Houses are like babies; they demand attention and constantly need care. Yet for most of us, home maintenance is not nearly as enjoyable as bringing up baby.
Experienced real estate brokers and property-management professionals agree, however, that houses should be inspected regularly for signs of deterioration.
Use indoor time to systematically canvass each room in the house, arranging priorities and budgeting if needed repairs appear extensive. Keeping a detailed notebook of findings ensures that a problem, once noted, will not be overlooked when work actually begins.
When making a thorough inspection, it's essential to go beyond the obvious flaws. Hidden wear and tear, which can lead to major deterioration, is the real object of this search.
--Cracks: Each room inside the house should be checked from top to bottom. Look for cracks, leaks, stains or sagging spots on ceilings. Examine walls for cracks, especially those that run diagonally from the corner of a door or window toward the ceiling. The presence of these fractures indicates settling of the house.
Occasional cracks are usually no cause for alarm and should be repaired with spackling compound and paint. But long cracks at various locations throughout the house can signify serious trouble with the foundation or with the wooden understructure.
--Floors: Baseboards should be flush between the walls and floors and in corners. See that carpets are secure around the edges of the room.
Walk over random sections of tiled floors. Snapping or cracking means that the bonding has dried out and should be replaced, along with loose or broken tiles.
To test for sloping or sagging floors, place a ball (a small steel ball is best) on a bare floor about 18 inches from a wall. If the ball rolls toward the wall, the floor slopes in that direction.
Next, place the ball slightly off center in the room. If the floors sag, the ball will roll toward the middle of the room. If either of these tests is positive, inspect the underside of the room to pinpoint the problem.
--Fireplaces: Does the damper work? Has creosote accumulated on the interior? Chimneys and fireplaces should be cleaned and serviced on a regular basis. Most chimney sweeps offer special off-season rates for cleaning during the spring and summer months.
Note the condition of the bricks inside the firebox, on the hearth, and around the mantel. With a screwdriver, poke at the mortar between the bricks. If the bonding is loose and crumbly, or if any bricks are loose, make a note to have them re-cemented.
--Bathrooms: Water is the main cause of deterioration in bathrooms. Both the supply system and the drain system need to be checked for leaks.
Fill the lavatory or bathtub with water. Look for drizzles or drips around the supply pipes while the water is running and after it has been turned off. Empty the water all at once and watch for drips or dampness on the drain pipes. Leaks can usually be sealed adequately with commercial compounds available at hardware and discount stores.
To look for leaks under a shower stall, cover the drain and let two inches of water stand inside the shower for 15 minutes. Feel beneath the shower floor for moisture.
Drains that are consistently slow may indicate clogged or defective pipes underneath the house. A full basin should drain in 20 seconds and a bathtub filled with 6 inches of water in 3 minutes. If the drains are slow, even after doses of drain cleaners, a plumber may be needed to unclog or replace worn drain pipes.
Try to tip the toilet from side to side. Mobility means that the wax seal between the base of the toilet and the floor has been broken. Replace the seal as soon as possible to protect the bathroom floor from wood rot.
--Electrical system: Outlets and switches that are warm to the touch, make a humming noise, or emit an odor are warnings of an electrical system that needs attention immediately. Repairs should be made only by a qualified electrician.
An electrician looks for loose wires, worn insulation, and the overall adequacy of the electrical system. Such an inspection may also reveal the presence of aluminum wiring in the house.
Between 1965 and 1973, about 1.5 million houses were built with aluminum wiring rather than copper. In 1977, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned this type of aluminum wiring from new-home construction because of fire hazards associated with its use.
Homeowners who suspect aluminum wiring, or who consistently have problems with the electrical system, should get in touch with a qualified electrician for an inspection.
--Attic: Attics yield clues about the condition of the roof. Look for signs of moisture, such as dark, irregular stains along the exposed rafters, as well as dark patches of mold or mildew. Stains denote leaks in the roof, while mold or mildew usually indicates inadequate ventilation in the attic.
If chimneys and flues run up through the attic, note their condition. Are there any cracks in the flues? Are bricks secure or does the mortar crumble when prodded with a screwdriver?
Check also the condition of exposed electrical wires. Look for places where the insulation has worn off or has been chewed off by pests, such as mice.
--Roof: In a year's time, about 45,000 gallons of water wash over an average roof of 2,000 square feet. Cracked or missing shingles and leaks around chimneys or vents direct some of that precipitation into the attic.
Homeowners can expect a roof to last from 15 to 25 years, depending on the climate and type of roof installed. The sun, not precipitation, destroys roofs; thus, roofs wear out more quickly in the South than in the North. Regardless of climate, first evidence of weathering occurs on the south and west sides of a house, the sides that receive the most sun.
--Gutters: A simple case of clogged gutters can be especially damaging to a house. Water that cannot be drained away through gutters backs up under the shingles or sloshes down the sides of the house. This overflow can damage the outside walls, erode the foundation and seep into the basement.
After removing debris, cover the gutters with a fine wire mesh to prevent future accumulations of leaves and twigs.
--Paint: Obviously, when the paint on a house is chipping, peeling, or flaking away, the time has come for a new paint job. But if it seems that the house needs painting every other year, an explanation of the problem may lie beneath those paint chips.
Remove enough of the flakes to feel the bare wood underneath. If the wood is damp, the chances are that the house was painted originally while the wood was still wet, either from precipitation or because the lumber was green. A house that is wet when painted will need constant attention over the years.
--Foundation: If the foundation wall has cracks, don't panic. Most experts agree that small, infrequent cracks are inevitable and are not serious. Tiny flaws can be sealed with a waterproofing compound.
More serious to the foundation are long cracks that seem to penetrate the depth of the foundation wall. These fractures indicate uneven settling of the house. Foundation problems occur most frequently when houses are built on uneven ground or on lots containing large amounts of fill soil that was not packed properly.
While inspecting the foundation, look also for evidence of termites. These pests live underground and build earth-colored tubes for traveling against the foundation walls.
Incorporating a household survey into spring clean-up plans is usually the simplest way to proceed. The survey can begin indoors during the last weeks of winter, moving outside as the weather warms up. Taking the time to give your house a good check this year will very likely save you money in the long run.