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Keeping up with the life cycle of homes

The typical American house is 34 years old. And given that households move every seven years or so, the average house is now just about ready for its fifth owner.

How that house has held up over the years depends, of course, on how well its owners have taken care of it. But regardless of how careful occupants have been, houses have a certain life cycle.

Surprisingly, the prime years for a brand-new house are not the first two but rather the third through the seventh.

Anything can go wrong with a newly constructed house. Before the drywallers do their thing, for example, plumbers and electricians must do theirs. If the plumber works too slowly or the electrician is behind schedule, it can throw the drywallers off their routine, causing their work to be less than satisfactory.

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There are likely to be fewer problems with tract houses because after the same layout has been built over and over again, any inherent construction issues have been discovered and hopefully dealt with. But unless you or your independent home inspector have monitored the work, it’s tough to tell just by looking, even for trained professionals.

If the house has never been occupied, there are no symptoms to evaluate. So inspectors must rely on their knowledge of building codes, construction practices and years of experience to spot errors.

Between the third and seventh years most of the initial construction flaws should have surfaced and been dealt with, and none of the major components should be showing much wear. That’s not to say 3- to 7-year-old houses are free of problems. They’re often not.

For example, by now the ground has not only settled but perhaps it has even started to sink, especially around the foundation and utility trenches, causing sinkholes that must be filled. Trees and shrubs planted too close to the structure will need to be moved.

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Since first-time paint jobs rarely last more than four or five years -- builder-grade paint is often “thinner” than what buyers would have picked themselves -- the exterior paint has probably started to fade or chip.

Caulking also is cracking, lower-grade siding has split and cupped, and the house has shifted and expanded and contracted enough times that gutter nails that originally missed the rafter ends are pulling loose. In addition, economical trim may show signs of rot.

Inside, it’s common for settling to have caused doors to jam and windows to stick. But there should be no problems with the electrical or plumbing systems, at least not yet.

The heating and cooling systems -- known as HVAC systems, for heating, ventilating and air conditioning -- should be running well as long as they have been properly maintained.

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Other than changing the filters, homeowners tend to be too lax about having their HVAC systems serviced on a regular basis. But after four years, it’s almost a certainty that heat pumps and air-conditioning compressors need to be recharged.

Problems typically found in years eight through 15 are generally the same as those that surfaced earlier. Only by now, they tend to be more serious.

For instance, soil issues that have been left uncorrected are now showing up as failures in foundation walls. Sagging around the stairs, bathroom floors and walls are indicative of weakening framing problems. Sidewalks and patios that weren’t poured on compacted soil will probably need to be replaced.

Years eight to 15 also are the period for the first round of expensive appliance repairs or replacement. Depending on the frequency of use, the dishwasher, disposal and laundry equipment may be worn out.

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Water heater elements usually fail after eight years too, and tanks rust out in about 12 to 14 years, even if they are drained of sediment on an annual basis. Heat pumps typically last only about eight to 12 years. Air-conditioning units may last a little longer, unless operated year-round.

The years 15 through 25 are a critical period because most key components must be replaced during this time frame. Indeed, an unwary buyer of a 15- to 25-year-old house can be hit with a series of large replacement expenses.

Houses ages 25 to 30 are usually enjoying a second prime period in their useful lives because all the key elements have been freshly installed. But after age 30, houses are not only functionally obsolete, at least by today’s design standards, their health is unpredictable.

At the same time, older homes can be modernized, so don’t let outdated floor plans or systems turn you off without investigating what it might cost to bring a place up to snuff. In general, older houses have structurally superior cores, so a well-cared-for older house will often be a superior home in the long run.

lsichelman@aol.com

Distributed by United Feature Syndicate.


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