Seemingly innocuous choices that end up causing expensive home repairs?
August 5, 2022 12:12 PM   Subscribe

Please share lessons you have learned personally or anecdotally regarding homeownership - specifically, I'm seeking examples of innocuous-seeming choices that cause expensive consequences. Forgetting to let the pipes trickle when there's a hard freeze is a pretty well known example. I'm wondering what else exists like this so maybe I can avoid these expensive mistakes that don't appear like they could cause a problem. Personal example after the jump.

We just paid $650 to replace a broken septic pump. Apparently , it burned out because one of us plugged the pump into an open outlet when it was supposed to be plugged into a "floater switch" outlet. The floater switch just looked like an adapter added to the outlet. I thought at first that maybe it was like that when we got here but Mr. Potato thinks he moved the plug a few weeks ago.

We never had thorough enough documentation that would have clued us in to the need to keep it plugged into one spot vs the other or the possible consequences of not doing so. We know basic septic tips like don't throw a bunch of extra stuff in your drains, pump every so often, etc. I'm not sure how we could have known that one plug on the GCFI outlet was different in a catastrophically important way. My partner has been a homeowner before, has an engineering background and turns out to be much handier in this context than I realized he would be. But still neither of us could have known to monitor this specific detail.

Some other examples of basic home stuff you might not know, that could end up being very expensive if you don't do it properly:

Run the water during a hard freeze.
Vacuum the lint trap to reduce fire risk.
No bleach in septic unless you want to add bacteria after.

Wondering what else might happen like this? We live in Zone 9 so harsh winter problems don't apply but feel free to share anyway in case others will benefit from this thread.
posted by crunchy potato to Home & Garden (42 answers total) 75 users marked this as a favorite
So I didn't realize that the garbage disposal was for like, minute bits of whatever is left on the plate after you scrape and not big globs of food. Took three plumbers to dislodge the clog :(
posted by jabes at 12:24 PM on August 5 [17 favorites]

Clean your gutters. Overflowing gutters send water to weird places and can end up causing leaks around your foundation.
posted by mjcon at 12:28 PM on August 5 [19 favorites]

As mjcon said upstream "check gutters" but also go out in rain storms and look to see where the rain is coming off your roof.

Don't stack magazines on the back of your toilet. Causes toilet to list, and leak!
posted by Ftsqg at 12:36 PM on August 5

Cleaning your dishwasher's filter will avoid clogs, overflows, and shutdowns.

Replacing A/C and furnace filters will ease stress on the blower motor. Most techs will tell you to use the cheapest $1 fiberglass filter and change it monthly instead of the $30 HEPA medium that will make your blower work extra hard to pull air through.

If you have a whole-house attic exhaust fan don't run it unless you have a window cracked somewhere to let air in. Friend of mine turned his on without doing this and it found plenty of air in the fireplace flue...filling the living room with soot.

NO FLUSHABLE WIPES in any toilet or drain. Period.
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:39 PM on August 5 [24 favorites]

Make sure your shutoff valves work, every year or so. Because calling the plumber when you drop the toilet lid into the tank and break a hole into the bottom of the tank, and then can't shut off the water, is expensive.

If you use a battery-powered combo door lock, which are great!, replace the batteries *before* you need to. Locksmiths are also expensive. Or make sure you hide/bury a key outside.

Replace the filters on your air handling systems as often as is recommended, even if they're a pain to reach.
posted by Dashy at 12:41 PM on August 5 [3 favorites]

Failing to keep up with painting of wood surfaces, and allowing rot and/or pests to get a foothold. Sometimes you can patch it and move on, but I have personally experienced needing to replace entire large sections of wood because it was too far gone (I kind of hate exposed wood as a building material, but it's hard to avoid in most parts of the US at least).

In a similar vein, not acting immediately upon any sign, no matter how slight, of water intrusion or a leak. These can be truly insidious and can create huge amounts of hidden damage before signs are visible.

I don't know how expensive this will be yet (and it won't matter to you in zone 9), but I destroyed a pretty large section of concrete by using salt on it to melt ice. The entire surface is now crumbling. Lesson learned...
posted by primethyme at 12:41 PM on August 5 [3 favorites]

Clean the coils on your fridge/freezer. Accumulated dust turns into accumulated dirt which turns into an inability for the coils to do their job which creates a refrigerator breakdown which causes an expensive repair or replacement.

Learn how to do basic washing machine repairs. Depending on your machine, it can save you a few bucks. I've been nursing our washing machine along for years.

Replace your furnace filter at least yearly! Failure to do so could cause your furnace to break down sooner than you would like.

Do you have a deck? Make sure that the wood is sealed, either with sealant or paint. If you don't, you might have to repair and/or replace portions of your deck. This could be many $$$ with the price of wood these days.
posted by ashbury at 12:41 PM on August 5 [2 favorites]

If you're doing DIY, and something makes you wonder why the last person did this screwed-up job, there is usually a reason and you should try to figure out what it is before you make it worse by trying to do it the "right" way.

Beware of doing plumbing on weekends / Friday nights. If you need to call in a pro for help, it's going to be expensive and/or you're going to be without water for a few days.
posted by momus_window at 12:50 PM on August 5 [21 favorites]

Related: know where your master water cut-off valves are.
posted by Rash at 12:54 PM on August 5 [7 favorites]

I fixed my own washing machine, but initially I neglected to turn off the water. Lots of water comes out between the time the hose is disconnected and the time you can turn those valves just feet away. Luckily, the damage to the floor was minimal and under the machine.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:56 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]

Don't blow off unusual sounds or sights or happenings. If you think you hear a drip, investigate. Drop of water where it shouldn't be, a buzz or hum, a strange-feeling spot in the floor. At least make a note to yourself somewhere about when and under what circumstances.

Make a point - especially in any rooms with or adjacent to plumbing - to periodically inspect and also just stand there and listen without any fans or interfering noises going on. Run the sink in the kitchen and go listen in the bathroom, and vice versa. Go to the room adjacent to the toilet and listen through the whole flush-and-fill cycle and while the shower runs. Also do this when it is raining - this was the first big thing I learned as a homeowner, you no longer get to cozy up and enjoy a rainy day, you prowl your house inside and out looking for problems.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:57 PM on August 5 [8 favorites]

Related to the plumbing, check under sinks periodically. Over time, a slow drip down there (of which you may be unaware, if it's enclosed in a cabinet) can turn into a nightmare.

Do you have a sidewalk out front? Do you live with trees? The roots of said trees can cause cracks and raised blocks of the sidewalk. In my jurisdiction, if the vertical separation between those cracks is more than [something like an inch], fixing them may be the property owner's responsibility.
posted by Rash at 1:02 PM on August 5 [3 favorites]

If you're painting, make sure you're not putting down latex paint on top of oil paint without an appropriate primer. It will start peeling off anywhere anything touches it.

We bought a house and discovered that the former residents had painted all the oil-painted trim & doors with latex paint as part of staging the place. We first noticed the problems when our stair handrails started peeling just from the friction of running our hands down them every day. Now we have peeling paint anywhere that latex paint is regularly touched. It is going to be very time consuming and/or expensive to fix.
posted by burntflowers at 1:03 PM on August 5 [6 favorites]

Checking gutters isn't only for the rainy season either; we have a pretty weird black fly problem for several years, and finally figured out that it was tied to debris being left in the gutters in the springtime. I would clean them out prior to the fall rains, but never would've thought to do that during the spring.
posted by furnace.heart at 2:29 PM on August 5

Get your AC and furnace checked professionally at least once every few years. It's not expensive. A neighbor's house nearly burned down because their furnace caught fire. I just had to buy a new whole-house AC unit because mine was not in great shape because it had never once been inspected and serviced after it was installed.

If you have a sump pump, don't plug ANYTHING else into the sump outlet. Ever.

Your sump pump will work until it doesn't. If yours is old enough that it looks kind of iffy, or if it's maybe 10 years old, just get a new one. I know someone whose sump pump died, and the basement flooded in a storm. The old sump pump looked like a corroded lump of metal. It should have been replaced long ago.

Put smoke detectors EVERYWHERE. Carbon Monoxide detectors at least one per floor. Make sure they still work--test the detectors, change the batteries.

Fire Extinguishers! They're like $25 apiece, but in a fire you'd probably pay a thousand dollars just to have one there. One in the kitchen, one in the garage, at minimum.
posted by Slinga at 2:39 PM on August 5 [4 favorites]

Do Not Paint Killz onto anything that will be in a room where humans will breathe, Especially Your Subfloor.
posted by amtho at 2:43 PM on August 5

Don't blow off unusual sounds or sights or happenings.

Definitely this. A couple of weeks ago, the faint occasional noise turned out to be wasps. Early enough to be easily dealt with, thanks to Mrs B raising the alarm about the noises.

Also: smells. If something smells fusty, something’s probably up. Hidden water leak, and mould on the wall, have both first manifested as smells that we ignored for longer than we should.
posted by breakfast burrito at 3:06 PM on August 5

Clean your AC drain lines every month with vinegar.

Don't pour psyllium fiber (Metamucil) down your drain, it turns into flubber.
posted by credulous at 3:10 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]

We bought a ruined farm house 25 years ago, fixed the roof, bored a well and installed central heating with hot and cold running water. None of the new neighbours thought to mention that the water was acidic so the contractor used copper pipes throughout. Standard electric immersion heater lasted 5 months and its cylinder 11 months. The pipes started to fail after 8 years and we've replaced them piece-meal with plastic. Most recently last Christmas when the pipe serving the header-tank sprang a leak. Don't get me started on the under-floor heating.
posted by BobTheScientist at 3:13 PM on August 5

"Related: know where your master water cut-off valves are."

And that everyone else in the house does too. I was with my brother when his wife called about a broken pipe. He had previously shown her and the three kids where the water cut-off valve was, but they apparently didn't pay attention.

It was a very frustrating five minutes of the family panicking before they followed his directions and they ended up having a lot more cleanup to do than if one of them had shut the water off in 60 seconds.

To this day, if he catches one of his family in the room with the shut-off valve he will say, "Now where is the !@#$ water shut-off valve. Go show me which way you turn it to shut the water off. Remember that shit."
posted by ITravelMontana at 3:20 PM on August 5 [4 favorites]

If you live where the ground heaves due to clay soil or other subsistence, you have to water your foundation/lawn regularly or it will mess up your foundation.
posted by The_Vegetables at 3:52 PM on August 5

The previous owners of my house:

Screwed the deck directly to the house, which rotted out both the siding and sheathing

Attached shower tile to regular drywall, which has led to all sorts of leak and mold issues

Had the roof replaced without replacing chimney flashing, which led to leaks after only five years

Cut pieces of cedar shingles from the siding to install a window without ensuring the remaining shingle was still attached, leading to water getting under the siding
posted by metasarah at 4:00 PM on August 5

1. Take before, during, and after pictures of literally every household modification you do, and come up with a system to tag the photos (such as keyword="household"). It's so incredibally useful to be able to say "now, when did I last change the furnace filter?" and rather than having to walk down and open up the furnace, to simply check your photo library, search by keyword, and find a picture showing the new filter model number and date/time of change.

2. If you are opening up the wall for any reason (running new power, ethernet, plumbing, ducts...) consider running extras - instead of 1 ethernet cable put in 3. Also take a ton of photos, so when the wall is closed back up you know where the pipes, wires, are running.
posted by soylent00FF00 at 4:05 PM on August 5 [5 favorites]

If you have a pool and let it turn dark green, it's expensive and a PITA to un-green. If green, it also becomes mosquito heaven.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 4:14 PM on August 5

Get your drains cleaned. The overflow drain for our air conditioner started running and it turns out the regular drain was through the upstairs bathroom and the drain was completely clogged. Also run vinegar in the AC drain once a month to prevent algae buildup.
posted by tafetta, darling! at 4:32 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]

Soft materials (such as a mattress or bedding) left on floors in a heated basement in winter can grow mold when the warmer air meets the cold floor temperature and condensation forms.
posted by Comet Bug at 4:41 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]

Do not allow birds to nest anywhere near the structure of your home. Bird mites are miserable to experience and eradicate.
posted by gryphonlover at 5:05 PM on August 5 [3 favorites]

if you have a concrete basement, and it is not sealed, then anything spilled on it will come back to visit you.

The weather is warm now, and currently there is a whiff of "the cat we had ten years ago."
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 6:00 PM on August 5

I’m just a renter, but those “drop in your tank” toilet cleaner tablets degraded the soft parts inside the tank to the point where the toilet started running constantly and the only fix was to replace that entire flushing mechanism.
posted by blue suede stockings at 6:59 PM on August 5

Replace your furnace filter at least yearly!

If you have A/C your filter should be changed out 4 times a year. I recommended to customers to change them on the equinoxes and solstices.
posted by Mitheral at 7:19 PM on August 5 [2 favorites]

> Failing to keep up with painting of wood surfaces, and allowing rot and/or pests to get a foothold.

You want an experienced painter who knows how to do light exterior carpentry, with a painting crew that's not just younger people.

The "student painting" are just canny young bastards who train to pitch-perfect on sales but the crew that shows up is a handful of clueless newbies.
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:24 PM on August 5

Welp we blew through maybe 25K. Two sick cats, 2k each for surgery. And then, at the start of the pandemic a near blizzard hit. So our back yard fence sorta blew down (large back yard). It was 15k to replace that fence at the start of the pandemic.

And another 3k to remove the trees that a previous owner had planted. many years ago.

Anyways, home ownership gets expensive.

Don't plant trees near utilities lines or fences :)
posted by baegucb at 8:38 PM on August 5

If you live in an area that gets heavy snow and your house is on the older side with maybe not great insulation*, either invest in a roof rake to scrape piles of snow off your roof, or install better insulation in your attic, or put in a de-icing cable towards the edges of your roof. Because holy hell are ice dams a pain once they get started, and it is awful trying to get rid of one that has already formed while water steadily drips through the walls and ruins your ceiling.

*if the house has big icicles forming off its roof, that’s generally a red flag for shitty insulation, at least in the attic.
posted by castlebravo at 8:42 PM on August 5

Plugin Gas Detectors. One for by the stove and one by the furnace. They're like $20, but if you ever need them it comes in super useful. Note, certain aerosol cleaning products might set them off.
posted by pyro979 at 4:19 AM on August 6

Before getting freaked out about freezing pipes, do some detective work with thermometers. Measure air temp where the pipes run, and the temp of cold water coming from the faucet. It may be very reassuring.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:25 AM on August 6

Forgetting to let the pipes trickle when there's a hard freeze

This is confusing to me. Do you mean inside or outside the house?

If inside, you'd only need to worry if your heating went out, right? Or do people have pipes going through areas of the home that would go below freezing for a long time? If you're going away for several days in the winter turn your heat way down, but not off.

If outside, you probably have* or can get a frost-free faucet and not worry about it.

*at least in the winter-having parts of the U.S.
posted by evilmomlady at 5:50 AM on August 6 [1 favorite]

And if you don't have frost-free faucets, then in the fall you should shut off the water supply to them, and open them to drain.
posted by evilmomlady at 6:28 AM on August 6 [1 favorite]

If it's below -30 Celsius for a few days, all bets are off in my house. Insulated or not, things can freeze.

This isn't an issue in every house, though.
posted by Acari at 7:36 AM on August 6 [1 favorite]

This is confusing to me. Do you mean inside or outside the house?

Pipes in exterior walls that service either inside or outside. Older houses were both poorly insulated and often lacked air barriers. Meaning that a supply pipe in an outside wall (common in kitchens where the sink is often under a window) could freeze from low ambient temperature or because sub zero air was blowing past the pipe even in an insulated wall. Letting a tap run that was serviced by that pipe(s), volume dependant on severity of the freezing problem, would prevent the pipe from freezing because it was heated by the relatively warm water from the buried municipal supply line.

Modern construction has more insulation and air barriers so has pretty much eliminated this problem. Plus most supply plumbing is via Pex and that will handle freezing without bursting where copper would split and or force fittings apart when the water inside froze causing a much bigger problem than just no water.
posted by Mitheral at 8:32 AM on August 6 [3 favorites]

Regarding photos of everything: another trick when opening up walls or other normally invisible areas is to be sure your photo includes a known fixed point you can measure from once the drywall, tile, siding, etc. is back in place, and hold a measuring tape up in strategic position in the open-walled photo. I installed a shower grab bar with full confidence that I was hitting a stud, but not drilling/screwing through a very nearby pipe passing through that stud, because of a 10-year-old photo with a tape in it.
posted by kiblinger at 10:56 AM on August 6 [4 favorites]

Oh, don’t tile on top of wallpaper. I doubt you’d be stupid enough to do that, but the previous owners of our house were. We clearly took more showers than they did, because the tiles quickly became a swaying curtain as the paper lifted in the damp.
posted by breakfast burrito at 4:10 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]

A water detector near all places water runs like hot water heater, washer, under sink. I had my water heater in my ceiling and my ear piercing alarm went off & saved me tons of money in ceiling repair. Here is an example
posted by ColdIcedT at 12:40 PM on August 11 [1 favorite]

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