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One of the first lessons you learn when you buy a house in New York is that your little piece of the proverbial pie is in a constant state of decay. It’s a little disheartening, and it can feel overwhelming, but the key to staying on top of all the things that can (and in some cases, eventually will) go wrong with your house, is regular maintenance.
There’s a lot to keep an eye on, inside the house and out. One of the ways to manage all of the tasks is to set up a schedule of seasonal maintenance, tackling a given job at the time of year when it makes the most sense to do so. This approach will not only help you catch big issues that need to be addressed, but will keep you on top of little ones—like a leaky toilet—that can turn into big and costly problems if left unchecked.
To find out the “musts” of house maintenance, we talked to Dan DiClerico of HomeAdvisor, an online marketplace that helps connect service professionals with homeowners to complete household projects. We've written before that moisture is one of the main foes of any homeowner, and DiClerico backs us up.
“Someone once joked to me, ‘There are 10 things that can go wrong with a house; 15 of them are caused by water,'” he says.
Some jobs you can do yourself if you like. For others, it’s probably best to call in a professional. For example, you probably want to leave clearing out chimney flues to those trained in such matters. Spring and fall are when a lot of the work should get done. HomeAdvisor has a nifty calculator that gives estimates, by zip code, of what different jobs will cost.
Without further ado, here’s what to do, and when to do it, to keep your house in tiptop shape.
Fall is largely about prepping for winter weather and the increased time spent inside that comes with it.
Check the roof
The roof is a key area to keep an eye on, as it is a prime spot for water to get in and cause problems such as rotting wood and mold, not just in an attic space but on interior walls. Look for any loose shingles or damage and have them repaired.
Install or check attic insulation
Insufficient attic insulation causes heat to escape through the roof, which can lead to what are called ice dams, damaging deposits of ice formed from melted snow that freeze at the outer edge of the roof. Those wintry icicle displays may be pretty, but they're also a sign of a not-so-healthy roof. The entire surface of the attic should have at least 11 inches of fiberglass or rock wool insulation, or eight inches of cellulose insulation. Be sure to insulate the attic hatch, as well as the floor, and use caulk and foam sealant to close any air leaks around recessed lights in the ceiling below the attic, since even small cracks can allow hot air to reach the roof.
Service the boiler
The boiler is heading into a season of heavy use, so it’s a good idea to have a professional service it. Have the filter changed, and inspect it for any cracks in the heat exchange, which will not only make it less efficient, but could be a safety issue if carbon monoxide is escaping.
Fertilize the lawn
You can fertilize your lawn at other times of the year, but DiClerico says that if you only do it once a year, fall is the time, as it settles in for the winter. If you're going for a fall fertilization, do it before Halloween.
Trim shrubs and bushes
Cut any dead wood out and trim back trees and shrubs to promote healthy growth in the spring. (Some plant species such as certain hydrangeas and clematises bloom on what's referred to as old wood—growth from the previous season—so do some research before cutting to be sure.)
Weatherstrip windows and doors
Take a walk around the house and check the seals of windows and doors to make sure your house is as energy efficient as possible. If you have a forced air system, it’s worth having a professional take a look at the duct work and seal any holes through which conditioned air can escape, costing you money. If you feel that your energy bills are suspiciously high, DiClerico says you can hire an energy auditor who will depressurize the house to determine the location of any leaks. The on-the-cheap method is to light a stick of incense and hold it up to spots where you suspect air may be escaping. Recessed lighting is a common culprit for leaks.
Inspect brownstone mortar
Live in an older house such as a brownstone or limestone townhouse? Many older houses in New York, including brownstones, have mortared-stone foundation walls. The mortar gets loose over time, compromising the structure and creating drafts. Hire a pro to scrape out the old stuff and pack the joints with fresh mortar.
Check seals on faucets and toilets, with an eye towards water conservation and avoiding water damage. Check under sinks for leaks and damage as well.
Seal any points of entry
As temperatures drop, critters head inside. Mice can squeeze through holes as small as a dime, so seal any openings with steel wool.
Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors
Test smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and change batteries.
Fireplace and chimney
Have your fireplace inspected and/or cleaned to make sure it’s in good repair and venting properly.
Clean range hood filters
These filters collect grease, which makes them less effective over time. Head into the heavy cooking season by either cleaning or replacing them. To clean, submerge the filters in a mix of hot water, degreasing dish soap, and and 1/4 cup of baking soda for about 10 minutes, then scrub. If the damage is not too bad, you can probably get a way with running the filter through the dishwasher.
Inspect fire extinguishers
It's not a bad idea to do this every season, but increased kitchen activity in the winter, along with holiday candles make winter an especially good time to make sure yours are up to snuff. Check the pressure gauge on the extinguisher (the needle should be in the green range) and inspect the nozzle, handle, hose for any cracks or missing pieces. If you find any, get a new one, and if you used the extinguisher, it should be recharged. Extinguishers are good for five to 15 years, and most will have the date of manufacture printed on the bottom.
Check caulking around tubs and showers
Inspect for faulty seals and black spots and repair if needed.
Turn off pipes to outdoor faucets
As you may remember from science class, water expands when it freezes, which could mean some broken pipes if you don't close the lines to external faucets.
Much of spring maintenance is related to controlling the rainwater the season brings.
Take a look at the roof again
Check the roof for any damage caused over the winter, and make any needed repairs.
Clean the gutters, and all things related
You want to make sure that when the rain comes, it goes. DiClerico advises that the goal is to get water five feet from your house, so that it's clear of the foundation. Clear the gutters, gutter guards, and downspouts of any debris such as leaves and sticks.
Check the foundation
For newer houses with poured concrete foundations, do an annual visual inspection, ideally in the spring. Be on the lookout for cracks that are wider than 3/16 of an inch. Mark them with tape and monitor the progress over the coming months. Signs of bulging and buckling are major red flags that should be checked at once by a structural engineer.
Service central air components
If you have central air, maintaining air conditioning units will increase their efficiency. Clean the filter and flush the condenser lines. DiClerico recommends hiring a pro for this, but says homeowners can clear the area around the condenser of any debris in the spring.
Repair or replace window screens
Toss any screens with holes and replace to prevent bugs, birds, and squirrels from coming in.
Inspect for pests
As the weather warms, pests such as termites and carpenter ants emerge. Sweep any debris away from the house, as it encourages insect and other pests. If you have firewood stored outside, keep it away from the house, as it’s also a prime place for pests to gather.
Inspect and clean the deck
If you have a deck, now is the time to power wash it (do not use a power washer on the highest setting, DiClerico says), and if it’s elevated, inspect for any loose boards, nuts, bolts, or nails, and reinforce as needed.
During the year’s warmest months, you want to tend to the places that work hardest at that time of year, and other odd and ends.
Vacuum the refrigerator condenser coils
Located either on the back or at the bottom of the front of the refrigerator, these coils can get pretty dirty, making the appliance less efficient and possibly even becoming a fire hazard. Unplug the fridge before you do this.
Clean the garbage disposal
Flush out the disposal with cold water and baking soda.
Monitor mold and mildew
Summer humidity can foster mold and mildew, particularly in the basement, so keep an eye out for any evidence of a developing problem. Should one crop up, a dehumidifier can help.
Check and clean the dryer vent
Clear this and any other exhaust vents.
Perform any paint touch-ups and repairs the exterior needs
Take a walk around the house and do a visual inspection, noting any issues.
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