Saving time on house maintenance
October 13, 2021 10:27 AM   Subscribe

What changes or investments can I make in my home and lawn to reduce time spent on maintenance? Have you made a change that had a great return on investment in terms of time/headaches saved?

I am a single working parent of a young child and a reluctant, overwhelmed homeowner in a rural area. There is no municipal water, sewer, trash pickup, road/driveway maintenance or snow plowing, etc., and decent contractors for things like gutter cleaning are very hard to find. Selling isn't an option.

I am interested in any changes I can make to reduce the time I have to spend on home maintenance. For instance, I'm planning to replace most of my lawn with mulch and low-maintenance natives to reduce time spent on mowing, and I'm considering replacing my wood deck with composite decking so that I don't have to sand and refinish it every few years. I'm willing to make one-time investments in time-saving infrastructure improvements, but very reluctant to take on new recurring bills, so I don't want to hire out much routine propety maintenance.
posted by xylothek to Home & Garden (26 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I think you're on the right track with replacing grass and decking. You could also:

Remove trees/replace with evergreen trees (no more leaves)

Gutter guards to reduce gutter maintenance.

New style self-emptying Roomba to cover floors.

I know you said no reoccurring bills, but hiring a housecleaner sure feels worth every penny. Even if not weekly, monthly or quarterly is amazing. It's one of the biggest life hacks I can think of if you can afford it.
posted by bbqturtle at 10:59 AM on October 13, 2021 [5 favorites]

Came to say roomba and I see that someone beat me. We got one a few months ago and it’s amazing.
posted by MadMadam at 11:09 AM on October 13, 2021

This smart watering timer is the only way any of my outdoor plants survive. It totally eliminates the problem of keeping track of whether it's recently rained a bunch despite being clear currently, in which case you don't want to drown stuff and therefore can't just autopilot spraying everything down, or if it hasn't rained for a stretch and you really ought to water... at some inconvenient time like when you're getting ready in the morning or when trying to put the kid to bed. Also, I have mine using drip hoses, and I think it's really helped with the mosquito swarms that we used to get.

On the other side of water management, I've been really happy with my basement dehumidifier that pumps into a floor drain. We no longer have dampness issues on the walls/floors, I feel like it's safer to store fabric/paper down there, and the whole space just smells fresher and more like part of the house.
posted by teremala at 11:12 AM on October 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

When I was younger and dumber and had leaky gutters, I listened to a slick salesman and got covered gutters.

(Ours were LeafGuard brand, there are so many other competitors out there).

Rain goes into the gutters via capillary action, almost nothing else does. If your house is under trees, this is MAGICAL.

They're not really worth the trouble until it's time to replace the gutters entirely.

Our neighbor, conversely, filled his gutters with some sort of loose foam-plastic insert that does basically the same thing as far as not clogging. There's some maintenance at the end of leaf season to make sure they're clear for winter, but much better than multiple times a year.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 11:16 AM on October 13, 2021

Consider just letting your grass grow tall and mowing a path every few weeks. It looks so lovely and mulch can be time consuming - you have to maintain, weed, and replace the mulch. A path around and through makes it look deliberate instead of run down.

You can also just toss native wildflower seeds or grain here and there, as well.
posted by ReluctantViking at 11:32 AM on October 13, 2021 [5 favorites]

As a data point, our neighbours across the road from us replaced their lawn with mulch and plants, while I run a lawnmower over ours every week or two. They did it because they hate lawn maintenance. I don't water or weed my lawn. I spend much, much less time on my yard then they do now with their "low maintenance" yard, as they are constantly pulling up tiny saplings and weeds out of their mulch. If I was in the country, I would just let most of the yard go to meadow and keep an area around the house short because of ticks and the like.

For your deck, if you don't mind the look consider unfinished cedar instead of composite. It will turn a nice silver colour (you can even use a weathering treatment so it goes silver evenly and quickly), and cedar is naturally resistant to rot and and insects, and will last a long time. It is also cheaper than composite. Our back deck is cedar, while our front porch has composite. The composite has faded and looks like aged plastic and cannot be painted. And composite deck boards get really hot in the sun.
posted by fimbulvetr at 11:40 AM on October 13, 2021 [9 favorites]

Get all electric outside tools. Maintaining gas engines sucks, and electric is plenty powerful for basically all tasks at this point. I loooooooove my electric snowblower.
posted by rockindata at 11:42 AM on October 13, 2021 [16 favorites]

Also seconding that nuking the lawn is a trade off. I spend plenty of time weeding my mulch and perennials, but it is worth it to me because the pollinators love it so much.
posted by rockindata at 11:46 AM on October 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

Look at preventative treatments to your septic tank, and making sure the toilet paper used is designed to decompose in a septic system.
posted by nickggully at 11:50 AM on October 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

Maintenance-free are the two most beautiful words in the English language. I'm also a single working parent and homeowner who kept the house in the divorce so I'll be watching this thread with interest (although I think you've hit most of the obvious basics already).

One big thing that significantly cut down on my maintenance burden was the removal of a gigantic tree in the backyard that dropped a shit ton of leaves, but we only took it down because it was diseased and dying, not so we'd have fewer leaves to rake (and the gutters stay insanely clean now). I can't say I recommend evergreens either because the volume of needles is honestly just as irritating.

I just...wouldn't sand and refinish the deck ever, and remove that from my chore list entirely, but I happen to like the old, worn, unfinished wood look. We have a cedar fence and I can vouch for its graceful aging process.

I splurged on robot vacuums for each floor of the house and they are truly wonderful. I put off this purchase for a long time on the basis that I could/should just carry the one I already owned between floors but the fact is, I didn't. Now the floors get cleaned daily and I just spot treat as needed and only mop quarterly or so.

Dehumidifiers in the basement improve the whole place and can get ahead of a lot of dampness and bug issues.

I hear you on the recurring bills but hiring out just the mowing part was the single biggest quality of life decision I made post-divorce. I decided that for the time being I had no fucks to give for weed control or fertilization or aeration or anything else the lawn companies insisted I "needed" and found a guy just starting his business who comes to mow and edge every other week. It's only needed in late spring and early fall (in the summer I don't water a freaking thing and just let the grass go dormant) so the financial impact is pretty modest. I agree wholeheartedly that replacing grass with mulch is generally no time savings whatsoever unless you truly don't care how it looks and are okay with tons of weeds and in that case I would skip the mulch part and let the grass grow crazy.

A bunch of people on my block love their electric snow blowers which are surprisingly powerful while also being fairly lightweight.

Do you have sympathetic neighbors you could appeal to in taking your trash along when they go to dump theirs? Or you could look into composting, which dramatically cut down on the volume of trash my family generated each week.
posted by anderjen at 12:30 PM on October 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

We replaced wood decks with stone: pavers in one place, cobblestone structure in another. We considered using composites, but all the composite materials that we found seemed to get extremely hot in the summer sun (we live in California), which was a negative, and besides, we think stone will outlast even the composites.
posted by StrawberryPie at 12:30 PM on October 13, 2021

LED bulbs (indoor and outdoor) not only save electricity and money, but (at least in theory) only need to be replaced every 15-20 years.
posted by sonofsnark at 12:44 PM on October 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

Replace the lawn with a garden and maybe artificial turf in some spots are definitely possibilities.

Gutter guards so you don't have to clear it of leaves.

Solar panels (esp. if there's local incentives from Feds, State, local utilities, and so on), esp. with a Tesla wall or similar battery backup

Low-flow fixtures or multi-mode toilets that let you choose different amount of flushing for number one vs number two.

Learn how to change your AC's filters, and have a spare or two, and keep it on regular maintenance.

Consider using swamp coolers (aka evaporative coolers) instead of AC on certain days.

Robotic vaccuums that can also "mop" (yes, they do more than just dust nowadays).
posted by kschang at 1:21 PM on October 13, 2021

I feel I spend more time on edging than mowing the flat expanse (especially with a rider). So remove everything you can't run over with a riding lawn mower will save time. Mulched areas take 5x the work than unmulched (you end up needing to refill it and weed) versus the term seconds a week it would take to zoom over it if you have a straight shot.

You can always cancel recurring services later.

I assume you have a garage for parking in during the winter so you don't need to scrape in the morning. Keep cardboard in your car when not home to put on the windshield to save scraping time. AWD could let you get away with doing a poor job snowblowing.
posted by flimflam at 1:31 PM on October 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

I am also a single parent with an old house and yard that can be overwhelming. I get that you don't want regular and routine maintenance and the costs associated with that. Here have been some of my approaches:

When a problem comes up, especially if it's not an emergency, I try to find someone good to fix it (usually getting recommendations from friends and community members), which, as you said, can be a challenge! When I find them, I think if there's anything else I can deal with at the same time. Part of this is having a list of all the stuff I want to do, even if it's not immediate. For example, right now I have a few carpentry projects that are more urgent (a rotting board on my stairs outside for example), and once I can find someone good to tackle them, I am also going to have them do some less urgent things. I also ask them about other stuff that might be coming up. So, take advantage of the knowledge of skilled professionals about other unrelated things when they're in your house, and keep a list of who to call for what. And you can ask the skilled professionals you trust for recommendations for other folks too.

I agree that the lawn/native plantings with mulch situation isn't so clear cut. I am also hoping to replace much of my lawn with native plantings, but I think this is going to take a lot more time and effort. Right now, I'm spending money but not time with a lawn service. I originally hired them when I was out of town and rented my house for several months and felt decadent not cancelling them when I got back, but dealing with the lawn is completely out of my mind now. They figure out when to come (it varies from every few weeks to every few months depending on rain) and deal with the lawn, edging, etc. I have a relatively small lawn and pay about an average of $450-600/year. Replacing the lawn would cost a lot more, and take a lot of time; if you go that route, you'll probably still need to deal with weeds and mulching yourself or paying someone else at least a few times a year, more often as things get established.

Also, for the deck: instead of replacing it or spending a lot of time on maintenance, just ... let it go. If it gets bad, hire someone or replace it then. I don't think you need to proactively replace a deck that's just fine because it can degrade for years and probably still be just fine. So this is partly about lowering your standards a bit (maybe you owned this house with an ex who did that work every few years? That doesn't mean you need to...) for this, the lawn, and a few other things.

One last thing: I haven't used it much, but when I refinanced, my mortgage broker gave me a subscription to a service called Househappy. You might see if there's something similar in your area. They're a one-stop-shop for house maintenance and repairs. Instead of finding a plumber or window washer, you get help from them, and they help you figure out what you might need to do certain times of year as well.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:48 PM on October 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

A minor thing - as my smoke detectors died, I replaced them all with the kind with 10-year batteries.
posted by FencingGal at 2:02 PM on October 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

I would just let most of the yard go to meadow

This is how you get 2" thick saplings 10' tall in a year or two that grow back stronger if you cut them. Seriously un-recommended, this is not how meadows work, at all.

My opinion as a plant ecologist who is in the process of reducing lawn and planting natives is that the people who say it's more work than a lawn either A) never worked on their lawn at all or B) don't know what they are doing/are working too much/seeking a well-manicured garden look.

First of all, do t put down mulch, that's a waste of money and labor and counterproductive.

Mh advice is to join a local native plant FB group or otherwise learn how to do it right if you want to reap the benefits.
posted by SaltySalticid at 2:13 PM on October 13, 2021 [7 favorites]

I'm also a member of the single-parent-with-an-old-house club. I'm nth-ing the gutter guards. If you have a forced-air furnace, be sure to buy the pleated filters that you only need to replace every 3 months. If you use a pitcher-based water filtration system, replace it with an under-counter one with a filter that only needs to be replaced every year. My very best advice for yards is to get a robotic lawn mower. It is a game-changer. Mine is a Worx Landroid (I call it "Lawnnie") and I bought it 5 years ago for less than $1000. I haven't had to mow my huge back yard ever since. The prices for them have since gone up but so has the technology and I won't hesitate to upgrade once Lawnnie bites the dust. It's seriously the best money that I've ever spent. Not only does it save me the hassle of mowing, watching it be-pop around the yard is transfixing. Like a lava lamp. That mows. It's the BEST.
posted by mezzanayne at 2:19 PM on October 13, 2021 [5 favorites]

Paradoxically, if you don't cut your lawn short, you will generally have to mow it less often and it will otherwise be a more low maintenance affair. Common turf grasses grow pretty slowly, and by mowing them less often they shade and choke out the faster growing crabgrass and other invasive weeds that make it look unkempt. Leaving it longer also encourages it to grow deeper roots, which can reduce or even eliminate the need to water.

Combine with some clover, and you eliminate the need for fertilizer. Plus the clover will flower and keep pollinators happy.
posted by wierdo at 2:38 PM on October 13, 2021

Do you have a compost pile? That would cut down on taking garbage to the dump (and make it less smelly to wait out the time in between).
posted by raccoon409 at 3:32 PM on October 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

This is how you get 2" thick saplings 10' tall in a year or two that grow back stronger if you cut them. Seriously un-recommended, this is not how meadows work, at all.

Certainly, you can't just ignore it and hope for the best. The meadow clearing at our cottage gets mown three times a year with scythe or weed whacker, depending on who does the cutting. After 70 years there are no saplings in the clearing. But that is north of Georgian Bay, so I'm sure local conditions play a factor into how much upkeep it needs as well.
posted by fimbulvetr at 3:37 PM on October 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

This is a long-term thing, but I avoid "features" when replacing appliances because they're extra things that can break. Some of them are going to be time-savers for you and worth the reduced appliance lifespan, I'm sure I have some, but moving parts attached to power and sometimes ALSO water or gas... man, those are repair calls I don't want to have.
posted by clew at 5:41 PM on October 13, 2021 [4 favorites]

Vinyl siding once replaces painting every 5 years or so.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:33 PM on October 13, 2021

Mow the grass way less often; you want to mow at least 2x/ year or you'll get unintended shrubs and trees, but native grasses and plants are healthy and provide a home for butterflies and bees. Talk to local organic and permaculture gardeners about plants that will do well. Maybe add your location here; it makes a big difference. Facebook and meetup may be useful; there's a permaculture meetup in my area that sounds really helpful.

I'm in Maine, planted low bush and high bush blueberries; they aren't really fast growing or invasive, produce food for me or the birds, look nice, don't need attention. I put daylilies - the wild ones that spread - in an area that needed some erosion control (The hybrid ones at Lowe's or wherever do not spread as much). Post on freecycle or a local facebook group, people always have them to share. Lilacs, hydrangeas, forsythia, rhododendrons, grow nicely, fill in areas. Vinca is a nice ground cover, hostas are sturdy and will fill in an area. You can really reduce the area that needs cutting, and flowering shrubs look nice.

Composite/recycled decking is nice, consider it when the deck needs replacement. I got some oil-based treatment that has protected my deck well, no idea what the name is, sorry. The deck is @ 30 years old, so the decking will need to be replaced soon.

water, sewer, trash pickup, road/driveway maintenance or snow plowing, gutter cleaning Put effort into knowing who can fix the important stuff; if water or sewer break, it's a crisis that needs immediate attention. If you're on a private road, see if you can get the neighbors to choose 1 plow person and road leveling/ gravel-spreading person so everybody gets a better rate. I found the people to cut my lawn by stopping and talking to people working on neighbors' lawns; I think they're doing plowing for a bunch of neighbors after we all talked about it on the neighborhood fb group.

A lot of yard work is for how it looks for the neighbors; I've had not great health and have ignored a lot of it, and the yard is shaggy and full of bees, but no saplings. My asphalt driveway is degrading, but it's okay for now; I hate that sealant because it makes the driveway too hot for bare feet and I don't need the driveway took perfect. Cheap solutions like mulch just look cheap. It might be worth your while to get a landscaper to help you make a plan and do some planting.
posted by theora55 at 10:51 PM on October 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

If you put down mulch it will be about three weeks before you have to weed again, unless you put down sheet mulch. If you use sheet mulch you won't have to weed until next year when the problem will come back. You can solve that by raking up all the old mulch and replacing the sheet mulch under it every year. It will probably be cheaper to mow and actually end up being a comparable amount of time overall which can be spaced out rather than requiring you to spend an intensive long weekend and invest in new mulch every year.

The thing about maintenance is that if you can do it on time and properly it's not nearly as much work as if you get behind in it because it stops being easy because things need repairs, or have completely become overgrown. So the number one thing I would recommend is a maintenance schedule.

Another thing that is important is making your maintenance as easy as possible, so having to move stuff from the shed every time you want to take the lawnmower out means that you'll dread mowing because it will feel like a big chore. You need a set up so you can find everything and use it without having to dig, or move other stuff.

Yard care is like laundry. Ideally you want to do forty-five minutes of it every day and combine it with your other activities. If you are working from home, for example, lunch break is when you fill the washing machine, grab the clippers or the mower, do ten minutes work and then sit down to eat in the garden before going in to put the laundry in the dryer. The thing about a maintenance schedule is that it takes the executive functioning away. You know that it's the first week in April so you are going to wash and inspect the outside windows, and you already have a running list of supplies to buy to which you can add "three tubes of caulk" so that you'll swing by the hardware store when you do your grocery run and take the kid out to be fitted for a new pair of sneakers.

Maintenance is a big stress when things get overdue and you don't know how to tackle the job and don't know what tools you have and haven't budgeted for what you need. Having a maintenance schedule removes that problem. It's really good to keep a folder with all that information in it and follow a calendar so you can see at a glance that last year at this time in the spring you inspected the windows and they didn't need calking yet, which means this year you need to inspect the windows and they probably will need caulking. Otherwise you find yourself in October praying for enough dry weather so you can caulk the windows you should have done last year, before it freezes too hard to use the stuff.

Maintenance is critical if you have a septic system - your know how important it is not to discover work should have been done long ago, and you really don't want to discover that when the toilets back up into the house or the area by your septic tank smells like a sewage lagoon.

If you look around for neighbours who do their own maintenance - if you see your older neighbour cleaning his chimney or his gutters, go talk to them about it. They can potentially serve as mentors, or even possibly be willing to take the place of an elusive contractor. They might have tools they would loan you that would make it possible for you to do the work yourself. I used to loan my plumber's snake out. There were a couple of people that would call me in an emergency, and it saved them having to obtain and play a plumber. This kind of relationship with neighbours is extremely useful for all of you. Maintenance is much easier when you can discuss it with people who have like issues and have dealt with it before.

If you do mow putting brick edging around flower beds and making sure all your plants are perennials will will save you a lot of work. The bricks embedded flat in the ground give a defined edge so that everything on the lawn side is supposed to be trimmed and everything on the other side is supposed to be long and lush. You just run the mower down with the outside wheels on the brick. Things like hostas are great for filling flower bed areas because they quickly shade the ground which discourages weeds, and you can easily tell them apart from any weed so if some do get into the bed with the hostas it is easy to see and remove them. You can even use hostas to cover a big chunk of your property. Be aware however that deer love hostas and will likely graze them down to stubs, so if you live in an area with deer you'll need plants that the deer won't eat.

If you have a lot of lawn, enough for a full sized meadow look into seeing if a neighbor would like to use it for hay or straw and will use their equipment to mow it. If you have neighbours who still farm they might be interested in a quid pro quo.

Keep in mind the effects of climate change. Right now our jack pines are dying because they can't stand the summer droughts and our maples have brown spot because the winters are warm enough the bacteria survives. So anything you do put in, or allow to continue growing should be something that isn't going to struggle and create maintenance issues either trying to keep it alive or dealing with it when it is sick or dying.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:11 AM on October 14, 2021

Response by poster: Thank you for all of the good advice and opinions on mulch vs mowing. Since folks have asked: I'm at a high elevation in southern Appalachia (zone 6). I have an HOA with rules about lawn maintenance so the acre the neighbors can see has to stay mowed or landscaped. It is sloped, rocky land, so robomowers aren't really a thing here and it's a lot harder to mow and edge than a normal suburban lawn. The plan for mulching was to sheet mulch with several layers of cardboard, add 3" of compost and 4" of mulch, let that sit and cook for a few months and then plant some low-maintenance groundcover and shrubs in it. Still open to hearing that this is a bad idea; I don't want to just replace mowing time with weeding time.

I'm confused about why the mulch needs to be replaced annually? I mulched a large area three years ago and it's still mulch and doesn't have many weeds in it?
posted by xylothek at 9:53 AM on October 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

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