I know that preventive home maintenance is the grown-up way to save money in the long term and keep rats out of my pantry in the short term. All my friends from Shangri-La tell me so. And let’s face it, they’re the only people on the planet who practice preventive home maintenance.
But I’ll grant for the sake of argument that it’s somehow a wise thing to spend a day looking for trouble around the house – a gorgeous day, after a long winter’s worth of crummy weather has beaten my house to scratch.
Fine. But how exactly would one know what to look for in the first place, and how long will it keep me from my couch?
I posed these questions to Donald Lovering, an inspector with 33 years of experience, and owner of Advantage Home Inspection in Massachusetts; Bill Loden, president of the American Society of Home Inspectors; and Charlie Wing, author of “How Your House Works: A Visual Guide to Understanding and Maintaining Your Home.”
My advisers said it doesn’t take long to conduct a fairly thorough inspection. “If you take a few minutes and look at your house and say, ‘That just doesn’t look right,’ you have a chance of getting it repaired before the problems come,” Lovering said.
For those who are loath to sacrifice a sunny day for the task, my advisers said it actually helps to pick a rainy day. Grab an umbrella and a pair of binoculars and watch how your house sheds water and where the rain settles once it’s off the house.
Wing said to look closely at the gutters, particularly the joints between the gutters and the downspouts and the gap between the gutters and the fascia board that runs horizontally behind the gutter. Winter snow and ice can strain gutters and dislodge the nails that keep everything tightly in place against the house.
If the gutters or downspouts are clogged, have them cleaned out by someone with adequate insurance, and check them again for leaks and gaps during the next rain.
Even if the gutters are working properly, you could have problems. At the foot of the downspout, be sure the water flows at least 5 feet away from the base of your home.
In newer homes this is rarely a problem, since the house is typically built to stand at least 6 inches higher than the surrounding landscape. But my advisers said the soil next to the foundation can settle over time and create pools around the foundation.
“If you’re putting a lot of water around the foundation, you could end up with all kinds of problems in your basement,” Loden said.
Also at the bottom of the downspout, check for mounds of roofing granules. If you can fill your palm with them, your roof may be ready for new shingles. (You’ll find more wear on the western and southern sides of the house, which are more exposed to the sun.) Check the roof for buckles or tears in the shingles, too, especially in areas where tree limbs may have fallen during the winter.
Our roof checked out fine, and most of the gutters performed as they should. But two elbow extensions at the bottom of the downspouts had popped off over the winter.
While you’re circling the house, be sure you can squeeze between the shrubs and the siding of your home. “If there’s no air circulation there, the moisture stays against the siding and promotes decay,” Lovering said.
We have a climbing plant thing that’s growing off its trellis and onto the front of our house like a bad beard. We’re looking into relocation options.
Now step back and see if trees are closely encroaching on your house or utility wires. If so, call a professional to have them pruned. If you’re a do-it-yourself pruner, check with the utility before you assume anything about the voltage of the wires in question, and then call a tree service anyway.
Next, examine the chimney. It should be topped by a cap, to keep rain out of the flue. If there are cracks or gaps, have them repaired before next winter, when freezing water can further damage the masonry.
Remember that damage later when you’re checking the fireplace.
Next, use your screwdriver to poke at windowsills and other wood trim. If the wood dents easily or the paint looks flaked or cracked, it’s time for wood repairs or new paint. (Lovering said homeowners in the Northeast typically need new paint every four to six years.)
If you find wood rot, Wing recommended checking the website of West System Epoxy for articles on how to repair spots where the wood may be difficult or costly to replace.
Finally, my advisers said to wiggle the railings at every entrance, in case the winter’s freeze-thaw cycle loosened them. My steel front railings had shed a bolt and some paint at some point this winter, and generally suffered from extreme ugliness.
Start at the bottom, since basements require more attention. Look for signs of water entry around the edges of the foundation. If you have a crawl space, inch your way in and inspect the insulation, especially around pipes, where even small gaps can cause major problems.
If you have oil heat, check the flue pipe between your furnace or boiler and the chimney. The exhaust pipe should have no cracks or gaps. Open the small cleanout door at the base of the chimney and clear any accumulated soot before it can interfere with air flow. (Some boiler service companies perform these tasks. Mine clearly does not.)
Lovering said to sniff and search for mold or fungus around the basement.
Search also for mouse droppings or any other signs of animal intrusion. If you turn off the lights in the daytime, sunlight often points the way toward critter passageways.
Upstairs, clear the areas beneath the kitchen sink and look for leaks, mold and other trouble. If you have a fireplace, open the damper and point a digital camera with a flash up the flue and check for soot and creosote.
I saw a small amount of soot buildup, but without scraping the flue, it’s difficult to know whether it’s merely a thin layer of soot or a thicker layer of creosote, which is more dangerous. I scraped and found that I’m OK for another year. If it needed cleaning, now would be a far better time than November to find a chimney sweep.
Likewise, if you haven’t already tested your air-conditioning system, do it immediately. If you have issues, you’ll get much faster repair service before the first heat wave. Those with window air-conditioners should check and straighten any bent cooling fins, Wing said, to improve the appliance’s performance and longevity. Clean the unit’s removable air filter while you’re at it.
After checking bathroom sinks and showers for signs of leaks, head up to the attic with a flashlight. Look for places where the insulation may have been soaked by leaks, or spots of wood with mold, especially if you have bathroom vents that (unwisely) terminate in the attic, or entrance points for moist air from other parts of the house.
If the attic has no plywood covering the ceiling joists, use caution, Loden said. One client stepped between the joists and broke through the drywall, he said.
Loden grabbed him before he could fall onto the grand piano in the living room below.