I was originally inspired to write this blog post by a conversation I had with my friend Helen about home maintenance. I was telling her about an adorable litter of baby opossums that kept wandering into my bedroom through my open garden door, and how I kept having to gently scoop them up and carry them back out to the garden. Helen then mentioned that she was having skunk issues under her house. This led me to give her the number of a reliable pest control company as well as the number of my handyman Gerardo. We got to talking about Gerardo and his many, many skills, when she summed things up by saying that she sometimes felt like she wasn't a very good homeowner. Of course that's not true - but her comment got us talking about home maintenance, and I couldn't help but list all the things I think are most important when caring for your home. Naturally I have opinions.
(Photo: Leslie Kemp)
In the San Francisco Bay Area, almost all of us live in old homes. My own house was built in 1936, then gracelessly updated in the 1980s. Whoever did all the "improvements" did so with the cheapest materials and the least amount of effort. And whoever the contractor was that remodeled my downstairs back then was surely a coke addict who made poor life choices. There can be no other explanation for his work! A few months after I bought my house I embarked on what started out as an inexpensive cosmetic upgrade on the lower level bedrooms that quickly morphed into a waaaaaaay more expensive structural repair. Once my contractor Eli opened everything up, it was revealed that the support beam that held up the living room and dining room floors above had been cut and was attached to a slim post that was simply resting on the foundation. Basically, one good earthquake and the back half of my home would have caved in and slid downhill! So instead of also building the new deck I'd budgeted for, I got safety and security and a big-ass support beam in my bedroom that isn't going anywhere.
This was a jagged little pill to swallow, but my takeaway was that I'd best take care of the non sexy stuff before I ever focused on the pretty stuff. And that's the way it's been in the nine years since I bought my house. Let me walk you through some of the things I think are important in terms of taking care of your home.
Protect Your Home From Water Like A Mother Bear
This means getting your rain gutters cleaned every few years - or yearly if you have tall trees like I do. I was told by the listing agent that one of our bedrooms had a history of water issues during the rainy season. It turned out this was because the rain gutters had not been cleaned for at least 10 years! Let's just say I was speechless when I saw the huge amount of what was by then compost that was cleaned out of the gutters. I now get the rain gutters cleaned yearly, mainly for my own peace of mind. The gutter guys have also repaired small leaks in the gutters, blown leaves off the roof, removed and hauled away an old tv antenna and satellite dish, caulked up the holes, and inspected the overall health of my roof. I am also a big fan of adding those weird black plastic accordion extensions that attach to the bottom of your gutters and direct the water even further away.
Protecting your home from water also means fixing the leaking pipes, sinks, toilets, windows, roof, broken sump pumps - whatever. Not dealing with leaks and water issues over time can end up costing you big bucks as well as giving you a huge headache. My best advice is to take proactive measures before it gets out of hand. A little money up front saves you a lot of money down the road.
Get a Handle On Your Yard and Trees
This is important for several compelling reasons, and not because an overgrown yard is unsightly. Having a clear access around your home is vital for fire abatement. Having a yard with garden debris and dense bushes up against your house is akin to putting out the welcome mat for pests, rodents and critters! So are vines, which one of my friends calls Rat Ladders. Overgrown shrubbery along your fence line can cause damage to the fence and strain relationships with adjacent property owners (Yes, I'm talking to YOU Neighbor X). Additionally, overhanging and poorly maintained trees can cause serious damage not only by branches scraping and falling on your own house, but also your neighbors. If any of these things are an issue for you, hire a gardener for garden clean up and a dump run. If you have tall trees, hiring an arborist is sound investment. Again, a little money up front saves you from a world of hurt later! Your yard doesn't have to be landscaped, but it does need to be safe and accessible.
Deal With Pests Sooner Rather Than Later
I am the queen of procrastination but some things should not be put off. We all know how to deal with ants and flies, but every once in a while we get thrown an insect or pest curve ball that requires us to hire professionals . In the decade that I've lived in this house, I've had to deal with two swarms of bees on my property. The first swarm moved into the outside wall of my garage through a tiny opening next to my electric meter. The second swarm settled in a tree in my back yard. Needless to say that was well beyond my area of expertise and required immediate attention! Both times, I hired a local live hive removal expert who came out and gently vacuumed up the bee colony up with a specially modified shop vac.
Wildlife living in your attic or basement is never good. To prevent critters from moving in, make sure that all openings are properly covered with sturdy screen. When it comes to rats and mice, it's amazing how quickly things can get out of control. My observation is that doing your own rodent abatement is an iffy DIY. I mean, you can try, but if you still see evidence after a few weeks, stand aside and letting the professionals do their job.
Focus On Clearing the Cluttered Storage Areas Inside Your Home
(Photo: Jane Kemp)
Over-cluttered attics, basements and garages often hold dirty little secrets. Rodents and rodent feces, mold and mildew, structural cracks, silverfish, spiders, moths, ants, termites, water damage, and dry rot to name a few. Trust me. I've been witness to it all. Effectively dealing with these issues is almost impossible until you declutter. Make a goal to work on removing clutter regularly. Focus on the getting rid of the easy stuff, and pass over anything that gives you pause for another day. I tell my clients that decluttering is like working out. At first it's hard, and you desperately want to stop every few minutes. But after a while your stamina can build to the point where decluttering becomes part of your regular routine.
Assemble your Team
Just about every homeowner needs a team. When I moved from Berkeley to El Cerrito nine years ago I brought my handyman and my gardener with me. My handyman is still with me, but a year into the move I had to find a new gardener. My garden here is huge compared to my old yard, and I am not able to properly take care of it on my own. My bright idea was to drive around the neighborhood identifying all the front yards that I liked, then keep my eyes open for their gardeners. It worked and that's how I found Raul, who is incredibly talented, efficient and artistic!
Here's a few ways to find your team:
Friends and relatives
Real Estate agents
School and religious listservs
Small local papers
Good old fashioned stalking
Protect your investment with Curb Appeal
Approach the curb appeal of your home with the same care and attention you take with your stock portfolio. I can always tell that a house will be going on the market when the messy front yard suddenly gets fixed up. But what if your house looked like that all the time? Curb appeal is no joke! It not only maintains the value of your home, it actually makes you money in the long run. Hire a gardener to clean up your yard thoroughly, at the very least in the fall and spring. Amend the soil and lay down mulch. Cut back bushes that are scraping against your house. Plant some perennials. Invest in an automated irrigation system. Spend the money to have an arborist professionally trim your larger trees. What I'm saying is, don't be that person who regularly checks their Fidelity account but has a half-dead, overgrown yard. Both are investments that need protecting!
To summarize, make your home water-tight, get a handle on your vegetation, deal with pests ASAP, declutter crowded storage areas, and assemble your team of helpers.
I'd love to hear what home maintenance you think is most important. Share them in the comments below so that we can all learn from each other!