This article is the archived version of a report that appeared in June 2009 Consumer Reports magazine.
You might be tempted to put off fixing your home until the economy rebounds. Rebuild the patio? Sure, right after your 401(k) rallies. But some problems, if left unchecked, can lead to thousands of dollars in repairs (rebuilding a foundation wall, for instance) and might even compromise your family's health, such as mold contamination.
The trouble signs are easy to spot, provided you know what to look for. What's more, contractors aren't as busy now, so they're likely to be more flexible on price. Here are the five biggest red flags of home maintenance, with our advice on how to deal with them. No problems? Check out these Simple spruce-ups.
"If there are 10 things that can go wrong with a house, 15 of them have to do with water," says Bill Loden, a Madison, Ala., home inspector. Gutters, downspouts, and leader pipes collect rainwater and channel it away from the house. In very wet regions, leaders should extend at least 5 feet from the house. Check the entire gutter system seasonally for proper pitch and for clogs, corrosion, broken fasteners, and separation between connections and where gutters meet the fascia board. When inspecting gutters, extend straight ladders 3 feet beyond the roof at a 75-degree angle to the ground.
The soil around the foundation should slope away from the house at least 1 inch per foot for 6 feet or more. If you have planting beds along the foundation, make sure the grading of the bed, its edging, or the edge of the lawn isn't keeping water from draining away from the house.
Roofs are the most vulnerable to water infiltration, given their exposure to the elements and the laws of gravity. On a sunny day, use binoculars to spot cracked, curled, or missing shingles, which are signs that the roof is near its end of life. Also check flashing around chimneys, skylights, and roof valleys, and the rubber boots around vents for cracks.
Siding is also susceptible to leaks, especially where it meets windows and doors. A $5 tube of caulk might save you thousands of dollars in structural repairs. If you live in a cold climate, check the siding under the roof eaves for water stains, which could be a sign of ice damming. Adding attic insulation and sealing gaps around pipes, recessed lighting, and ducts into the attic might help prevent future damming and lower your heating and cooling bills.
Termites and carpenter ants gravitate to moist soil and rotting wood, another reason to make sure your gutters are in good shape and soil around your foundation is graded properly. Also keep mulch, firewood, and dense shrubbery away from your foundation.
Once termites infiltrate a home, they can bore through the structure in a few short years. Formosan termites, which are prevalent throughout the South, have been known to rip through studs and floorboards in a matter of months. To detect termites, probe the sill plate (also called a mudsill) that sits on top of the foundation with a screwdriver to check for rotted wood. To check for carpenter ants, look for piles of sawdust along baseboards. Regular termites also shed wings along windowsills, walls, and other entry points.
Rodents gravitate toward disorder and debris, such as leaf piles around the foundation. Plug holes in the siding and the foundation walls with expandable foam. Don't forget to look up for signs of birds, bees, or squirrels in soffits and attic vents.
Even houses in arid climates aren't immune. Hot outdoor temperatures can drive even small amounts of water trapped in the structure to condense on colder interior surfaces, leading to mold. Musty odors, dank air, and family members with chronic runny noses are warning signs. Check under carpets and around windows for visible mold or mildew. Also remove cover plates for cable-TV, phone, and Internet connections, and use a flashlight to peer behind walls and wallpaper for mold.
Avoid mold tests sold at home centers and online. Each of the kits we tested had significant flaws that were serious enough to earn them a Not Recommended Rating in our 2006 tests.
If indoor mold covers less than 10 square feet, treat it yourself with a homemade solution of 1 cup chlorine bleach per gallon of water. Be sure to don an N-95 disposable respirator, goggles, and heavy-duty gloves. Professional remediation is required for larger outbreaks, if the ventilation system is contaminated, or if an allergy sufferer lives in the home.
Some cracks are harmless, but others can mean trouble. James Katen, a home inspector from Gaston, Ore., suggests walking around the house with a No. 2 pencil in hand. Hairline cracks are probably the result of concrete curing or minor settling, he says, and can be filled with an epoxy-injection system. "But if the pencil can go into the crack up to the yellow paint on the pencil, that's a pretty wide crack and might be a sign of a major problem," Katen says. A ruler is another handy tool: Cracks wider than 3/16 inch, even vertical ones, can be a problem. Mark smaller cracks with tape and monitor their progress over the coming months. Also be on the lookout for horizontal cracks or bulging or buckling. Along with expanding cracks, those conditions require the attention of a structural engineer. The longer you wait to correct a problem, the more costly it will probably be.