HOW TO UNDERSTAND AND PROTECT YOUR INVESTMENT IN YOUR HOME
Your home will likely be the most important investment you make in the financial world so it is important to understand how to protect and maintain it. Your home’s systems are not that much different than those of the body; it is a series of structures and systems that work together to perform an overall function. The best method for understanding is to break it down into its individual components. There are three basic systems: cosmetic, structural and the energy efficiency. Each should be evaluated before purchase and on a continual basis to keep your home in tip top shape.
Why have inspections?
When you purchased your home you more than likely had a home inspection to help you make an informed purchase. However the inspection process should not end here, you should keep an eye on your home as the years go by. Your home is actually an ever changing and moving structure; it should be evaluated as you live in it, as it changes, as you change, and as the environment and elements affect it. The original inspection report can be used as a reference point giving you a sense of where your house is when you take ownership and as a tool to help you evaluate your home.
What are the structural elements of a home?
The structural elements of a home are literally what keep it standing and allow the other systems to function.
(1) the footers and foundation,
(2) the physical framing used to construct the walls, floors and the roof,
(3) the insulation,
(4) the HVAC system,
(5) the plumbing system,
(6) the electrical system and
(7) the exterior coverings.
Most if these systems require an industry expert to fully understand and evaluate, however it is important and helpful to have the basic knowledge while speaking with those professionals.
Footers and foundation are the concrete and cement blocks that hold the house solidly to the ground in order to prevent or minimize movement. Concrete footers rest on structural earth or an engineered portion of land that provides the very basis of stability for the rest of the house. The dirt or land must meet a PSI rating for stability when initially poured or it is dug down to reach structural dirt and then gravel or other material is used to bring the footer back to a certain level where concrete can be poured. The foundation is a series of cement blocks or stones that provide structural deflection for the framing members to rest on while they support the house above. The foundation might also have vents installed that help keep extreme cold out of the crawl space during very cold months. These may be automatic or manual.
Framing is the lumber used to build the skeleton of your home. This skeletal structure is a series of 2x4’s and 2x10’s and structural pieces such as LVL’s or steel beams that support the rest of the structural systems and form an organized web for the electricians and plumbers, etc to install their respective systems.
Insulation is fairly straight forward. It is the blanket that allows your home to retain and moderate its temperature. Insulation keeps heat in for winter and heat out in summer allowing your HVAC unit to function properly.
HVAC stands for Heating Venting and Air Conditioning and might be the most complicated to understand. It comprises the climate control portion of your home and can be supplied through a variety of systems. The most famous is the Heat Pump. This supplies both heat and air conditioning through heat exchange, it has 2 units in its system and is an enclosed system. Its basic function is to remove air from the house, change its temperature, and then return it to the house to reach the desired temperature. This is done through the external condenser and the internal air handler by changing the directional flow of the refrigerant. The external condenser uses this refrigerant and either heats or cools it depending on the signal from the thermostat. This refrigerant in turn is sent to the air handler which removes the air from the house and blows it over its condensing coils creating the desired temperature and then re-supplies that air to the house via insulated main and supply ducts. This supply and circulation conditions the house. Some homes have a separate heat and air conditioning units. A standalone air conditioning unit uses the same principal as the heat pump, but is a unilateral system that only cools the air and then supplies it to the home. In conjunction with this would be a heating unit that probably utilizes forced air or gravity. These both use the same principles by using a heating element that can be oil, electrical, or gas to heat the air and either have a blower to circulate the air or utilize the principal that hot air rises and allows the air to naturally circulate through passive air flow.
Plumbing consists of the supply and the drain waste and vent (DWV). The supply consist of the pressurized water supply for cold and hot. The DWV is a gravity system that allows your waste products to flow out of the house. The DWV utilizes a series of non-pressurized pipes that gradually connect together with vents along the system into a central exit pipe that goes into your city sewer system or a septic field. The vents are necessary in order for pressure to be released and for the liquid to flow, without them the liquid would get stuck in a vacuum and not flow. These can be seen on the roof as they are piped through the house, joined together, and penetrate the roof. If you have a city sewer system you have a main line that exits your home underground and into the sewer under the center of your street. If you have a septic system the main underground pipe flows into a large tank where the material is held until it breaks down and is then slowly leeched into smaller pipes that allow the liquid to go into the ground where it is naturally filtered and returned to the ground as a clean liquid. Water from a well has a pressure system which forces water into and expansion tank and then is distributed throughout your supply lines.
Electrical systems are comprised of a series of wires that are run throughout the house in a set of circuits that branch off from the main breaker box. Power is supplied to the home from the street, through a city meter and into the breaker box. These wires then loop from the breaker box to electrical needs such as outlets/switches and then run back to the breaker box completing the loop or circuit. These circuits are measured and “sized” from the breaker box according to expected capacity. Each circuit has a limit as to the amount of electricity it can handle and each circuit is designed and run with this in mind. For example a living room outlet circuit might be a 20 amp circuit where the expected load from a TV, stereo, lamps, and a cable box would not draw more than 20 amps. (if you look at an appliance such as a TV it will tell you on the label how many amps it requires to run) In addition, some circuits have one task and are called dedicated circuits. For example a stove would be on a dedicated circuit since it draws more amperage. If you have rooms where lights dim with a certain number of items running you might have an overloaded or an undersized circuit.
The basic exterior components of your home include the roof, wall cladding, and windows. Your roof is probably comprised of asphalt shingles that are installed in an overlapping and offset manner to keep water from penetrating your roofs wood sheathing which has a layer of tar paper. Some roofs use a ridge vent in conjunction with a soffit vent in order to allow heat to escape from the attic. Some older houses have gable vents that look like small slatted windows at the peak of gables. Wall cladding or siding can be made up of either horizontal or vertical pieces made of Masonite, Hardie, or vinyl siding along with trim pieces that allow for transitions around corners or changes in house features like your soffits. An additional option is either brick or stone, or even a combination of the materials installed in a stack format and provide the same protection. Windows come in several styles and are probably wood or vinyl and operate as a single or double hung, casement, or fixed. Windows let light and air in but also can be a source of unwanted air infiltration. Your exterior doors are probably made of wood, fiberglass, steel, or vinyl and their wear and tear will depend on the material.
What are the Cosmetic aspects of your home?
The cosmetics of your home are the everyday tangibles you interact with. These are floor coverings, wall paint, trim, cabinets, windows, etc. These components garner more glory than the others as these are what give people the most enjoyment in their home. These items are the most cared for and where most of the investment is spent proactively. As either new or experienced homeowners we all seem to understand the value in investing in these components to keep the house updated, maintain its value with the current real estate market, and for their shear enjoyment value. Updating ones house should be evaluated every 5-10 years, however during this time the existing improvements should be cared for through proper cleaning and maintenance.
What is energy efficiency?
Your home’s energy efficiency is defined as how much energy it takes for the systems to function for your house. The more energy efficient, the less power or energy it consumes. Most of us have heard this referred to as Energy Star Ratings. However there are other types of ratings and processes that can be used to improve even the oldest home’s performance. Newer homes and commercial buildings can have a HERS rating or LEED certification. These are different types and levels of a structure’s performance. It is definitely advisable to hire a certified expert for this type of evaluation. These contractors have been educated and certified on what to look for, how to look for, and how to suggest the small to large improvements for your home. An energy efficient audit might be one of the best things one can do to evaluate their home. It will tell you where you are losing heat which directly relates to money out of your pocket as well as the environment. Most of these inspections cost about as much as the initial home inspection and in the end pay off. Remember they can either include large or small fixes to your home, and sometime these small fixes can bring savings.
So how does a homeowner evaluate these elements?
Footers and foundations - Footers are not something that is easily evaluated but if you have problems with the footer it will more than likely manifest itself through cracks in your foundation that very slowly and progressively get bigger. Not all are structural in nature and could be the natural movement of the house. This can be achieved by walking around the house once a year and keep an eye for cracks or separations, if they seem to get bigger and you think If you think you might have a problem contact a structural engineer. An additional method is if you notice a door that is now sticking in its frame that did not before and there is a crack nearby, you might have a foundation problem. One last item to check are the foundation vents. Check these to make sure they have not come lose, have torn screens, and the vents till open and close.
Framing - If you don’t see any cracks or shifting of the walls your framing is doing its job. However sometimes the framing can shift due to weather and other factors, as it is mostly comprised of wood. Expansion and contraction is a natural element of how a house behaves in its environment. However if you see you have more than what would be considered normal, an evaluation should be considered by a professional. Cracks will manifest as visible shifts in the sheetrock, and if they seem to grow larger over time a structural engineer should be consulted.
Insulation is a fairly simple thing to evaluate. If your home seems to be struggling with its air conditioning or heating you might need to add more insulation in the attic and crawl space or simply an HVAC tune-up. While these may not be the most desirable improvements they are cost effective and give a very large return in energy efficiency. To evaluate simply look in your attic and crawl space to see how much insulation you have. Current code suggests R-38 for attics and R-19 in the floor/crawl space framing for our climate zone. If you do this update yourself, be sure to wear the proper safety equipment and watch where you walk in the attic. Be careful when walking in your attic, you can go through the ceiling as the sheetrock looks sturdy but will give way under small amounts of weight.
HVAC is the most difficult for a homeowner to troubleshoot. I recommend being proactive and have your unit on a service contract. About 50% of your power bill will go towards HVAC and its peak performance will keep that number as low as possible while prolonging the life of the unit. HVAC replacement can be one of the most costly expenses to incur and can be avoided through simple techniques. A service contract will normally have two checkups, scheduled around the change of each season. This is a tune up no different than your car or a doctor’s visit and will allow the service technician to diagnose any potential problems before they become bigger and more expensive. The other thing is to simply replace your filters once a month. I would recommend a basic filter and not one of the ultra allergen types, they can restrict air flow even when clean. Dirty filters can also restrict air flow to the point of taxing your system and causing its early demise. It may seem like an unnecessary expense but if you have to replace your unit when it prematurely breaks you will see the value too late.
Plumbing issues are fairly prevalent when there is a back up or clog. Most times it is simply the drain under the fixture that is clogged. However if this does not alleviate the problem you could have blockage or slow drains as the system comes together and becomes one larger pipe exiting the house to the street. There could be a crack in the main as it exits the house or from tree roots growing in the main underground sewer pipe. This type of evaluation would require a camera or snake to see what is going on in the pipe. If you have lots of large trees near the house, an annual drain cleanout to remove roots is recommended. Some of the basics for plumbing monitoring are: check in the cabinet for any small leaks that could damage the cabinet and check for leaky toilets that waste water. These are simple things to look for to prevent wasting money and to prevent costly repairs later.
Electrical is probably one of the hardest to evaluate. Keep an eye out for dimming lights, breakers that trip a lot under normal use, or GFCI outlets in wet areas that do not stay on under normal use. If it looks like you might have some of these problems you might have over loaded circuits that have too many appliances or fixtures running off of them. An older home may have circuits that were originally designed for fixtures that are different from today’s appliances. For newer homes simply rearranging fixtures or appliances in the rooms may alleviate a circuit overload. The solution for older homes is an evaluation by an electrician to see if you have expandable room in the breaker to add more circuits. In either case if you have questions you can have an electrician look at your breaker box and give you a fairly good evaluation of its load capacity.
Evaluations – Cosmetic
Proper cleaning with the right cleaners and methods is the best course of action for the home’s interior; this will extend their looks and usefulness. Most products can be cleaned with standard cleaning solutions but some require different types of cleaners. Some examples; you can clean tile with Mr. Clean or Tilex but you should not use this for your hardwoods, nor would you use soapy water that could ruin the floors, hardwoods require a Murphy’s Oil or similar type of cleaner to help protect them, and you should also be careful of abrasive cleaners like Tilex or Comet on a cultured marble countertop, etc. Best to do some research on the different products in your home.
One item you can check and easily repair is the caulking around your home. Caulk is used to bridge a gap where the two surfaces are made of differing material. The caulk can stick to either surface and close this gap to prevent water intrusion into places you cannot see. Places where caulk is used: countertop connection to the backsplash, around your tub or shower where tile or fiberglass meets the wall or floor and around the interior of windows where they meet the wood trim.
Lastly for cosmetic monitoring simply keep an eye on your home through the years. Change is sometimes very slow so we simply get used to it and do not notice the deterioration. Once a year do your own inspection to determine if your house needs updates. Remember your home is fairly solid but not indestructible; people are probably a home’s worst enemy right after water and the elements.
Exterior coverings can be evaluated quite easily by a homeowner. Starting from the top down looking at your roof in good sunlight each year will give you an indication of how it is weathering. All roofs weather each year from the suns effect, heat and cold changes, tree leaves and branches, wind, rain, and sleet and snow. Looking to see if there is any color change from the original color, any visible cupping of shingles, missing shingles, and possibly shingle granules in the gutter could mean it might be time to have it evaluated by a professional. You can also compare this to any notes made by your inspector at the time of purchase.
The Hardie or Masonite covering is painted once it is installed. Caulk is used to fill gaps where they meet and where they meet other materials such as windows. Once a year it is advisable to walk around your house on a sunny day to see if there is any separation or spaces appearing around your house where water could get behind the material and cause damage. This would also include any stone or brick facades where they meet windows, doors, or other materials. This easy repair can prevent some costly repair bills down the road. Be sure to use the right kind of caulk for proper performance. If you have vinyl siding, once again check where it meets dissimilar materials to make sure there are no gaps or separations that could allow water behind the vinyl. Wood windows need to be monitored for rot and paint peeling and chipping. Once they start to rot the whole window will need replacing and can be costly. One other item to check is the seal the windows make when closed. If there is air infiltration you can buy inexpensive weather-striping which is easy to install and prevent further heat loss. Vinyl windows once again need to be checked for caulk and sealing to the interior and exterior materials. These systems serve to protect your home from the direct onslaught of the elements and are sometimes neglected until they become larger problems. Once a year evaluation and monitoring helps prevent costly repairs. Foundation vents need to be checked periodically to make sure they still function and have not been damaged.
Evaluation – Energy Efficiency
This as discussed above is best done by a professional, but you can check weather-stripping at windows and doors, see if your thermostat needs replacing, check your insulation, and monitor your heating and cooling bill. If any of these seem to be out of sync with what you think should be happening, it is probably time for an energy audit.
After you purchase your home, don’t assume it will stay the same as when you moved in. A house begins to age as soon as it is built. The elements and we humans cause wear and tear, but with some monitoring and evaluation each year one can help minimize some of the potential damage and costs or repairs. Make sure investing in your home is a planned activity and not a reactionary one.
If you would like to learn more about your home a book I recommend is How Your House Works: A Visual Guide to Understanding & Maintaining Your Home by Charlie Wing