4 pre-winter repairs you can't afford to skip
If you’ve put off home maintenance over the warm months, here are some critical items to check before it gets chilly. You could head off some expensive (and scary) consequences.
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So your home repairs went undone all summer and now winter's knocking. Instead of beating yourself up, why not bypass the self-loathing and go another route: Just fix the really important stuff.
Your pride isn't the only thing worth saving. Checking for small cracks in a home's defense system now can prevent far more serious damage – a.k.a. serious repair bills – once the rain, ice and snow bear down.
Think of your home's exterior as a protective layer of skin. You can choose to treat a small cut promptly, or wait for the infection to spread, substantially racking up damage and costs.
This year, while safeguarding the house for winter (See “10 ways to winterize your home now”), avert catastrophe by inspecting and repairing, at the least, these four critical areas:
1. Cracked chimneys
Have a certified chimney sweep inspect for damage or leaks, all part of a licensed cleaning. The National Fire Protection Association recommends this be done annually to protect your home and family.
The problem: Water is the enemy. If the raised lid above the chimney is cracked, leaks will either rust a metal factory chimney or crack the bricks of a traditional stack as the water freezes and expands.
"When the factory chimney rusts away, all of a sudden what's supposed to be there isn't, and you can get hot spots in the chimney," says Royal Edwards, technical director for the Chimney Safety Institute of America and the National Chimney Sweep Guild. "This is the type of thing that gives chimney sweeps nightmares because we can't see it."
Hot spots not only cause further damage to the chimney but can ignite nearby combustibles inside the house.
The fix: A chimney sweep can inspect the top for rust, which is an early indication of interior damage, and lower a video camera if need be. He can repair the crown and prevent more extensive corrosion.
The chimney sweep also can ensure that the flashing – the seal between the chimney's edges and the roof – has not been disturbed by wind or animals. "Squirrels, oddly enough, will chew on it. Wind can lift it up. Branches can fall on it," Edwards says.
At that point, water enters and "you're going to be having leaks into the attic and down below and you might not even be aware of it.
"That's what you want to catch early and prevent the bigger problems of having the roof rot away around the chimney."
The cost: A typical sweep, which includes an inspection, runs $100 to $200. Add more for unusual creosote buildup or additional services. Search for a certified chimney sweep through the Chimney Safety Institute of America.
The cost of inaction: Extensive water damage could require repairs to the chimney, roof and even the home's interior, running into the tens of thousands of dollars. A fire could kill.
2. Faulty, dirty furnaces
Have a professional clean and inspect the furnace. Manufacturers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommend this be done annually to prevent a potentially deadly buildup of carbon monoxide (CO). (See this EPA guide to CO.)
This maintenance must is less about money and more about safety, says Tim Smith, president of Reed Wright Heating & Electric Co. , in Seattle. (The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that about 80 people die each year in the United States from carbon-monoxide poisoning caused by malfunctioning heating systems.) But a broken furnace can lead to other costly problems, such as frozen and burst pipes.
The problem: The fuel we use to heat homes — oil, gas, wood, etc. — is made up of hydrocarbons, which release a small amount of carbon monoxide when burned. That amount increases when insufficient oxygen is present to form carbon dioxide. This happens in enclosed spaces.
In addition, dirty or malfunctioning equipment can contribute to carbon soot deposits in the piping. A furnace that's saturated with carbon buildup and then blocked by debris can kick dangerous levels of CO back into the home. The gas is odorless, colorless and toxic.
The fix: An inspection by a professional heating technician can ensure that the chimney is drafting properly and is free of sand, brick or nests. A cleaning will remove soot and prevent dirt from damaging the firing mechanisms of the pilots, sensors and burners.
"There are about five to six things that need cleaning on a furnace and 18 to 20 things that need checking," Smith says. Furnaces are winter workhorses, and "you're going to prevent most all safety issues and you will prevent about 75% of any breakdowns" with such a tuneup, Smith says.
The cost: As little as $79 for a basic inspection and around $200 for a full inspection and cleaning.
The cost of inaction: If a furnace jams, technicians might very well have to dismantle the entire thing to clean it, raising the cost to $300 to $500. Plus, wintertime is wait time in the busy world of furnace repair, which could leave you with a cold house and freezing pipes before help arrives. Burst pipes can lead to flooding, which can cost thousands to repair.
The greatest value, though, is obviously to your safety, Smith says. A clean furnace is less likely to kill. If an object clogs the pipes, the gases backing into the house won't be deadly. "It can create a little more of a hazard, but not the highly dangerous situation of high CO in the house," he says.
3. Damaged roofs
Hire a roofing professional to make sure your roof is in good shape, or risk the possibility of extensive damage to both the exterior and interior of your home.
"I think every roof, every year, should have one or two inspections," says Ronnie Van Winkle, owner of Van Winkle Roofing Inc., a family business in New Mexico. "You should have one after every major storm, and before the winter months set in."
The problem: Water always finds the easiest path. It will flow into the cracks in shingles and expand in cold temperatures to widen the break. Water will rot wood beneath shingles, soak through insulation and damage belongings inside the home.
Also, shingles aren't really waterproof. They are designed to funnel water off the house. If leaves in the gutters or debris caught in shingles causes an ice dam, the trapped water seeps into the underlying structure. It also adds weight strain.
The fix: Get an inspection from a licensed roofing professional. The roofer can make sure chimney and vent sealings are watertight and replace any cracked shingles.
"It may be nothing but a simple repair now, but it could save you a roof replacement … plus the aggravation of having interior damage," Van Winkle says. "You can prolong the life of your roof, to 30 or 40 years. If you don't do maintenance, it's going to give out on you a lot quicker."
Search the Web site of the National Roofing Contractors Association to find a licensed professional in your area.
Also, clear all gutters and clean downspouts.
The cost: About $100 or more for a roof inspection. It may include a gutter cleaning.
The cost of inaction: Add an extra zero to the cost of any suggested repair, says Paul Crandall, owner of Paul Crandall & Associates Inc., and you'll be staring at the cost of a roof replacement. His company is doing a roof repair on a small commercial building now for $7,500 to $8,000. "If these repairs are just ignored, the replacement we're recommending in just a few years is going to be $85,000 to $90,000," he says. "Putting an out-of-sight, out-of-mind practice in place is kind of a foolish thing to do."
The same holds true for homes. In Wisconsin, where Crandall works, ranch homes are averaging $12,000 to $15,000 for a complete replacement of the roofing materials. By contrast, repairs to avoid such extensive damage might cost a mere $1,000.
4. Cracked foundations
Those creaking walls, swollen door jambs, stuck windows and open cupboard doors aren't ghosts, as some homeowners have suspected. What's moving is the ground, and if the home isn't properly anchored with a solid foundation, the party will only get worse.
The problem: In the winter, the soil beneath a house swells with water from snow and rain. Come summer, the soil dries and settles back down. If the home's foundation is not strong enough for these conditions, the house will go along for the ride. When it does, so do the home's bones – every door frame, floorboard, window and cupboard.
For the house, it's hardly a joy ride. With every passing year, earth and home shift a little more, loosening everything from the tile counter to the support frame. Houses on slopes are particularly vulnerable.
"Over time, the more it goes up and down, the entire portion that is moving might slide away entirely," says Todd Black, general manager of TerraFirma Foundation Repair, an Oregon company. "The worst-case scenario is that a portion of the house falls away.
"If you see the ground moving or slipping away, that's a situation where you want to get it checked out right away," he says.
The fix: Hire a foundation repair expert to inspect for evidence of uneven settlement. Cracks in the foundation that change in size throughout the year could indicate a serious problem.
The good news is that you can fix a foundation without replacing it, Black says.
"The problem that I see with a lot of people is they think it's normal and it’s just something you live with," Black says. "The typical thing you get from people is, 'I didn't know this was something you could fix.'"
Masons and foundation experts have lots of tricks up their sleeves. By driving piers into the ground, they can permanently stabilize a structure without the need to tear out the existing foundation or repour concrete.
The cost: An evaluation is typically free, Black says. While costs obviously vary, a corner of a house might be stabilized for $5,000.
The cost of inaction: If that same corner goes unfixed, it could cost $15,000 to $20,000 to repair later, when more of the home is affected, Black says.
Last year, Black installed nine helical piers on the corner of a house on a Portland hillside for $9,000. Less than two months later, the ground beneath that corner, where the owner had previously noticed cracks, slid away. Without those anchors, "it would have been upward of $50,000, or $100,000, at least," Black says. "It might have ruined his whole house. There's no way of knowing."