Must-know things to prevent imminent house disaster
September 23, 2017 5:05 PM   Subscribe

After having three major house emergencies (flooding, pest infestation, and now a corroded main sewer line) I have come to the realization that I don't know enough about preventative home maintenance. What are some of the key things I should be doing to avoid another major crisis? Insanity inside.

I feel like I am cursed when it comes to houses. Three major incidents come to mind, all caused by my ignorance of what one must do to maintain a home:

- I didn't know that hot water tanks should be replaced every decade or so, and one day I woke up to find my 12 year old tank had completely rusted through and flooded my house. No warning signs like a slow leak but I didn't really know I should be looking for that anyway.

- I didn't know that a vent leading outside wasn't properly sealed, causing a swarm of thousands of bees to enter my home this summer.

- I didn't know that getting a sewer inspection with a camera scope was a thing to do before buying a house (never had a realtor suggest it) and yesterday found out the main sewer line 6 feet under the foundation of my house is completely corroded through and we need to have the foundation ripped out to replace it. If we had known about that sewer inspection we would have bought this house with a very different mindset and had it fixed before moving in. This is going to be a costly mistake.

What are other things I should know about in terms of regularly checking my home, appliances, plumbing, electrical, infrastructure, etc to watch out for issues and prevent them ahead of time? My house was built in the 1960s and has not been updated very much, though I do see modern-looking light switches, power outlets, and a circuit breaker box.

(note: I'm not looking for advice on how to deal with the current sewer situation in this thread, but you can memail me if you have something important to share. I really just want to know about new things I should be looking for)
posted by joan_holloway to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

The easiest way to do this would be to pay for a comprehensive home inspection. We bought a house last year and had a home inspection beforehand; it took several hours and was very thorough. We discussed things with him like the age / wear of the HVAC equipment, the state of the ductwork and wiring, etc. So the agent probably would have caught the first two of your problems. I remember him telling us things like how much longer we could expect our roof to last before having to replace it, for example, so we are saving accordingly. He didn't run a camera in the sewer but our house is newer than yours so perhaps that's not standard?

We found our home inspector through word of mouth and I believe it ran us several hundred dollars (which seemed well worth it in the grand scheme of house-buying). It might be a good jumping off point for you to figure out where any problem areas might be.

After buying the house I just googled "home maintenance checklist" and compiled a spreadsheet based on several different examples from the internet. I use that to remember when I am supposed to do things like - flush my hot water heater, inspect concrete areas for cracks, clean my dryer vent, have a termite inspection etc. Also, we are on the "maintenance club" of a local HVAC company which means they come out twice a year to check that everything is working correctly and do any repairs.
posted by cpatterson at 7:00 PM on September 23, 2017

Maybe a more experienced home maintainer would have avoided these issues. But maybe not. Especially since you just bought this house you haven't been responsible for the previous maintenance so you have to expect some surprises. It sucks to get 3 surprises in 1 year, but I wouldn't be so hard on yourself because honestly none of them are blatant neglect. Yes get a home inspector who is chatty with advice (if you haven't already) and listen carefully to them. Yes pepper every repair person you bring into your house with questions about what is going on and how to avoid future problems.
But also recognize that unless you have money to burn you will not prevent everything. So I think it's also good to have the mindset that if disaster strikes how can I set up my house so the fallout is less severe. Water heaters for example often don't give notice that they are going to fail until they do, sadly. I think it lasting 12 years is pretty impressive. But now that you know what water tank failure looks like and that it could happen again (maybe 8 years next time) can you set up a drain system that will take the water away safely? Or if all you have is a bare minimum drain pan that gets bent or is on vinyl tile, can you invest the money to put in a more durable water proof solution?
Thousands of bees, well that's a little random. But over time vents get knocked around and/or animals find a way through so it's not unheard of for holes to appear that didn't exist a year before. Did you take the opportunity to have all your vents and eaves checked? Did they find any gaps that steel wool and expanding foam might take care of? What are the common menaces in your neck of the world and do you have a plan for what you will do if you get visitors again? Pro-tip, get advice from experts but do the work yourself (if you can) so that way you will know better your house and when something is wrong.
Yeah, you know I've never had a sewer inspection either ( 4 houses over the years). That is bad luck. But take the chance to have the plumbers check out your other drain lines to see if the others (toilets/showers) are also in bad shape. Sort of like the water heater, things can fail or wear out and the disaster is invisible until it isn't. Cutting holes in drywall (if necessary) to look at these things and then covering the holes with nice panels or doors is a smart thing to do for future peeks. I want to call these peeks of mind, like peace of mind, get it?
I guess the main theme of my recommendations is to know your house yourself (even if you let others do the labor), ask a ton of questions to get the knowledge, and view every crisis as a chance to minimize or head off similar crises that would have hit a couple years later. Any home maintenance list will tell you the basics, like clean your gutters and dryer vents once a year etc, but you need to know whether you are prone to extra difficult leaves or extra linty dryer vents (or a dryer vent cover that clever rats can poke into like I just found out this year after 10 rat free years, grrr) so you can see things coming. And then finally, accept that any home will give you surprises - I mean you probably won't have bees again, but it could be bears next time. Or a giant sinkhole. Whoda thunk.
Also, get a can of Great Stuff foam and learn to use it fearlessly. It's amazing how much it makes living in a 1970's house feel like living in a 2010's house.
posted by dness2 at 8:38 PM on September 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

No specific advice but I think you're being a bit hard on yourself. Older homes have "problems" and the ones you listed are tough problems to spot.. If you look at home inspector contracts, you'll see that they absolve themselves of any responsibility for issues that aren't plainly visible. I don't think many home inspectors include sewer inspections in their service. They give you their general impression of the level of upkeep relative to other houses of the same age. Any specifics beyond that are your's to deal with.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:56 PM on September 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Home Inspectors when you are buying a home have a VERY narrow job and can not not not generally be entirely relied on to tell you much. Some are great, but you have to search them out. If the one you used when buying your home was recommended by your agent, they sometimes just want to help the deal go through, so there's that, too.

Honestly? I learned on the job dealing with older builds from a roster of excellent old school electricians, plumbers, landscapers and contractors that worked long term with friends that owned multiple rental properties. I was curious, asked questions, and discovered a lot.

#1 - there are multiple ways to evaluate and fix just about anything you can think of, and not every way is the "right" way, even if the fix works out. My favorite plumber has a large crew, yet every time they finish a job no matter which employees handle it, the plumbing is so neat and orderly upon finish that I've gotten weepy a few times inspecting the job before the wall was closed up. What is that quality? I don't know! But it's kinda like art - I know it when I see it!

- Ask to see a portfolio or visit sites to evaluate any vendor's work. Get recommendations and check reviews.

#2 - Talk to home owners in your area or rely on forums for recommendations for vendors in your area that deal with homes like yours.

- Some vendors are better with preserving or updating older builds or particular architectural styles, you can't go wrong with experience.

My recommendation is for you to get out there, identify the types of vendors you will need in your rolodex, then invite them over to interview them and get estimates. Find folks you want to work with. Identify and have immediate issues repaired or addressed, get a plan together and budget for linger term repairs.

Example: Your Roof.

Roofers do roofing best. Evaluate yours, research suggestions for materials. Maybe your roof has 2 to 4 years left on it - identify that! Interview roofing companies now, start budgeting for this maintenance. If you liked the work examples of a particular vendor you interviewed, put them on your list. Make sure they are are still doing quality work when it is time to do the roof and pull the trigger.

Another example is Landscaping. You may only need this quarterly for tree trimming and the like, but find a vendor you want to work with and work out a fee and schedule for service. Know when it is time to prune bushes or trim trees. They may deal with sprinklers and drainage issues, so make sure they do that or alert you if heavy rains may cause part of your yard to flood and you need a solution , or your gutters are not angled properly and you require guidance. GET YOUR GUTTERS CLEANED ON THE REG!

Keeping a home functional and sound is an ongoing process, get in the flow of doing yearly maintenance and inspections.

Every problem you mentioned was preventable. Caring for a home and property is EXACTLY like car maintenance. Get in the habit of noticing changes in proper functioning before they become an issue and address them.

My last note is to think of it as fun! It's nice to have a nice home! Not everything needs to be done at once, but stick with a process and enjoy the results.

Nope. That wasn't my last note. Get your pipes evaluated - are they copper? Are they the right diameter? Or did someone go cheap? Are either set caked with crud?? If you need to have the Ups or Downs repiped, actual repiping vendors do a fabulous job and are generally preferable to having a plumber repioe your home.
posted by jbenben at 12:00 AM on September 24, 2017

You're being very hard on yourself. I've never heard of doing a sewer camera inspection as part of a purchase evaluation, wouldn't have thought of it myself. It's not part of the standard process.

One thing you might find useful, if your home is part of a tract, is to ask around on Nextdoor. In a tract situation there will often be stuff that was common to all the homes built, and your neighbors' experience can give you a heads up on what to expect.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:49 AM on September 24, 2017

Brightnest and This Old House are pretty helpful for these things. Our home inspector asked us about our experiences renting and we apparently failed, because he very patiently walked us through the house and said things like This is the shut off from the water to the street. Make sure you change your filters every six months. You've got about ten years with the roof you have now, start preparing. He pointed out the pipes and the electric so we had a sense of how our house's systems work. I'd suggest you start in your basement and just check your house out. Follow things and figure out how and where they work. Occasionally check under pipes to make sure they aren't starting to leak.

Beyond that things we've learned to in the past few years - make sure you have fire extinguishers and check them every year. Keep batteries in smoke detectors. Keep an eye on trees close to power lines. We had to spend a ton of money this year replacing deck boards because we were consistently too lazy to restain our poor old deck and the boards got spongy and weird. It's not a disaster, but if we were paying attention and more focused on maintenance it would have been cheaper and less work. Keep an eye out for places where your house looks like it's sagging. It might not be a huge deal but we found out we had a tiny leak under our upstairs tub, and over time that could have been a HUGE problem.
posted by Bistyfrass at 9:23 AM on September 24, 2017

I very much agree that there's little you could do to prevent any of this. But mostly came to strongly suggest getting a second opinion on the camera through the sewer thing. I had the same verdict from one contractor, who quoted about 20 grand to fix it. Had a second guy come out and basically tell me the first one was ripping me off (showed me everything on the camera too) and did a quick cleanout for a couple hundred bucks and suggested a preventative product that would hold off on me having him out again.
posted by pixiecrinkle at 10:59 AM on September 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

Totally agree that you are being hard on yourself! Living through these things is how you learn about them and it just so happened they all happened at once. It's unusual for a hot water heater to rust completely through in 12 years. And the sewer camera thing is very new and not standard at all. My last house was built in 1905 and it's stack was fine. We replaced the main pipe to the bathroom while doing a reno just because we had the walls open. New house is from the 30s and everything was totally rotten and had to be replaced.

One of the things we've done is make friends with older homeowners in the neighborhood who love to give advice and ask them about stuff like this. We ALWAYS do research and get second/third/fourth opinions before taking action but we've had lots of casual conversations where a neighbor mentioned that they used to have squirrels living in their roof and then we've checked ours and, yep, squirrels.
posted by TheLateGreatAbrahamLincoln at 12:19 PM on September 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

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