Help an apt dweller cope with a house.
April 25, 2010 1:56 PM   Subscribe

American homeowners, please help a lifelong apartment dweller figure out the basics about running an actual house.

I've spent my 40 years in city rental apartments, cosseted and coddled by supers and building managers. Twenty years ago, my parents bought a small weekend house in a fairly rural area two hours from the city, but I only ever visited for random weekends. Now my dad is gone and my mom is getting very forgetful and confused about things. I've decided to get her to put together an information book about the house, so I would know what to do if I suddenly have to be in charge of the place. But I'm clueless.
Here are things I know I need to ask about: How to operate the heat/hot water. How/whether to turn on and off the water. Who the local plumber is. Who to call if the power goes out. How to operate the fireplace. What the deal is with property taxes.
I think there's a well, I guess I'll have to find out where it is. What does one need to know about wells?
What about septic systems? No clue there at all. I guess I need find out how the place is heated - what if there's an oil tank?
What else do I put on the list? What kind of annual/regular maintenance do I have to take care of? What am I not thinking of?
posted by CunningLinguist to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Gutters, smoke/carbon monoxide detectors, operation of the flue on any fireplace, water quality monitoring for the well, grout around the bathroom and kitchen sink.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 2:01 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

How about:

When the roof was last re-shingled.

When was the furnace last serviced (there may be a little log attached to the furnace that shows this).

Where are the emergency (hidden) keys.

Who does the lawn maintenance/snow removal.

What is the time unit for the utility bills, and who bills them. (Some water bills only come once ever six months)

Are there any liens on the house.

Are the taxes escrowed.

Who the cleaner person is, if there is one.

Who the good neighbors are that you can ask about stuff like this.

(You covered these but, I'll add that you should have her show you...)

Where is the circuit breaker (They can be really hard to find in older houses).

Where are the water and gas shut-offs (Note that any external spigot may have its own shut-off that needs to be flipped before it gets below freezing outside).
posted by 517 at 2:13 PM on April 25, 2010

Make sure the roof is kept in good condition. Make sure the indoor temperature never falls near freezing while there's water in the pipes. Shut off the (tank-type) water heater when the house will be unused for long periods, to save energy. If the house will be unvisited for any length of time then have someone you trust and who lives nearby keep an eye out for vandalism, break-ins, etc.
posted by jon1270 at 2:19 PM on April 25, 2010

It's not free, or even cheap, but it might be worth your while to have the house inspected by a good inspector who will put some time into it, while you trail behind him/her asking questions. Get recommendations from friends in the area. That way, you'll have potential maintenance surprises hopefully identified in advance AND the equivalent of a handbook for how the house works.

The only downside to this that I can think of is that any concerns identified would need to be disclosed when the house is sold -- you wouldn't be able to claim ignorance if the roof needs replacing or whatever. But knowing about the state of repair for the property would probably be of a greater benefit to you.

It won't help you on things like property taxes or other paperwork, of course. Where I live, property taxes are built into the mortgage payment. Going through all the bills and paperwork, plus consulting the town on municipal polices should get you a lot of that info.
posted by desuetude at 2:20 PM on April 25, 2010

Is it insured? By who? Keep proof of this out of the house somewhere. Is there a mortgage on the house? Get all the info on that. Property taxes and insurance may or may not be held in an escrow account by the mortgage company, find this out. Check each year to make sure these things have indeed been paid.

Know how to winterize the house, or who to hire to do this.

There will be yardwork, if it is on some acreage there will be a lot of yardwork. Find out if there is someone hired to do this. If the house is part of an HOA, it might be covered by the fees.

Find out how old the roof is, if it's 20 years old it might be time to have someone look at it, depending on what type of roof it is.

Who to call if the power goes out.

I've never needed to call anyone about a power outage, other than to ask friends if they want to go out to eat.
posted by yohko at 2:20 PM on April 25, 2010

Good question! I'm similarly clueless, but thinking about my parents house...lawn stuff: is there someone paid to mow it, etc. Exterminators. What to do if something dies in the wall where you can't get at it. You mentioned the oil tank, related to that there's oil delivery, and meter reading maybe? And furnaces seem to break a lot. Cleaning out gutters and chimneys. Trees - trimming them, what if one falls in a storm, etc. I'm sure there's more...

On preview: ooh, snow removal, very important.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 2:21 PM on April 25, 2010

Also -

Trash is going to be different. Either hauling it to the dump yourself, or a service that picks up on certain days. You may have to have a particular type of trash can and put it in a certain spot on those days. Recycling may get picked up, or not, and types of items they take will be different than you are used to.
posted by yohko at 2:25 PM on April 25, 2010

The Virgin Homeowner - awesome reference.
posted by plinth at 2:32 PM on April 25, 2010

I think you want a list and a calendar of quarterly, monthly, annual checks & events. Like if she sends insurance annually, when? If she gets the furnace checked annually, when?

Then a separate list of the contacts:
who does furnace, plumbing, electricity?
What are the names and phone numbers of the closest neighbors?
Is the house paid for? If not, who holds the mortgage, insurance, etc.
Who's her lawyer and what's the lawyer's phone number?
Names of the local utility companies
What kind of plumbing does the place have -- is it a septic system?
Find out if the heat is oil, and if it is, who provides it and how. (Ours shows up automatically, some people call when they need it.)
Figure out where the property line begins and ends
Find the name of a generic Mr. Local Contractor guy. Even if he's not the guy who'll fix X (the roof, the tree that looks like it's about to fall) he'll know who you should call.

I would say the 100% vital pieces of info are the names and numbers of the neighbors, the financial stuff, and the contractor guy. Those three pieces of information can lead to the others. Also, you might want to consider giving your name and number to the neighbors, just in case you're needed (or even more likely, if they can't figure out whether or not you're needed.)

That's all I can think of. I'm a lifelong renter, too, but we're transitioning into homeowners so now the whole world of questions like, Is the water public or private? Is a new exciting world of tedious bureaucracy that has to be written down on a spiral notebook or stuffed into a folder.

*On preview, smoke detectors/carbon monoxide detectors are a good point to check on and make sure they're working.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:37 PM on April 25, 2010

I don't know what an inspection costs up there, but maybe you could get a lot out of hiring a guy to do an inspection report. I know when we did ours to buy the house, the report was very comprehensive and included things like where the shutoffs and meters were, how old the furnace/boiler/water tank were, the condition of the roof and chimneys, what kinds of wiring were in the house and what needed to be fixed.

You can get on yearly maintenance schedules for many things - e.g. once a year someone comes out and inspects our boiler/radiator system and bleeds it if necessary.

Gutters and downpipes must be kept in good repair/ get these looked at for potential leaks. And find out what kind of drainage systems you have - eg ceramic pipes, french drains, sump etc. Take a look around the house for evidence of leaking (around windows, dormers, in the ceiling, below the plumbing).
posted by media_itoku at 2:40 PM on April 25, 2010

Response by poster: God. The true extent of my ignorance is shocking me.
This is all great. Thanks.
posted by CunningLinguist at 2:51 PM on April 25, 2010

It also helps to be generally aware of things. Look at the gutters when it rains - are they overflowing? Is there a rotten place on the back porch that should be fixed? Is the furnace making a funny sound? Are there signs of a pest invasion? Is an old tree going to take out the roof if it falls? Taking care of these things when you first realize there's an issue may make the fix less expensive/less drastic.

If it's a rural area, calling the power company when there is an outage may result in a faster fix. They record the calls and if only a couple of houses are affected, they might not realize you're down. The number is in the front of the phone book.

If it's a small town, you may wish to stop by the town hall and ask some general questions about property taxes, trash removal, recycling, dump stickers, etc.
posted by Sukey Says at 3:00 PM on April 25, 2010

Here are some good checklists:

Checklist for Maintaining Your Home (.pdf)

The Big List of Home Maintenance Tasks

Both found here.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:12 PM on April 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

HomespotHQ may also help with tracking ongoing preventive maintenance, appliance & gadget serial numbers, user manuals for things like washer/dryer, & tips on landscaping & greening.
posted by yoga at 3:19 PM on April 25, 2010

The inspection idea is great ... I'd also point out that your mom's neighbors probably know a lot about her house, either because things are typically done in a similar way in a particular area, or because they've been over to help with a stuck shutoff valve or whatever.

I don't know EXACTLY where my neighbors' shut-off valves are, but based on my house, and the couple of other houses in the neighborhood I know well enough to know that, I could make a pretty good guess and probably locate it within a couple minutes. (I also know which plumbers and HVAC guys most people use b/c I see the trucks up and down the street.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:00 PM on April 25, 2010

I don't think I could really add to the content here, as it's great, but a project I made (yes, this is self-link-ish, but it's totally free) might help with some of this. It's called Emergency Binder!, and the idea is that you go through your house and learn about (and document) all of the important things (how to shut off the water, how to shut off the gas, etc. ... basically, much of the stuff outlined in this thread by A Terrible Llama and others). Emergency Binder! is a bunch of .doc files you can download, modify, print out, and stick in a binder. And it's free, if you missed that.

You might also find the annual "home maintenance to-do list" from MeFite jdroth to be helpful. It's here: Rosings Park Checklist.
posted by Alt F4 at 4:23 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you have a well, you likely have a septic, and if you have a septic, you need to know what kind it is, and how it is maintained, and where the power to it runs (if it has power). Ours is an aeration system, and there's a switch in the basement with a little red light. We know to make sure the little red light is lit. We know to have it pumped out every 2-3 years. We know that we need a permit from the county that costs $40 each year. We know to have it inspected periodically by someone to make sure its running and whether it needs pumping. We know not to thrown tons of bleach down there to kill the good crap-eating microorganisms.

We know all that because we have good neighbors who are also on septic and who told us, so we didn't have ot learn the hard way!
posted by dpx.mfx at 4:42 PM on April 25, 2010

What do you want to do with this house? Will you be using it? Do you want to rent it? Do you want to sell it?
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:25 PM on April 25, 2010

Keeping water out--or dealing with it when it gets in--can be challenging.

Does the basement ever flood and if so how is it dealt with?

Advice to keep gutters and downspouts clear is not just about overflowing gutters and pipes. All that water can get under the eaves and into the walls if so much as a piece of flashing is out of place or a gutter is too full.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 7:05 PM on April 25, 2010

God. The true extent of my ignorance is shocking me.

Most people who own houses have widely varying attention spans for all this stuff. Paperwork is in old files, "reference logs" created for this express purpose are dutifully updated until they fall by the wayside, lots of people just plain never paid attention to certain areas of maintenance because nothing has ever gone wrong in that area.

It's MUCH more daunting to try to do what you what you're doing -- coming up with a list of answers for all possible maybes -- than it is to just live in a house and maintain it.

(So don't let yourself feel utterly overwhelmed or intimidated.)
posted by desuetude at 9:52 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

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