Home Maintenance - Article

Return to Home Maintenance Services

HOUSEWATCH: Tasks to Take Seriously; New-Home Maintenance Is the Duty of Owners
Katherine Salant, The Washington Post, 3/15/97

We all know there's no free lunch. But how about a no-maintenance house?

It doesn't exactly exist either, much to the chagrin of many new-home buyers. Even when maintenance requirements are acknowledged, many new-home buyers think the builder's limited warranty covers this aspect of homeownership.

It's time for a reality check. Builders do not maintain houses, homeowners do. And if they don't, new-home buyers can lose the benefit of their builder's limited warranty, should the cause of a structural defect be traced to inadequate maintenance.

What are these maintenance chores-relatively few in number-that many new homeowners regard as odious? In interviews with local building officials and executives and customer service managers of both large and small home-building firms in the Washington area, there were several tasks that were mentioned frequently.

Some of the required maintenance is particularly applicable to new houses, such as those related to ground settlement. In most instances, the ground around a house settles during the first year. New soil must be added to ensure positive drainage away from the house to prevent water from seeping into the basement.

Usually only a relatively small amount of dirt is required to correct this, but in some cases soil settles as much as one foot, and several cubic yards must be added, according to Randy Wyrick, the manager of Montgomery County's residential inspection program. Most builders in the Washington area will correct the slope around the house at the end of the first year. After this, the homeowner must maintain it.

This is not as straightforward as it sounds. The minimum 2 percent slope allowed in some area jurisdictions looks essentially flat, and some homeowners may not realize that there is any slope they are supposed to maintain, Wyrick said.

Erring on the side of caution and adding extra dirt to create a definite and visible slope away from the house would seem a reasonable approach, but this can make things worse. If you don't leave at least eight inches of space between the ground and the bottom of your siding, you can be inviting termite problems, he said.

Homeowners who want to install an outdoor deck must ensure that the proper slope is maintained underneath it, noted Chip Devine, Vice President for Construction at Coscan Homes.

Maintaining a proper grade further away from the house also can affect whether a house stays dry.  If your lot has a swale - a shallow ditch - running through the side of the backyard to carry surface runoff, it must be retained, not filled in or used in some seemingly creative way. For example, regarding the swale as a "natural irrigation system" and planting a vegetable garden next to it will change the grade and can rechannel the water into your basement.

Some buyers mistakenly think the builder will nurture the initial grass seeding, but this is always a homeowner's responsibility, as is regular mowing. If you use a sprinkler to water your grass, make sure it doesn't hit the house; this can also cause water problems inside.

Another maintenance chore for new homeowners is recaulking. This will be an ongoing task through out the life of the house, but in the first year more will be required because of settlement, shrinkage of wood framing and trim, and natural stress cracks. Many buyers see an interior trim price pull away from the wall and think their house is falling apart, several builders said.

Recaulking in the rooms with water - the kitchen and bathrooms - is not cosmetic, however. It must be done on a regular basis to prevent water from "roaming" and getting into walls where it can cause structural damage.

Jim Kettler, President of The Kettler Brothers building firm described water as "the number one enemy of your house."

In the case of the bathtub, not only does the shrinkage of the stud wall behind it affect the caulking, the combined weight of the water and the occupant (as much as 700 pounds if the tub is full of water) also tends to pull the tub away from the wall. In the bathroom, owners need to recaulk around the tub, shower and sink areas where the backsplash meets the wall, in the kitchen, buyers need to recaulk where the backsplash meets the wall and around the sink.

Homeowners also must attend to recaulking on the exterior of the house. The particulars here depend on the materials used on your house, so you must check with your builder. With brick siding, both windows and doors must be recaulked. With vinyl or aluminum siding, vinyl or aluminum windows do not require recaulking, but some builders recommend it anyway. The rim around the roof and any ventilation pipes projecting out of the roof also may require attention.

Most area homebuilders will recaulk once during the first year, usually near the end of that time frame (or February). After this, the homeowner is responsible.

Inside the house, bathrooms and kitchens should be checked at least annually. The frequency of the exterior recaulking depends in part on exposure. Most severe weather in the Washington area comes from the northwest, so caulking on walls facing this direction requires more attention; caulking on walls facing south tends to dry out faster. The severity of the weather also can affect the recaulking schedule. When the temperature fluctuates wildly and frequently, exterior materials such as vinyl and aluminum expand and contract constantly and this often causes caulking seals to crack sooner.

During the initial period of material shrinkage, nail pops will appear in the drywall. At the end of the first year, most builders here will fix them, but only once. After this, nail pops are the homeowner's responsibility.

Another complaint heard from new homeowners is about flaking driveway concrete. This invariably is a homeowner maintenance problem however. In severe winter weather area highway departments salt the roads; if you park in the driveway of your home, the salt on your tires can cause the driveway surface to flake. The telltale sign, one builder said, is four flaking spots in the driveway where the owner always parks a car.

Parking your car on the concrete slab inside the garage is less likely to damage the concrete because the slab has a smoother, harder finish than the driveway and because owners are more likely to shovel away slush so that it won't be tracked inside. By code, builders are required to have a broom finish for the driveway; this leaves tiny grooves where salt can collect easily.

New homeowners also have to perform the same maintenance that owners of older homes must do. Gutters should be cleaned out at least once a year, usually in the spring.

Gutter screens (which few if any builders routinely install or even offer as an option) will keep out bigger leaves, but leaf fragments still can get into t he gutters, causing them to clog and overflow. In the winter, this can cause ice dams and roof leaks. Should this happen, even on your new house, you will be responsible, not the builder.

Other routine exterior maintenance includes draining the water out of the exterior faucets before cold weather sets in each fall and periodic repainting of wood windows and doors.

Routine interior homeowner maintenance includes checking a wood-burning fireplace to make certain that it draws properly, checking the damper function and closing the damper when the fireplace is not in use.

Homeowners with gas fireplaces should have them checked annually by a certified technician.

To protect the plumbing and prevent clogging, homeowners should never put cooking grease down drains. Should the pipes get clogged anyway, do not use powdered Drano or any other crystallized drain cleaner. "It's like putting a teaspoon of concrete down your pipes," said Pat Aveni, and executive with Aveni Associates, a plumbing subcontracting firm in Woodbridge. "It can adhere to the pipe lining and eventually cause a complete blockage."

Aveni also advised homeowners not to put any type of toilet bowl cleaner in the toilet tank because it will eventually destroy the rubber components.

Another important chore is changing the air filters in the fan unit of the heating and cooling system.

During the first four to five months, these should be changed every two to three months.

To eliminate this chore, homeowners can get an electronic air cleaner or a Space Guard, but it too must be cleaned periodically.