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Home maintenance not as difficult as it seems

Posted online

by Aimee Dixon

for the Business Journal

After recovering from the initial exhilaration of moving into their own house, first-time homeowners can suddenly be overwhelmed by the enormous responsibility facing them care and maintenance of the largest investment of their lives.

As one new homeowner said as he wandered around his basement, looking nervously at electrical equipment, some rusty pipes and an old furnace: "I wish I'd paid more attention to my father when he puttered around the house, making repairs to this and that."

The responsibility of taking care of your own home shouldn't put any new homeowner into shock. Some common sense, routine checks, and some basic "how-to" skills can go a long way in helping keep a house in tip-top shape. Following are some guidelines for neophyte homeowners that, it is hoped, will ease their transition into any home.

Start outside the house. If, like most Americans, you move into your home in spring or summer, then you can begin a routine maintenance check on the outside of your house right away. The object of a systematic, close-up inspection of the outside of the house is to discover any decay under way before damage becomes significant.

The most vulnerable areas are wooden surfaces subject to frequent or constant moisture exposure or from which moisture does not drain quickly. These may include lower reaches of wood siding in contact with soil, improperly designed window and door ledges, porches and patios on which rain or snow accumulate, or siding exposed to rain gutter overflows or leaks.

A telltale sign of chronic moisture invasion in areas not obviously affected by rain or snow is blistering paint. Probe suspected areas with your screwdriver. If the wood is spongy or crumbly, then you've hit a trouble spot. In addition to repairing the spot, make sure you correct the condition that caused the deterioration in the first place. While you're still walking around the grounds inspecting the woodwork, keep a sharp lookout for signs of an invasion of insects.

Destructive insects. Probably the most destructive insects in this area are termites. Contrary to common belief, these cellulose-seekers do not live in your floors and framing. They nest in moist soil adjoining prospective feeding grounds such as wooden porches and other relatively accessible lumber. They're ingenious at avoiding light and at obtaining their cellulose supplies from the insides of beams and boards without penetrating to the outside.

Prevention is possible. Keep the soil surrounding your home drained and unreceptive to nests as a starter. Take a periodic look around the outside of the foundation, above the soil, for termite tunnels. These are lines of mud about the thickness of a pen leading from the soil to the sill plate or to other wooden portions of the structure. They may also be spotted indoors, especially if there are areas of moist soil beneath the house.

The second detection measure is to poke with a screwdriver whatever lumber termites might conceivably reach from the soil. Bear in mind that in foundations of unfilled cinder or concrete block, termites often manage to use the hollow interiors as built-in tunnels, eliminating the most visible sign of their presence, so periodic probing of basement beams and other low-lying lumber in homes with such foundations is therefore highly important.

If you detect termites, hire a professional exterminator. The nest of termites must be destroyed if they are to be eliminated entirely.

Trees and plants. Another springtime activity for the new homeowner is an inspection of trees and shrubbery around the grounds. Make sure bushes don't provide an insect bridge to the house or serve as an abrasive house scraper. Tree branches shouldn't abrade roof shingles or siding, scrape screens or lean against the house itself.

While you're walking around the house, look down and check the slope of ground adjacent to your home's foundation. It's best to have a slight slope (15 degrees) so water will drain away from the walls.

While the weather is still hospitable, see if the house could use new or additional caulking. Start at the foundation, and if there are gaps that need plugging, use a caulking gun or trowel to seal the spots.

Next, inspect the outer edges of windows and door casings. This will help conserve a great deal of heat in the winter and cool air in the summer that would otherwise escape through these gaps.

Annual roof inspection. An annual roof inspection is a must for all homeowners. It begins with periodic checks in the attic for telltale stains stains that typically indicate leaks around the chimney flashing or plumbing vents. Catching these leaks early on will keep seepage to a minimum and save a great deal of money in the long run.

The next part can be done during the warm weather, and that consists of an actual visit to the roof itself wearing non-skid shoes and carrying a pail of roofing cement. First, check roof shingles for wear, and check the chimney for cracks in the cap, along the sides and at the juncture of the cap.

Next, check every spot where the roof is penetrated by a chimney, vent, dormer or any other protrusion. Each joint should be protected by a metal flashing, and the edges of the flashing should be sealed to the roof and intersecting surfaces with roof cement.

Heating, cooling and electricity. The heating and electrical systems in a home are probably the two that intimidate new homeowners most, and when anything goes wrong, they're quick to call in the professionals. In many instances that's sound judgment. But a homeowner should learn the basics about both these systems and the routine maintenance procedures they can follow for each.

For heating and cooling systems, remember to change your filters on a periodic basis, don't store items around the heater unit and don't cover up combustion air vents which are usually in the floor and ceiling.

Also, check the insulation in your attic. Insulation keeps the hot and cool air in the home where it belongs, providing it has been properly installed.

The average homeowner isn't expected to be an electrician, but a basic knowledge of the electrical system in your home is necessary, just so you know how to isolate problems when and if they occur.

For example, do you know where the main cable carrying power enters your home? Would you know where the power line is located if a contractor was going to dig on your property?

Also, learn how much power you can safely draw on without blowing a fuse or setting off the circuit breaker. Keep a spare supply of appropriate size fuses near the electrical panel, but know better than to replace fuses with higher-rated devices as you would destroy their effectiveness.

There's nothing magical about how to use and control electricity in the home. If you have questions, find someone who's qualified to answer them for you, or have the inspector explain the electrical system to you when you go on your pre-purchase inspection of the house.

Ask him what you can and cannot do, and if you'll have problems by running the dishwasher at the same time as the clothes dryer.

(Aimee Dixon is the marketing and operations director for House Master Home Inspection Professionals.)


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