Tender loving care
beats costly home repairs
By Noelle Knox, USA TODAY
For want of a nail, the saying goes, a kingdom was lost.
OK, so your home isn't exactly a castle. But
it's probably the most valuable asset you'll own. So when was
the last time you changed the filter in your air conditioner or
put a battery in your fire alarm? Tested the pressure valve on
your water heater? Or are you thinking, "Uh ... there's a
"I can't tell you how many people who live in
an expensive house, that they spent a significant amount of
money on, assume it doesn't require ongoing maintenance," says
Ron Phipps of Phipps Realty in Warwick, R.I. "They pay the
electric bill and get the grass cut, but they don't do
The average homeowner should budget 1% to 3%
of the home's value for annual maintenance, depending on the age
and size of the home and area climate. Some years it might cost
more, other years less.
But many of us are like Sarah Van Elderen,
23, who closed last month on her first home, a condo in Grand
Rapids, Mich. "I haven't done a lot of budgeting for it, and I
know I should," she admits.
All it takes is an unchecked leak under the
upstairs bathroom sink, and instead of replacing a $30 valve,
you're spending your vacation fund on home repairs.
"It's not just the wood under the sink; the
water can quickly spread into the downstairs ceiling," explains
Gil Engler of Master Home Inspectors in Bethesda, Md. "And
that's a $500 repair."
Even condo buyers should beware. Don't look
just at the monthly association fee. Ask about the cash reserves
of the condo association and any maintenance that must be done.
Phipps learned the hard way, when he bought a condo in late
"Within four months, there was a $4,000
special assessment for re-shingling the roof," he says. "This
year, there was a $2,200 assessment because they want to paint
the building. The condo fees are $2,000 a year. Yet within two
years, I've spent another $6,200 on special assessments."
So if you've already broken your New Year's
weight-loss resolution, consider burning a few calories doing
your own home maintenance. Remember: Every one to three months,
you should change the air filters in your heater/air conditioner
and check the smoke detector. Here's a month-by-month guide,
based in part on National Association of Realtors
Month-by-month to-do list
•Dig out warranties and product manuals from
under that stack of restaurant-delivery menus and check on
recommended maintenance for furnaces, equipment, appliances and
tools. Mark your calendar to track scheduled upkeep and service.
•Make a room-by-room inventory of everything
in your house. This will be important, in case of fire, flood or
any of the 10 Plagues covered by your insurance policy, in
filing an insurance claim. It's also a good excuse to use the
new camera you got for Christmas.
•Don't close vents to crawl spaces. If you
live where pipes can freeze and the floors become very cold, you
should either move to San Diego or insulate pipes under the
floor. Double-check insulation around exterior pipes that are
exposed to freezing weather to be sure water can't seep under
•Remove drain traps under sinks and clean
them thoroughly. Inspect grout and caulk around tubs, sinks and
showers. Chip out cracked grout and replace. Stained, discolored
and mildewed caulk should be cleaned with household cleaner.
•Musty closet odors can be reduced or
eliminated by removing the closet's contents and washing walls
with a diluted solution of chlorine bleach.
•To keep valves from sticking and to check
for leaks, turn all water valves off and on. That includes
outdoor faucets and valves to toilets, bathroom and kitchen
sinks, laundry, bar, etc.
•After heavy rain, inspect your basement
walls for signs of moisture or, worse, swimming sharks. If you
detect wetness, first try running a portable dehumidifier. Check
the downspouts and the grading around the foundation.
•Check to make sure your sump pump works
properly by pouring water into the pump silo to raise the float
and activate the motor.
•Test the pressure and temperature relief
valve on your water heater by opening it and allowing some water
to flow out. Bad valves can cause explosions. Remember that
office building in The Matrix Reloaded?
•Replace batteries in smoke detectors.
Battery: $2. Your life: priceless.
•Inspect screens for tears and bent frames.
Check outdoor structures for deterioration — especially signs of
rot. Also inspect the crawl space or basement after rain for
water accumulation or excessive moisture. Look for signs of
water damage on the sub floor and joists beneath bathrooms, the
kitchen and laundry.
•Check fire extinguishers to make sure
they're not outdated, have lost pressure or are damaged.
•Check all weatherstripping around doors and
windows for wear, damage or loss of flexibility.
•Clean gutters. Make sure downspouts or
splash backs direct water at least 6 feet from the foundation.
•Have central air-conditioning unit checked.
Replace the filter in the forced-air system. Clean debris from
condenser or heat pump outside.
•Remove mineral deposits from faucet aerators
and shower heads by soaking parts in white vinegar and scrubbing
with an old toothbrush.
•Have swimming pool cleaned. Inspect and
service pool liners and filters.
•Clean and seal decks, using
•Hire a certified chimney sweep to inspect
and clean chimneys and watch Mary Poppins with the kids.
•Clean lint from the entire clothes dryer
vent system, from the dryer to the exterior vent cap.
•Check all exterior walls for peeling or
cracked paint. Carefully inspect brick or masonry siding for
cracks or missing mortar.
•Inspect roofing material for cracks and
loose or missing shingles and repair as necessary.
•Prune trees and shrubs so branches do not
come in contact with exterior siding.
•Clean and repair cracks in concrete
driveways using epoxy patching material. Repair asphalt
driveways using asphalt patching material. Seal asphalt
driveways every other year.
•Inspect foundation walls for signs of
termites — tunnels or dirt bridges.
•Use a vacuum with a narrow nozzle to clean
condenser coils on the back or underneath your refrigerator —
for the first time in your life.
•Check faucets for leaks and replace washers
or repair the faucet as necessary.
•Clean underneath range hood. Remove and
clean or replace range hood filters. Yes, they can be changed.
•Paint interior rooms while it's still warm
enough to leave windows open.
•Check heating system, including filters,
pilot lights and burners, and have the system serviced by a
qualified professional. Read: This is dangerous.
•Survey the outside of your house to make
sure soil around the foundation is properly graded. Soil should
slope 3 to 6 inches for a distance of 3 feet out from the
•Detach hoses in case of freezing
temperatures. Ask yourself why you didn't move to San Diego.
•Inspect weatherstripping around doors and
windows and repair or replace if necessary.
•Clean gutters after leaves have fallen. Make
sure downspouts are in good condition.
•Change batteries in smoke and carbon
monoxide detectors. Check gauges on home fire extinguishers to
ensure a full charge.
•Inspect automatic garage-door opener and
lubricate according to the manufacturer's directions.
•Check for leaks around washing machine.
Prime suspects for leaks are the water supply hose washers.
•Check the operation of all circuit
interrupters in your ground outlets by pushing the "test"
button. The "reset" button should pop out, indicating the
receptacle is operating properly. Press in the reset button.
•Check inside bathroom vanities and
kitchen-sink cabinets for moisture and other signs of leaks.
Carefully inspect pipes for condensation or slow drips.
Now you can gloat.
Your home's value is rising faster than your
Simple maintenance beats expensive repairs
Relatively easy routine maintenance now will
save you lots of money in repairs later on. Some examples:
Normal life expectancy: 20-25 years for gas
furnace, air conditioners and heat pumps about 15 years.
Maintenance: Change filters every 1 to 3
months/annual service contract.
If you do it: $1 to $15 per filter/service
contract $150 to $250 annually.
If you don't: $3,000 for a new, 100,000
Btu/per hour furnace; $3,000 and up for new 3-ton
Normal life expectancy: 15-18 years.
Maintenance: Test temperature-pressure relief
valve once a year. Sediment at the bottom can be drained twice a
year (particularly on well water), by opening drain valve and
letting water flow until water runs clear.
If you do it: Free.
If you don't: $600-$800 and up (50-gallon
Life expectancy: Varies with use.
Maintenance: check to make sure no cracks in
grout or corner joints.
If you do it: $3 per tube for
caulking/professional re-grouting $125 to $200.
If you don't: Retiling shower $2,500 and up.
•Outside wood deck (200-square-foot)
Normal life expectancy: wooden, pressure
treated deck without protection 15 years.
Maintenance: Protect with ultra-violet
If you do it: $25 a gallon for Cabot deck
If you don't: Replacing it will cost about
Missing or damaged, have exposed rake board
of the roof.
Normal life expectancy: Asphalt shingle roof
15 to 25 years.
If you repair it: $75-$100.
If you don't: Replace rake board, roof
decking, dry wall, structural repairs. Replacement could cost
Clean roof gutters in spring and fall, make
sure down spouts are aimed more than 2-feet away from the home's
foundation. Grade the dirt away from home at a one inch per foot
Normal life expectancy: At least 30 years.
If you do it: Free/for professional $80 and
If you don't: Potential foundation/structural
damage, wet or moldy basement. Repairs could cost thousands.
Source: Master Home Inspectors Inc.