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Tender loving care beats costly home repairs

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 valve?"

"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 maintenance."

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 2004.

"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 recommendations:

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 the insulation.


•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 ultraviolet-resistant sealer.

•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 foundation walls.


•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 neighbor's.

Simple maintenance beats expensive repairs

Relatively easy routine maintenance now will save you lots of money in repairs later on. Some examples:

Furnace/air conditioner

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 air-conditioning unit.

Water heater

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 electric).

Bathroom caulking

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 resistant sealer.

If you do it: $25 a gallon for Cabot deck sealer.

If you don't: Replacing it will cost about $3,000.

Roof shingles

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 thousands.

Roof gutters

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 slope.

Normal life expectancy: At least 30 years.

If you do it: Free/for professional $80 and up.

If you don't: Potential foundation/structural damage, wet or moldy basement. Repairs could cost thousands.

Source: Master Home Inspectors Inc.




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