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THE HOUSING SCENE

The Prime, and Not-Quite-So-Prime, Years of Your Home

November 22, 1998|LEW SICHELMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — Although something on the order of a million new homes are built in this country every year, the typical American house is nearly 29 years old.

And given that homeowners move once every 12 years or so, the average house is occupied by its third owner.

Of course, how well that house has held up over the years depends a great deal how well its various inhabitants have taken care of it. Have they changed the furnace filter on a regular basis? Have they kept the caulking in good shape to prevent water intrusion?

But houses are like pieces of machinery. So regardless of how careful their occupants have been, they have a certain life cycle. Surprisingly, prime time for a house is the third through the seventh years, not the first two, according to one of the country's first independent home inspectors.

Claxton Walker is retired and lives on Maryland's Eastern Shore. But when the former home builder started evaluating homes on behalf of buyers in the Maryland suburbs here in 1969, such third-party examinations were a rarity. People bought houses largely on blind faith.

Nowadays, independent inspections are practically the norm. According to the American Society of Home Inspectors, more than four out of every 10 houses that are sold are inspected on behalf of their new owners before the properties change hands.

Back when Walker and his partner John Heyn began the business, they were charging $55 for what was basically a one-page report. Nowadays, the average charge is $250, according to the inspectors' society, and it is money well spent, even if you are purchasing a new home.

Anything can go wrong with a new house, if for no other reason, Walker said, than that "you never know what kind of cooperation existed between the builder and his subcontractors, or even between the various subs."

There are likely to be fewer problems in a tract house because construction is usually routine.

But unless you have monitored the process, it's tough to tell how well a place is built, even for the trained eye of a professional inspector or engineer.

"Much of the analysis is reduced to prediction," Walker said. "The house has never been occupied, so errors and omissions have not been found or corrected. And you have no symptoms to evaluate."

Between the third and seventh years, though, most of the initial problems have been handled and none of the major components should be showing any wear.

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That's not to say 3- to 7-year-old houses are problem-free. By that time, says Walker, who also spent time as a teacher and a remodeler, at least some of the latent errors have started to surface.

The ground may start to sink, for example, especially around the foundation and utility trenches, causing sinkholes or swales that must be filled. And trees and shrubs that have been set too close to the house will need to be transplanted.

Because the original exterior paint rarely lasts more than four or five years, it will probably have faded. Caulking will be cracking, lower-grade siding will have split and cupped and gutter nails that missed rafter ends when they were installed will be pulling lose.

Also, economy trim such as plywood panels on bay windows, rake and fascia boards may start showing signs of rot.

Inside, it's common for settling to have caused doors to jam and windows to stick in three to seven years. But there should be no problems with the electrical or plumbing systems, as long as they were installed properly. The heating and cooling systems should be running well, too, as long as they've been maintained properly. But that's not always the case.

"People sometimes believe new is the same as 'maintenance free,' particularly with heat pumps and air conditioning," Walker said. "But after four years, it is almost a certainty that they need to be recharged."

Problems typically found in years eight through 15 are generally the same as those found earlier, "only now the manifestations are more serious," Walker said.

This also is the period for the first round of expensive appliance repairs or replacement. The dishwasher and disposal will be worn out; the laundry equipment, if not shot, will be seriously out of date.

Water heater elements also tend to go after eight years or so, Walker said, and tanks rust out after about 12 to 14 years. They could need replacement sooner, if they haven't been drained regularly to get rid of the sediment that builds up in the bottom. Heat pumps last only about eight to 12 years.

Air-conditioning units will last a little longer, if only because they're not operated year-round. But after 14 years, they are "very suspect." Poorly maintained gas furnaces will have had it as well.

The years 15 through 25 are a critical period for a house because most key components must be replaced during this period. Asphalt roofs rarely last longer than 20 years, gas furnaces have an average life of 18 to 20 years and air-conditioning units will be due for replacement.

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