By Brian Mishler
Ah! Spring is finally in the air after a long dreary winter. With it will hopefully come the rains we all depend on for sustenance. With equal hope, we’ll avoid the flooding we see so often.
Early spring is the best time to get a lot done, before summer vacation season is upon us, and gives us a head start to prepare for summer activities as well as get a head start on – dare I say it – next winter.
As was mentioned last month, if you haven’t already, get your gutters and downspouts cleaned and checked as soon as possible; we don’t want that rain water to end up in the basement or under the house. Rain barrels are gaining popularity for watering gardens and other outdoor uses, and if you go that route, make sure the barrel has a way to direct overflow away from the house.
Now is the time to get the bushes and trees trimmed and away from the siding, and make sure the yard slopes away from the house. If you don’t want to tackle these projects, your local landscape contractor would love to hear from you. A few hundred dollars of (proper) exterior maintenance can save thousands on interior repairs, and reduce the potential for an insect invasion.
Call your local heating contractor to get the central air conditioning serviced, and go stock up on furnace filters; they actually need to be replaced more frequently during summer than winter.
If you’re like me, you’ve got plans for improvements this year: perhaps a new deck, sunroom, or pool? The most common issues I see during home inspections are self-inflicted. Do-it-yourselfers who don’t take the time to educate themselves on a project invariably paint themselves into the proverbial corner. Just because the big-box hardware store sells it, doesn’t mean it meets building standards. I’ve also seen components on a shelf, but not the proper fastener for that component. Before you pick up a hammer, pick up a book; you may discover it is more cost effective and safer to hire a competent contractor. Decks are the biggest culprit, but DIY mistakes pop up commonly in electrical, water/waste plumbing, roofs, kitchens and bathrooms. When in doubt, ask questions.
Regardless of what you intend to do, a plan is the most critical part. Often the most boring part of a project or homeownership, putting together a list or plan helps us stay on track, and get ‘er done!
Here is my spring check-up plan:
- Inspect roof, clean gutters, ensure downspout drainage
- Trim shrubs
- Hire tree trimmer
- Edge lawn at sidewalks, fence and driveway
- Clean porch, siding and windows, checking for damage.
- Clean retaining wall
- Repair damaged concrete
- Call landscape, patio, chimney company to get barbeque grill serviced
- Have outlets tested (Upgrade to Ground Fault Circuit Interrupt (GFCI) if necessary.)
- Open windows, enjoy the air!!!
- Room by room spring cleaning
- Change furnace filter
- Call heating contractor get A/C serviced.
- Check outdoor hose faucets for leaks; get repaired if necessary.
This year, I’m thinking about a new deck. Here is my initial plan:
- Layout – how much yard space will it take? Where will it meet the house, and how? Will it be multi-level? Where will the stairs be? Am I really going to put a hot tub on it? What about the barbeque?
- Overall size
- Footings – how deep? Concrete or helical piers?
- Posts – Metal or wood?
- Joists – Metal or wood?
- Flooring – Composite or wood?
- Rails – Vinyl or wood?
- Lighting – overhead, built in, or both?
- Will it have any roofing?
Once I answer these questions, and compose a list of expenses, I may find it more cost effective to hire a contractor; they have the tools and experience to build a better, safer, deck faster than I can. Don’t assume they will be more expensive than doing it yourself; you may be surprised, and it’s hard to predict the cost of mistakes. If you do choose to do it yourself, get a building permit from your local authority and make sure to get the necessary inspections done. Yes, this does generate some revenue for your municipality, but most importantly, it ensures the construction is correct – and your family and friends are safe.
By Brian Mishler
As I type, I’m looking out my window at what is now a balmy 20 degrees, with about eight inches of snow in the yard, ice partially covering the street. The last weather report I paid any attention to said we’ve had over 47 inches of snow to date. Those reports now all seem to blend together into “blah, blah, blah, more snow,” and no one appears to care anymore. Atlanta and a large swath of the south are experiencing their second round of paralyzing ice and snow, 187,000 folks down there are without power, and 25 inches are predicted here tomorrow. Even snow lovers are sick of the extreme cold; one ski resort in New York is reporting record snow – and diminished lift ticket sales at the same time.
Hopefully, you were prepared in the fall, and had a safe, cozy and trouble-free place to escape this bitter winter. I’m equally hopeful as you read this, we are emerging from our winter cocoons, the sun has returned, and the accumulated snow is melting. If not, you’ll find me hunting a particular groundhog.
As we huddled inside, and spent only enough time outside to run from car to buildings and back again, we become in-cognizant as to how bitterly cold it is –and its ramifications. We’ve been bombarded most of this winter by wind chills that can freeze skin in ten minutes, but have we given any thought to the house? It can’t come in from the cold.
An online article described loud booming noises shaking houses and startling people in Vermont. A geologist told the reporter that the phenomena are called “cryoseisms,” or an ice or frost quake. The cause is under-ground rock formations getting so cold that the water inside freezes and breaks the rock, causing the boom and shaking. That’s cold!
Pennsylvania buildings and their infrastructures are not designed for the type of cold we’ve experienced this winter. This is why your furnace was running so much and why your gas (heating) bill is higher than normal. We design and build our houses for average temperatures, not the extremes. If they were built for the extremes, we would waste energy and money during typical winters.
As we emerge from our cold induced stupor, it will be important to pay attention to our houses. We need to look the exterior over top to bottom, and even as the snow melts, problems can arise where still frozen ice ob-structs drainage systems (gutters, driveway drains, etc.) and may cause leaks or pools where none existed. As soon as possible, we need to check the gutters and downspouts; did the ice twist, separate, or damage them? Did the snow squash our bushes against the exterior walls? Did the cold crack the bricks or mortar, or cause the vinyl siding to pop apart? What about the air conditioner – did a chunk of ice fall on it, or did the cold cause a leak in a refrigerant fitting? The caulking around the windows and doors may have cracked or peeled. Soffit, fascia and other trim details may have loosened. Ice and snow may have bent or damaged aluminum awnings or roofs, and can also damage other types of roofs as well.
Inside, the aforementioned drainage issues can cause temporary basement water penetration; however once water finds a way in, it sometimes doesn’t stop. Check the interior walls for cracks; rarely, snow weight can cause structural damage. More commonly it causes shifting which in turn cracks drywall or plaster. Ceiling leaks near an exterior wall often indicate “ice damming” wherein water running down the roof is dammed by ice at the eave and pushed back up under the shingles.
While it may seem like a daunting list, every spring our heating and cooling system should be serviced, and a slow walk around the house will reveal other issues. Most of this list hasn’t happened; it is just a list of what might have. Essentially, if it doesn’t look right, it’s probably not.
Here’s to a happy, warm spring!
by Brian Mishler
As a kid of the 1970’s, my clients often hear stories that involve my dad.
My three brothers and I lived in a turn-of-the-century (20th century to you millennials) 3-story, 3-bedroom, 1 bath house with our parents. You read that right; six of us, one bathroom, one female; life was good; never a conflict.
Like many Western PA dads, my dad was a do-it-yourselfer. At first, because he was young and broke. Later because he was, like many depression-era babies, afraid of becoming broke again.
I can’t recall a time ever meeting a repairman at our home. Hence, frequently uttered was: “come with me, we gotta fix…” oh no! It’s Saturday! I don’t wanna… argue as I might, I was now the flashlight holder, wrench fetcher, thingy holder-upper, pipe fitter, or whatever dad needed for that project.
At first one wants to be the “big boy” and help dad with the “manly” tasks of the house, then comes the realization that you’re free labor, and hey there’s better stuff to be doing with your friends … aww dad!
Years later when I moved out into my own apartment, living paycheck to paycheck, my hand-me-down “stuff” in need of constant maintenance or repair, my education in all things broken, took new meaning and importance. I learned that dad has some strengths, but several important gaps in his knowledge. So, if a repairman was necessary, I’d watch him as I did dad, to learn the tricks of their trade. Appliance repair, electrical work, and plumbing, to name a few. Building further on my “home schooling” I began and bounced around work as a construction laborer in a variety of fields, never mastering any one. Potential poster child for Jack of All Trades, Master of None!
The one thing with me to this day, and probably to the very end, is a passion for learning how things work. Regardless of what the issue was, Dad figured out what went wrong, why, and how to fix it … with this petulant boy standing there watching.
Forty years later some of my best memories are the hours I “wasted” holding a flashlight. I wonder – espec-ially considering how many times I heard “you’re blocking my light”–how much help I was, and how much education was actually intentional. Hmmmm.
Over the course of a 20-year home inspection career, the lack of “home-schooling” among today’s younger home buyers has become increasingly noticeable. During the course of a home inspection basic home ownership skills are taught to an ever-increasing need: where the main water shut-off valve is, where and how circuit breakers work, even the little doo-hickey on the storm door closer, and the list goes on.
Take an hour, and reverse this trend with your children. Plan a fire drill; teach how to test the smoke alarms, and how to get out of the house from their bedrooms in a crawl. When you’re doing something around the house, have one “hold the flash-light.” Don’t know how to do a repair?Both of you can learn from watching the repairperson, and talk about it later. Granted, yours is a more daunt-ing challenge than my dad’s; he did not have to compete with the video games and social networks of today, although to his credit, he did manage to pull me away from Atari, and Charlie’s Angels with Farrah Fawcett!
Good, bad or otherwise, I owe a more than 20 year career to “come on, you’re helping me with …” an hour or two at a time.