure of any one of these components can result in a leak, and the place where water penetrates the roof cover may not be the same place that the stain appears on your ceiling. Keep trees away from your roof and fascias. The constant brushing of overhanging branches can wear through a roof cover prematurely.

Do not get on the roof yourself unless you are knowledgeable and confident. It could be well worth the money to hire a professional roof inspector, especially if your roof cover is more than ten years old. Tar-and-gravel may last about ten years, composition shingles may last over twenty years, and tile should last fifty years and beyond. However, even tile can develop problems such as cracks or wind damage. If you have reason to suspect that you need to re-roof your house, get a professional opinion and plan for the future. You don't want to be fighting a leak in the middle of winter!

Keep the gutters and downspouts free of debris. Allowing rain to leave the roof freely can help prevent dryrot in the eaves. Any roof leak that results in water coming into the house should be corrected immediately and professionally. If you see any sign of water where it doesn't belong, such as a stain on a ceiling or around a window, have the problem corrected. The leak will only get worse over time, and the moisture can lead to dryrot even after the rain stops. Dryrot is caused by a fungus that eats the structural part of wood and leaves a paper-thin hulk--definitely not a good thing for the long-term integrity of your house.


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.

Be aware of the hazards of lead-based paint. If you are scraping or sanding old paint, the lead in the paint poses a significant health hazard. Children have become lead-poisoned from ingesting paint residues in the dirt around houses that were scraped or sanded years ago. While most houses built since 1978 don't have this problem, be sure to learn about lead-based paint before you or your contractor start work. See Chapter 8 for more information about this hazard.

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.

Caulk and paint the trim if needed. If the window leaks, have it repaired by a professional if you can't fix it yourself. Maintain your screens; natural ventilation is important and you don't want flies or mosquitoes coming in with the fresh air. If screens are missing, replacements can be custom-made at most local glass companies and hardware stores.


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.

Make sure there are no termite tubes extending from the ground to your house. They look like tiny mud tunnels, and if you see them you should chip them off and contact a pest control company for advice about further treatment. Termites can be found in most areas of the country, and you should keep all wood away from your house (firewood, leftover fence boards, etc.) so the termites will not have direct access to your house. If you are concerned about the possible presence of termites (perhaps because you can see some evidence of damage in the exposed wood framing near your garage door, for example), you should have the house inspected by a pest control company so you can decide whether treatment is needed.


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 your house.

You can purchase a small receptacle tester at most hardware stores. This simple and inexpensive device can be plugged into each (three-hole) receptacle in your house, and will show if the wiring to that receptacle is hooked up correctly. You must test each outlet individually, but this is an easy task. If you find an outlet that is not testing okay, it is a good idea to have an electrician correct the problem. Be sure all receptacle and switch covers are in place.

Any outside receptacle should be protected by a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI; sometimes just GFI) to prevent electrical shock. These devices were developed for use near water, such as swimming pools, hoses, kitchens, and bathrooms. You can recognize these receptacles by the two buttons (usually one red and one black) between the plug-in holes. You may also have a GFCI breaker in your electrical panel; it should be labeled as such. If your home was built before they were required by the national building codes, have an electrician install them for you.


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).

Backflow prevention devices should be added to the hose bibb to prevent siphoning of contaminated water into your house if there is ever a loss of water pressure. Backflow preventers are inexpensive and easy to install. Ask for them at your hardware or home-improvement store.

Know where your sewer clean-out is located. Some older homes may not have one, but most houses have a clean-out somewhere between the house and the main sewer or septic system. It is usually a three- or four-inch pipe with a cap or plug that can be removed for cleaning the drain lines from the house. If sewage is backing up in the house, depending on where the blockage is located, there is a chance that removing the cap will allow the sewage to come up in your yard. This is a health hazard that you want to avoid! Call a specialist in clearing plumbing clogs if you can't clear a blockage yourself. If you have frequent backups, it may be due to a failure in the drain line from the house to the sewer line. Older homes are subject to having the drain lines blocked by intrusive tree roots or collapsing pipes. Try to avoid planting large trees near your sewer lines.

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.

You should have angle stops (shut-off valves) under the kitchen sink, under the lavatories in the bathrooms, and at the water supply for the toilet. This makes it easier to repair or replace faucets or toilet parts. If the tub or shower faucet needs repair, it will probably require shutting the water off to the entire house.
Carefully inspect the sealant in bathrooms around the base of the toilet, where the floor covering joins the bottom of the tub or shower pan, and where the tub surround meets the edge of the tub (unless it is a one-piece fiberglass unit). If the caulking is hard or gaps are showing, it should be resealed.

Ceramic tile is an attractive and durable material, but the edges and joints should be sealed with a flexible product that allows for the slight amount of shifting and settling that occurs in all homes. If you are not familiar with using this type of sealant, try practicing before you tackle your bathroom, or call in someone who is more experienced.

Your bathroom should have an operable window or a ventilation fan--preferably both. If you notice any dark discoloration on the wall or ceiling surfaces, it is probably due to insufficient ventilation. The steam from the shower condenses on the walls, and if it remains damp for any length of time mildew can form. In some cases this also can occur near windows, where warm air from the house condenses on the cold windows and runs down on the window sills. Proper ventilation and heating will help reduce these problems.
All homes should have a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) for the bathroom receptacles. This could prevent a serious accident if you use electrical appliances around the wash basin. Current codes also require GFCIs in the kitchen near the sink.

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 the furnace filter, and clean it if it is dirty. Replace it if it is a disposable filter. Check to be sure air is coming out all of your heat registers when the fan is on. If a register is open and a good supply of air isn't coming out, check to see if the duct has become disconnected. This could require a visit from a specialist if the ducts are in the attic or other space that is difficult to access. Do not use the area where your furnace is located for storage. Your house should allow for good circulation of the heated air, regardless of the type of heating unit you are using. Be aware that a cracked or deteriorated heat exchanger could allow for exhaust gasses to become mixed with the air circulating in your house. On the other hand, you may have a boiler or an electrical heating system for space heating. Older systems should be inspected periodically by a specialist.

Check your smoke detectors. Many are battery-operated and need a new 9-volt battery once a year. Many smoke detectors have a tiny red or green "eye" that flashes once a minute to let you know it is working. Push the "test" button to see if the alarm will sound.

If you have a fireplace, look inside to see if there is an operable damper. You should be able to close the damper so that your heated air will not go up the chimney in the winter when there is no fire in the fireplace. If you see cracks in the bricks or voids in the mortar, your fireplace may need repair. If you see a layer of soot and creosote, have the chimney cleaned, or at least inspected by a professional to see if cleaning is needed.
Check the washer and dryer hookups. Correct any leaking hoses, even if it is a very slight drip. If the washer hookup is not being used, pour water down the drain pipe once in a while to keep the P-trap filled. This provides a water seal to keep the sewer gasses from coming up the pipe, which causes a bad odor in the room.


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.

In earthquake-prone areas the water heater should be strapped to the wall to prevent overturning in an earthquake. If the water heater falls over it can rip out the gas line, creating a fire hazard. If the water supply line is damaged, the area could also become flooded. Building codes are upgraded periodically; strapping may not have been required when your house was built. Check with a plumber to see if your water heater has been properly secured.

Check the condition of your garage door. It should open easily, whether it is a tilt-up or roll-up style. Check the pivot points and other hardware for signs of wear. Be sure the door locks correctly when it is closed. If you have an opener, check the adjustment of the downward pressure. The door should reverse if it meets resistance. This is a safety feature in case children or objects are in the path of the closing door.


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.

Fiberglass is an irritant to skin, eyes, and lungs, so you may prefer to have an insulation specialist check for you. If you do not have enough insulation, consider having some added. Attics are the most cost-effective location for insulation, as warm air rises. You can dramatically cut heat loss in winter, and keep your house cooler in the summer, by adequately insulating this space.


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.

After the Inspection:
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.
You will also want to start this project at a time when you don't have a deadline. If you are not absolutely sure how long it will take, start early enough to finish even if it takes two or three times longer than you thought it would. Leave enough time for clean-up, as well. Be prepared to leave the water off until the caulking has cured.


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!

Estimating time (labor) is probably harder than estimating materials, unless you are familiar with the process. Time is money, whether it is yours or someone else's. Don't underestimate the time involved in shopping for materials, cleanup, finding tools, and correcting mistakes.

Be sure you have the proper tools. If you don't own the necessary equipment, you will have to buy, rent, borrow, or do without. Lack of access to tools could be the factor that makes you decide to hire a professional instead of doing it yourself. See Chapter 4 for a more detailed discussion of estimating.


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 the work?

You will make a better decision if you have estimated the time and materials accurately. Some projects will wait, but other repairs must be done immediately. Regular inspections will help you spot trouble before it spreads, but be sure to follow through with the repairs that are needed. It will save money in the long run.

Next Chapter: Remodeling Projects
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