10 tips to avoid trouble and keep your home in good shape

10 tips to avoid trouble and keep your home in good shape

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Patch holes

Water damage to ceilings should be fixed only after the original problem – roof leaks – are addressed.

A DeWitt, Iowa, woman was upstairs in her home when she heard the sound of a “gushing waterfall” down in the basement.

She followed the sound to the laundry room and discovered that even though her washing machine was not on, the hose between it and the home’s water source had ruptured, allowing water to spew forcefully onto the floor.

The woman turned the water off at her home’s main shut-off, called a repairman and got the hose replaced. But had she not returned when she did, she would have had a huge mess. Water remains in the washing machine hose all of the time — the valve is in the machine itself — so if the hose breaks, water just keeps flowing.

Water in the wrong place inside your home is a big problem. So are overloaded electrical outlets that can cause a fire and trees that are growing so close to your home that the roots can crack the foundation.

Today, in the second of five special “Spring Around the House” editions of Home & Garden during April, we explore 10 top tips — some of them very common-sense in nature — that will prevent problems in your home.

1. Keep your gutters clean and make sure you have downspout extenders that carry the water at least three or four feet from your home.

Ill-functioning gutters “cause more damage than anything (else) I’ve seen,” said Lenny Wilkinson, the owner of Bettendorf Home Repair.

The purpose of gutters is to collect water from your roof and direct it away from your house via downspouts and downspout extenders. If water stays near the foundation, it can leak into your basement, causing water damage.

Second, if water finds its way under your sidewalks and driveway, it will heave the concrete during periods of freezing and thawing, Wilkinson said.

Third, if water splashes against wood siding that stays moist, you might be inviting termites, Wilkinson said.

A resident of Rock Island’s Broadway Historic District who had a big problem with termites said, “The secret to no termites is to make sure that there is no dirt touching wood and make sure you have no water standing up against the foundation.”

The ground immediately around your house — whether it is covered with plants, mulch or some kind of rock — needs to slope away from the foundation.

“Within the drip line of your house — first four feet — make sure the water runs away,” said Todd Harfst, a construction rehab supervisor for United Neighbors in Davenport who teaches a homebuyer class.

Also be wary of any dead trees or firewood in your yard, the Rock Island resident with termite damage said.

“A dead tree in the yard is a wonderful place for termites to get their start in your yard. Keep your fireplace wood stacked neat and tidy in a rack that does not touch the house.”

2. Have a plunger handy and know how to use it.

Although this is common-sense, some people aren’t educated in the value and use of a plunger, a tool used to break up clogs in toilets or sink/tub drains to keep them from running over.

“They end up calling Roto-Rooter for something they could have fixed in seconds,” said Paul Fessler, the construction director for Rock Island Economic Growth Corp., who teaches a homebuyer class in home maintenance.

If a plunger fails in your sink, the next do-it-yourself option is to use a chemical drain cleaner, so always have a container on hand.

The third option is to use a “snake,” or a plumber’s tool consisting of a long, flexible rod of spiraled wire for removing obstructions from pipes, etc. They can be purchased at hardware stores or home centers.

3. Know where your water shut-off is located.

In the example at the beginning of this story, the DeWitt woman was able to stop the water from gushing out of the broken hose by turning off her home’s water service entirely. Know where this shut-off is located.

Sometimes people who are leaving their homes for an extended period — say, spending the winter in Florida — turn off their water before leaving to preclude any problems while they are gone.

In a related matter, know where the water shut-off is located for each individual toilet and sink. That way, if the toilet/sink are overflowing, you can stop the problem from getting worse until you can fix it, without cutting water service to the entire house.

4. Do not ignore problems, such as a little wet spot on your ceiling.

By the time water has seeped through to your ceiling, it has gone through the sheathing under the shingles, followed the trusses down through the insulation and gotten to the drywall. At this point, it’s time to act immediately.

“If you wait too long, your roof will be rotted out,” Wilkinson said.

That’s why it’s important to periodically check your roof to see how the shingles are holding up. If they are worn, missing or curling, you need new shingles.

Left too long, a gap could develop, inviting not only water, but also critters such as raccoons.

5. Change your furnace filters monthly, especially in winter and especially if you have pets that shed.

“I’ve seen furnace filters that look like roadkill, like a big, flat furry object, because of all the hair,” Fessler said. “People will call to say their furnace is running day and night. They think their furnace is falling apart. But it just is not getting the air it needs.

“Keep changing them (the filters) and have a stack on hand,” he said.

6. Keep trees from growing against the foundation of your house.

Sometimes homeowners don’t notice that small trees have taken root next to their house until the trees get quite big. By that time, the roots likely are undermining the foundation and are so big that their removal will require hiring a company to cut the tree and grind out the roots, Fessler said. The homeowner might also have to hire a company to fix the foundation.

“If they had cut it (the tree) when it was little, there would have been no problem,” he said.

7. Don’t overload electrical circuits.

A fire last month in East Moline was attributed to an extension cord that shorted out because it was unable to handle a power overload. Fire officials said the residents ran an extension cord an extended distance from an outlet to a power strip and plugged in a television, space heater and other electronic equipment.

8. Maintain your safety alarms as well as smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

“It’s very tempting to pull the battery out when it (the detector) starts beeping,” Fessler said.

9. Think safety.

In addition to not overloading electrical circuits, there are a whole host of precautions to take to ensure safety.

-- Make sure you have grab bars in your shower or tub if your home has older occupants or people whose balance isn’t very good.

-- If you have a fireplace with a chimney, have it inspected annually. Common problems are creosote build-up or nests built by animals that have found their way inside. If these catch on fire, the fire could find its way to the frame of your house, setting it on fire as well.

-- Have your furnace inspected annually, too.

-- Keep handrails along steps in good repair.

-- If you have a loose tile at the top of your steps, fix it before it gives way and someone falls.

-- In cleaning your house, never mix a product that contains bleach with one that contains ammonia since that combination produces toxic vapors and is extremely dangerous.

If you accidentally become exposed to fumes from mixing bleach and ammonia, immediately remove yourself from the vicinity to fresh air and seek emergency medical attention. The vapors can attack your eyes and mucous membranes, but the biggest threat comes from inhaling the gases, which could kill you.

-- Take the exhaust tube off your dryer every six months and clean out any lint that has escaped from the lint trap into the tube. The dryer’s hot air could ignite such lint.

-- If you live in a house built before 1978, be aware that it likely contains lead-based paint and that most lead poisoning among children is in hand-to-mouth contact with very small particles.

That is, if you are moving a couch and happen to bump into a door frame, you could dislodge lead-based paint that will put dust on the floor, Harfst said.

10. Buy insurance.

Insurance will protect you against various losses, including those related to fire, wind or theft.

Most claims in the Quad-Cities during the past couple of years relate to wind and hail, said Glen Gerardy, an agent for State Farm in Rock Island.

Among fire claims, most can be traced to overloaded circuits (see above) or grease fires that got out of hand, he said.

Had the woman at the beginning of our story not caught her water problem in time, insurance likely would have covered the damage in her home because the hose break was “sudden and accidental.”

Still, Gary McAvan of McAvan Appliance Repair in DeWitt, the man who responded to the woman’s problem, recommends homeowners check their water hoses now and then, looking for bulges.

In addition, there are devices that can be installed on washing machines that shut off the water to the machine when it is not in use.

For more on what is — and is not — covered by insurance, see the accompanying story.

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