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.