As I write this article, there is a man named Bob hammering large holes into the plaster ceiling in my entryway. If you were here, you'd smell what I'm smelling — the acrid odor of wet plaster, rusty pipes and the decades of black goo that has clogged them to a standstill. Bob is breaking up the ceiling to remove a few feet of 85-year-old cast-iron plumbing that's leaking tub water from the upstairs bathroom. With every strike of his hammer, I see dollar signs.
As a homeowner, your greatest fear is that some unnoticed issue — a clogged gutter, a cracked foundation or a leaky roof — will snowball into a catastrophic fail that costs you thousands of dollars. Lucky for us, we invested in a home warranty that covers most of the major homeowning headaches, but not all of them. The ceiling leak is paid for, but if something goes wrong with the sewer line or air conditioner unit outside, that's our problem. Our big, expensive problem.
Maintenance is the best way to avoid the most costly home repairs. A few hours on the ladder cleaning out the gutters could save you thousands in foundation repairs. A quick application of sealant on the driveway could buy a few more years before you have to repave the whole thing. We've assembled a list of the 10 most expensive types of home repairs and the best do-it-yourself maintenance tips to avoid breaking the bank.
Fixing a Foundation
Water is a killer. It seeps through concrete, settles in basements, sprouts mold and empties wallets. The very worst thing that water can do is weaken your foundation, causing the foundation walls to crack, settle and spread havoc to the rest of the house. The cost of repairing and sealing a busted foundation can start at $10,000 and can go as high as $40,000 [source: Edge].
The best way to avoid this extremely costly repair is to keep water far away from the foundation. When a home is constructed, the ground around the foundation should slope slightly away from the house. If not, rainwater will pool around the foundation and exploit any structural weakness to seep its way into the house. If you see standing water where the house meets the ground, consider applying soil to create the right slope.
Clogged gutters and downspouts are also trouble spots. Make sure that rainwater can flow easily from the roof into the gutters, down the downspouts and away from the house. A simple solution is to add downspout extensions that discharge water 5 to 10 feet (1.5 to 3 meters) from the foundation [source: Edge].
While you're busy defending your foundation against water damage, don't forget about the roof. Just like the foundation, it is highly susceptible to leaks, rotting or worse. Lost shingles and spot leaks are easy enough to fix for a few hundred dollars, but if the damage is too extensive — or dangerous — you might have to replace the entire roof. That could run you between $3,000 and $12,000, plus the cost of removing the old roofing materials and fixing any damage to the interior of the home [source: HomeAdvisor].
Again, prevention and regular maintenance are key to avoiding costly roof repairs. Make a careful review of your roof at least twice a year, perhaps while you're up there cleaning the gutters. Look for missing shingles, tears and other damage. Also pay close attention to the flashing around the chimney and exhaust vents. Flashing is a metal or plastic sheeting that provides a watertight seal over the cracks between the chimney and the roof surface. If sections of flashing are missing or damaged, they need to be replaced immediately.
If you have an unfinished attic, carefully inspect the wood panels directly under the roof for signs of moisture, mold, algae or active leaks [source: Kirchheimer]. If you have a finished attic, look for signs of water seepage like bubbled paint on the walls or stains on the ceiling. It's better to pay for a quick repair than to let a slow leak turn into a total nightmare.
Sometimes I wonder if it would be cheaper to install a giant retractable umbrella over the entire house rather than deal with the incessant threat of water damage. If your home is partially or fully covered in wood, aluminum or vinyl siding, water can sneak past damaged sections, leading to rot, insect invasions and interior damage. Spot repairs to individual panels of siding usually won't cost more than a couple of hundred dollars, but a full-on replacement of your entire square footage can run on average $10,000 [source: HomeAdvisor].
To protect yourself, do a thorough walk-around of your house every six months, looking for cracks or holes in the siding, plus missing or damaged caulking around windows and doors. Also ensure that all tree branches are a few feet away from the side of the home [source: Kirchheimer]. Nothing can rip off a piece of siding like a storm-tossed branch. Wood siding is much more susceptible to rot and insect damage than aluminum or vinyl, so look closely for pealed paint and pockmarked sections. When you replace a section of siding, first lay down some waterproof polyethylene paper like Tyvek to prevent future leaks.
Replacing an HVAC Unit
HVAC stands for heating, ventilation and air conditioning. It's also shorthand for "Here's my Visa and cash." If you don't properly maintain your furnace and air conditioning units, they could require expensive repairs or die altogether. A gas furnace alone costs between $1,000 and $2,000 at Home Depot, but you'll pay between $4,000 and $8,000 for a professional furnace installation [source: HomeAdvisor].
The best way to avoid a furnace or air conditioner failure is to conduct maintenance on your units every six months. An HVAC professional will come to your home and run through a checklist that includes lubricating all moving parts, tightening electrical connections, clearing out the condensate drain in the air conditioner, checking refrigerant level and cleaning any dirty coils or fixtures [source: Energy Star]. Left alone, any of these issues will lower the efficiency of your system and cause premature wear on components.
Another thing you can do to improve the efficiency and longevity of your HVAC system — plus improve air quality in your home — is to replace the air filter at least once every 90 days. You might want to replace it more frequently if you have allergies or pets. The pros recommend the newer high-efficiency pleated filters [source: Trattner].
Fixing a Broken Water or Sewer Line
As a homeowner, you never, ever want to see your water or sewer line face to face. If you are staring directly at one of these large pipes — typically buried several feet below your front lawn — then something has gone terribly wrong.
Your water and sewer lines connect your home to the public water and sewage systems (assuming you don't have your own septic tank). Your city or town's liability for the system ends at the street; homeowners are responsible for the length of pipe underneath their property. The cost of physically repairing or replacing a broken water or sewage line isn't going to break the bank — somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000. What's really going to cost you is cleaning up the mess [source: HomeAdvisor].
When a main water line breaks, it creates an underground flood that seeps up to your lawn, creating huge marsh-like puddles. To get to the source of the leak, crews will have to excavate into your lawn and possibly under trees and driveways. After you pay for repairing the water line, you'll pay to replace the section of driveway and re-landscape the lawn, another several thousand dollars literally down the drain.
If you own an old house, it's smart to carry water and sewer line insurance and to have your lines inspected annually for any signs of leaks or cracks. Also, check with the water and sewage utility company before digging deep into your lawn for a landscaping or home improvement project [source: HomeAdvisor]. You'd hate to crack that pipe yourself.
Replacing a Deck
A wooden deck adds value to your home and provides the perfect setting for summer cookouts. But if you fall behind on routine maintenance, your deck could fall prey to rot or fall apart completely. The cost of maintaining a deck is less than $100 a year, but the average cost of replacing it from the ground up is $7,000 to $10,000 [source: HomeAdvisor].
The first step to maintaining a healthy deck is to keep it clean. In the spring, clear out all leaves and twigs from between the floorboards and scrub down every wood surface with a purchased deck cleaning solution or a homemade mix of bleach and water. Once the deck dries, either apply a wood stain to refresh the color, or go straight to the sealant. Sealant is what keeps moisture out of your wood and prevents rot [source: Toht].
At least once a year, conduct a full inspection for any sign of rot. Use a screwdriver and poke the wood gently to find soft spots. (If you can push the screwdriver more than a 1/4 inch or 6 millimeters into the wood, you have rot). Pay particular attention to the support posts and joists beneath the deck. Inspect the bottom few inches of support posts where they meet the ground and come into contact with water. If you find anything that doesn't look right, call in a carpenter to take a look [source: Toht].
Replacing a Septic System
If you live out in the country beyond the reach of a municipal sewage system, you probably have a septic tank on your property. Septic tanks work just like a city's sewage treatment facility, separating the solids and fats from household waste and allowing the leftover liquid to seep into a drainfield where beneficial bacteria complete the process.
Septic systems require some special care and maintenance that city folk take for granted. If you flush the wrong chemicals down the drain or fail to pump out your tank, you could end up with a system-wide failure. The cost of digging up the old system and installing a new one could cost anywhere from $2,000 to more than $15,000 [source: Huber].
Therefore, you should have your septic system inspected annually by a professional. He will check the water level in your tank and measure the level of solids on the bottom and greasy scum on the top (lovely job, isn't it?). In general, the inspector will advise that you pump out the tank every three to five years, but it could be more often depending on your household. For example, using a garbage disposal in your sink adds more solids to the system [source: EPA].
In between inspections, look for signs of septic troubles, including:
- Backed-up toilets and foul smells in the house
- Standing water or wet soil in yard above the tank or drainfield
- A patch of bright green grass above the septic tank
These symptoms could point to clogs or leaks in the system.
Replacing a Driveway
Asphalt driveways take a beating. Not only must they withstand the weight of large vehicles, but they must suffer through the seasons: cold and ice in the winter and extreme heat and rain in the summer and spring. It's no surprise that asphalt driveways are prone to cracking and crumbling if left unprotected. The average cost of installing a brand-new driveway is around $5,000, but don't forget the added expense of digging up and hauling away the old one [source: HomeAdvisor].
The best way to preserve your asphalt driveway is to keep it sealed against the elements. When the weather is hot and dry, give the driveway a good scrub with a mild mixture of warm water and laundry detergent. Once it's dry, apply a layer of driveway sealer. You'll need a special squeegee to spread the sealer evenly. Don't drive on the driveway for 24 to 48 hours until the sealer has a chance to cure [source: Lowes].
Repairing Fire or Smoke Damage
More than a third of American homes use a fireplace or wood stove as a primary heat source. But sadly, 36 percent of home fires in rural areas of the U.S. are sparked by faulty fireplaces, causing millions of dollars' worth of damage and sometimes loss of life [source: U.S. Fire Administration].
The good news is that you can protect your family and your home from smoke and fire damage by taking some simple safety precautions. The first and most important step is to keep your chimney clean. Have a chimney sweep inspect and clean your fireplace and chimney at least once a year. Make sure the chimney cap — the metal sheet covering the top opening of the chimney — is in place and that no bird nests or debris are clogging the opening.
When the fireplace is empty and clean, open the damper and look up through the chimney [source: Trattner]. You should be able to see daylight. If not, you could have a dangerous buildup of creosote — partially burned wood ash — clogging the flue. Creosote is highly flammable and can cause a chimney fire that can spread to the rest of the house.
One of the best protections against a house fire is also the easiest — replace the batteries in your smoke detectors at least twice a year.
Fixing Damage from Fallen Trees
That towering white oak tree in your front yard sprouted from an acorn when your great-great-great-grandmother was in diapers. It provides cooling shade in the summer and adds thousands of dollars to your property value, not to mention it's majestic and beautiful. But under the wrong conditions — high winds, lightning or heavy ice and snow — falling limbs from that beloved oak tree could cause serious damage to your house or vehicles. If your homeowner's insurance is stingy, you could end up paying tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket for repairs.
Again, an ounce of prevention is worth a metric ton of cure. For large trees like mature oaks and elms, call in a professional tree service to inspect and prune the tree every few years. The tree service folks will be able to spot and diagnose disease problems that could weaken the tree and expose it to strong winds. They can also cut back limbs that are growing dangerously close to the house or use cables to strengthen limbs and trunks against stormy weather [source: Gordon].
For lots more homeowner tips and money-saving ideas, check out the related HowStuffWorks articles on the next page.
Old houses have an undeniable charm, but there are inherent issues that can turn owning one into a nightmare. Knowing what to watch for is key.
Author's Note: 10 Home Repairs That Can Seriously Break the Bank
I wasn't kidding about the plumbing job. We bought an old house because we fell in love with the wood floors, stained glass windows and old-fashioned details. What we haven't loved is the continuous string of plumbing, electrical and HVAC problems that plague an 85-year-old house. Luckily, nothing has been catastrophic and our home warranty has covered just about all of it. Still, researching this article has been a wake-up call. I'm no fan of ladders, so the gutters have gone un-cleaned in the two years since we've lived here. Now that I know more about the dangers (and cost) of foundation damage, I'm definitely going to clear those gutters out in the spring and invest in some downspout extensions to keep rainwater away from the house. When it comes to inspecting the flashing around the chimney on the roof, I think I'm going to skip the ladder and invest in a good pair of binoculars.
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- HomeAdvisor. "How Much Does It Cost to Build a Deck?" (Dec. 18, 2013) http://www.homeadvisor.com/cost/outdoor-living/build-a-deck/
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- Trattner, Douglas. "How to Make Sure Your Fireplace is Safe." HouseLogic (Dec. 18, 2013) http://www.houselogic.com/home-advice/fireplaces-chimneys/how-make-sure-your-fireplace-safe/
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