By Carl Brahe, Certified Home Inspector
Many people are taking advantage of tax incentives for first time home buyers. New home owners are discovering that along with the joys of home ownership come challenges. Ex-renters are finding that maintenance that was taken care of by landlords, or property managers, is suddenly their own responsibility. When problems arise they are the ones that must resolve them.
The most important thing to learn about to protect your physical investment when you buy a house is maintenance and deferred maintenance. Maintenance includes the daily upkeep and repairs that keep a house in top condition. When maintenance is kept current there are few surprise expenses, and overall expenses are decreased. When maintenance is not done in a timely manner it can grow into larger problems. This is deferred maintenance.
Regular home maintenance includes cleaning leaves and other debris from gutters. If the debris is allowed to remain new problems may be created. Water overflowing the gutters may drip onto expansive soil causing damage to driveways, sidewalks and foundations. Water may run behind the gutter wetting building materials. Natural decaying processes begin to compromise materials. Wood rot, moss, mold and bacteria growth may occur. Debris in gutters provides breeding and feeding place for pests.
Where there is moisture there is the potential for encouraging pests such as insects, rodents, birds, and reptiles. Decaying building materials provide food and shelter for fungi and bacteria. It is a natural process that begins anytime digestible materials become wet. Nature has provided organism to digest almost everything used to build a house.
Fungi and insects eat wood. Rodents and birds eat the insects. Reptiles eat the rodents and birds. The whole process is started in a home by an event such as gutters overflowing. This is deferred maintenance, the maintenance that was not performed that escalated into the need for more expensive repairs. Doing regular maintenance is almost always less expensive than doing deferred maintenance in the long run.
Uncontrolled water is the most likely factor to cause extensive damage. Outside, it is very important to keep runoff and landscaping water away from foundations, driveways and sidewalks. Expansive soils can expand up to 15 times in volume when wet moving anything in its path.
Runoff water is the water that hits the roof of your house as rain or snow and is shed into the gutters, through the downspouts and away from all concrete. This is the way it should work but there may be problems.
Water may penetrate the roof causing a potential for rotting decking and structural lumber. This commonly occurs from damage to roof covering, leaking flashings and ice damming. Ice damming is when snow melts and runs down roof then refreezes. Ice melt can wick from the bottom of the roof to the top and cause water damage any place between. Where there is chronic moisture there is probably mold growth as well. In most cases mold is not harmful to people, but it is usually harmful to your house.
Runoff needs to be diverted away from foundation and other concrete by the downspouts, extensions and splash blocks. Ideally, water should be delivered at least 6 feet away from any concrete. If water is allowed to flow to the foundation it can cause damage from soils expansion, as well as water flowing through the foundation into basement or crawlspace. This action can cause rebar in the concrete to rust and fail allowing the concrete to crumble.
Landscape water is often problem. Sprinklers, and sprinkler heads, that aim water at the house, or concrete pads, can cause extreme damage. If sprinkler heads are misaimed, or are not the proper heads, change them. Newer drip and soaker systems save water, energy and damage to structure.
Water needs to drain away from foundations and other concrete. Drainage can usually be corrected by adding heavy clay soil next to concrete to form a slope. There are often hidden drainage problems. Landscape rock, bark or other medium is commonly used next to foundations and concrete pads as decorative features. It is very common to find that underneath the rock, or bark, are depressions that cause water to pool where it cannot be seen. It can be frustrating, but improperly performed work must be repaired in most cases to prevent long term damage. Improper repairs and upgrades are really only deferred maintenance that you have worked, or paid, to create.
Uncontrolled water indoors is also dangerous to your home and maybe to your health. A leaking drain that drips onto the cabinet floor will eventually rot through to even the floor joist. Breaks in caulking may allow mold growth behind tile while causing structural damage. An improperly connected dishwasher drain may cause bacterial and fungal growth that can result in health problems.
Know where all water shutoffs are and how to use them. The main water shutoff is usually located near the water heater or where the main water line enters the basement or crawlspace. Houses with recent plumbing, or recent plumbing updates, should have shutoff at every sink and toilet. There should be a shutoff for the dishwasher located under the kitchen sink. Washing machine shutoffs are immediately behind the washing machine. For problems involving bath, shower or hose faucets, use the main shutoff.
Drains can be a source of frustration. If they leak and you don’t have the skills, or tools, to repair them, you must find someone to fix it. A plumber will be expensive, but most drain problems can be repaired by a handyman or a homeowner. Leaking drains can create particularly nasty messes that will need to cleaned up.
Even a small leak can cause major damage and create the potential for an unhealthy environment. Water problems must be dealt with now. Deferred maintenance where water is involved can be catastrophic to building structure and occupant health.
Clogged drains be a real problem. If all your drains are slow, or waste water backs up in drains, you are likely to have a problem in your main sewer line. If you have an older home with large trees, it is very likely that you will have a main sewer line problem.
Older sewer lines were made of ceramic tile and were put into place in small sections sealed with fiber and molten lead. These joints tend to leak as shifts in the ground loosen them. Tree roots grow toward the slightest amount of water. Roots penetrate the joints and fill the pipes. In the past roots were routinely cut out using spinning blades. A more permanent solution is used these days that pulls a single piece, plastic pipe through the old tile pipe.
Clogged drains inside the house are more common. Bathroom sinks and shower/tub drains are especially vulnerable. There are many products on the market to clear clogged drains. Most of them are toxic and don’t work all the time. The easiest, most effective way to clear a bathroom drain is using a plastic tool that looks like a long, narrow strip of plastic with barbs on the sides. It is called , “Zip-It”, and is available at most hardware and home improvement stores for less than $5.
You stick the plastic strip down the sink or bath/shower drain and pull it back out with the material that clogged the drain. The manufacture suggests that it is a single use tool, but it can be cleaned and reused. It works almost every time with no harsh chemicals.
If you have a septic tank special considerations apply. A septic system includes a tank to digest wastes and a leach field to return the treated water to the ground. Digestion depends on bacteria that can be killed off with harsh chemicals. Some septic system builders claim that a single cigarette butt will kill of an entire bacteria population. The rule of thumb is that nothing except water goes into the septic system unless it passes through you first. Garbage disposals are not recommended for use with septic systems.
You should know where your breaker box is. In the event of an electrical problem you can turn off the individual circuit or the power to the whole house. If an electrical problem occurs the circuit breaker, or fuse, should automatically turn off the power to the affected circuit. You will want to reset the breaker or replace the fuse when the problem is corrected.
An important protection feature in newer homes is the GFCI outlet, or circuit breaker. The Consumer Products Safety Council says: “ A “GFCI” is a ground fault circuit interrupter. A ground fault circuit interrupter is an inexpensive electrical device that, if installed in household branch circuits, could prevent over two-thirds of the approximately 300 electrocutions still occurring each year in and around the home. Installation of the device could also prevent thousands of burn and electric shock injuries each year.
The GFCI is designed to protect people from severe or fatal electric shocks Because a GFCI detects ground faults, it can also prevent some electrical fires and reduce the severity of others by interrupting the flow of electric current.”
GFCI outlets are easy to install. They are wired the same as a regular outlet and can even be used with two wire, ungrounded circuits.
GFCI outlets are suggested for any place where there is water such as: bathrooms, kitchens, garages, exterior outlets and laundry rooms. Multiple bathroom outlets are often wired to a single GFCI. All exterior outlets are often wired to a single GFCI outlet in the garage. When the power is tripped in one bathroom, it may need to be reset in another. GFCI outlets have test and reset buttons. The “test” button trips the circuit to let you know that it is working. The “reset” button turns the power back on.
The lifetime of a furnace can be extended greatly by proper maintenance. Its lifetime will be cut short by lack of maintenance. The most likely problem to occur in a gas furnace, that will require its replacement, is a crack in the heat exchanger. When this happens carbon monoxide is released into the heated air that is being circulated throughout the house. CO poisoning and even death can occur.
Replace your filter monthly, even in the summer if you have central AC. A clogged filter can burnout the fan motor or cause a crack in the heat exchanger. A clogged filter, or dirty fan, decreases the efficiency of the furnace increasing fuel consumption.
Have your furnace cleaned and adjusted once a year. This annual maintenance can make your furnace last many times longer. While the tech is there have him/her service your water heater as well. The life expectancy of both furnaces and water heaters is less than 20 years. These can last much longer if properly maintained.
Wood burning stove and fireplaces also need regular cleaning. If good quality, well seasoned wood is burned, annual cleaning should be sufficient. If uncured wood, or other high creosote forming fuel is used, multiple annual cleanings may be necessary. Dirty, or clogged, stove pipes and chimneys can result in CO poisoning and/or chimney fires.
Gas burning stoves, fireplaces and inserts need only an occasional vacuuming to remove dust accumulation under the burners and on top of the firebox. If the flame for these appliances lights with a pop, or with a flash of flames out far beyond the burners, or if you smell gas, turn off the gas valve and have them professionally serviced.
These area a few simple things you can do to protect your investment in your house and help keep your home healthier. There is a tremendous amount of information on the web to help you learn to maintain and improve your home. Take the time to learn to do it right. It will pay off in the long run. Some places to start: http://www.thisoldhoouse.com/; http://www.diy.com/; http://appnew.simplycast.com/www.hgtv.com
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