December 2, 2022

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Home maintenance fear? Here’s how to keep repair costs down with regular upkeep

Juli Adelman of Northeast Portland should be feeling confident about homeownership by now. Since remodeling a fixer-upper 16 years ago, she’s sold each of her past three properties at a profit, moving her up the real estate ladder.

A year ago, she purchased a century-old house in her goal neighborhood: Beaumont-Wilshire. Despite her time-tested DIY repair skills and her contractor father’s assurance she wasn’t buying a money pit, Adelman still feels nervous.

She wonders: What costly mystery may be ahead?

“It’s a totally sound investment and I’ve been pretty lucky at this so far,” she said, “but it’s still kind of a gamble. What if the sewer goes sideways?”

She’s not alone in having home repair fear.

A survey by the Seattle-based real estate marketplace Zillow found 75% of pandemic-era home buyers, who battled record-low inventory, rapidly escalating prices and brutal bidding wars, wish they had done things differently.

Many of those surveyed discovered that one of life’s biggest financial investments, their home, needs more work or maintenance than they anticipated. In a panic to have an offer accepted, some buyers agreed to not ask the seller to make repairs.

Unchecked repairs, however, can become a major drain on savings or even create the need to take on another loan, said Andrew Emerson, vice president of mortgage at OnPoint Community Credit Union.

“Denial isn’t bliss,” he said, adding that preventive maintenance is a way to reduce unnecessary expenses. “You get the most bang for your buck by taking care of your home.”

Repairs and major renovations can put pressure on home finances, especially if budgets are already stretched to pay for a larger mortgage along with rising property taxes, home insurance premiums, homeowner association fees and utility bills.

Skyrocketing inflation and spiking labor and building material costs for even small repairs can quickly change a functioning budget into a sinking one.

But simple fixes can sometimes keep big and small components of a home operating efficiently, extending their usefulness, often without bringing in a professional, said Carol Eisenlohr, who leads the Building Toward Better program for members of the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland.

She knows that few people enjoy vacuuming refrigerator coils to keep air flowing, but everyone wants kitchen appliances to be humming along when company’s coming.

“Things that aren’t working properly cause more damage, devalue the home over time and drive us crazy,” said Eisenlohr. “A little maintenance can make them last a lot longer.”

Saving money is the big incentive, she said. Replacing clogged furnace filters keeps motors running with less effort, cuts monthly electric bills and lengthens the time before replacements are needed.

But there are safety benefits, too. Stopping water leaks prevents mold. And a smart fix early on can put the brakes on a budget-busting disaster like a clogged drain flooding new carpet.

Divvying up routine maintenance duties over time and involving the entire household can make chores less of a pain, said Eisenlohr.

Money saved by reducing preventable repairs can be used to take everyone out for pizza or buy some other treat, she said.

“I get joy out of not having to rely on a technician to fix something that I can take care of any time,” said Eisenlohr.

She often finds solutions, like replacing a belt on her washing machine, by watching YouTube videos. “It’s empowering,” she said. “Changing out the fill valve in the toilet is very simple.”

Juli Adelman of Northeast Portland does a lot of her own home maintenance and improvements.Juli Adelman

Portland homeowner Juli Adelman is teaching her twin teenage sons the rewards of tackling home improvement and maintenance projects.

“I really am proud to own my home and want to take good care of it,” said Adelman, who was encouraged by her father to develop mechanical skills and fix things around the house. “I respond right away when I see something wrong and I am not afraid to ask for help when I need it.”

She and her then-husband bought their first home in 2006. The distressed property on Portland’s Northeast Alberta Street had mushrooms growing on interior walls. No down payment was required and equity grew as the market improved and their hard work paid off.

They parlayed that property into a nicer house in the nearby Beaumont-Wilshire neighborhood.

After a divorce, she bought a more affordable house on her own farther east, which she enhanced and then sold for more than she paid for it. In January 2021, she was able to “catapult,” she said, back to Beaumont into a Craftsman-style house.

“I always admired how my parents took care of their home and yard, and I want to instill that in my boys, so that’s what keeps me motivated,” she said. “Plus I like learning new things. Two weeks ago I re-caulked my shower by myself and it looks awesome.”

Adelman and her sons work together outside, too, moving the push reel mower, raking, pulling weeds and pruning to fill up the yard debris bin.

“Sometimes one boy has to jump on the yard debris to compact the leaves or clippings to make room for more,” she said. “Making sure the bin is full each week ensures us that we are staying up on the yard as we’re working together as a family.”

Over Eisenlohr’s 25-year career in the building industry, she has helped homebuyers troubleshoot issues under warranty. Her advice: Read the frequently asked questions about the product on the manufacturer’s website or in the user manual.

A furnace could stop working because the door is ajar or an air conditioning unit can freeze up by a clogged filter not letting air flow to the coils.

If you can’t fix it, you can at least explain the problem better to the repair service and make decisions to keep the damage from getting worse, Eisenlohr said.

“Your learning curve will improve over time,” she said, “and you will know your home better.”

Peace of mind comes from doing simple repairs, she said, adding, “By being proactive, you can’t avoid everything, but you can prevent a lot of things.”

Homes don’t like to be ignored. Rust, odd sounds, musty smell, pests or discolored spots signal a problem. Don’t wait until a part breaks or is damaged beyond repair.

For expert advice, Portland-area contractors participating in the Home Builders Association’s 2022 Tour of Remodeled Homes May 21-22 will explain the advantages of using resilient, weather-friendly products.

Visitors walking through five remodeled homes can hear about composite siding and newer paint products that last longer, scratch- and water-resistant flooring like luxury vinyl planks, and energy efficient upgrades.

Electrical and plumbing inspections require a professional, but a lot of maintenance work — like cleaning leaves out of gutters and downspouts to ensure proper drainage from the roof and foundation, and caulking air leaks around windows and door — is not costly if you do it yourself.

Here is a starter list of home maintenance duties that can be performed over time that won’t rob you of weekend leisure time.

Most basic home maintenance tasks can be handled with an Allen wrench, a box cutter, five-in-one painter’s tool, adjustable wrench, pliers, tape measure, screw driver set, hammer and power drill.

“The life of your home depends on making sure it’s constructed properly to keep moisture and weather out,” said the Home Builders Association’s Eisenlohr, who wrote a downloadable home maintenance checklist for Oregon home builder Legend Homes that includes these tips.

Water

  • Keep sink, bathtub, shower, toilet, washing machine, dishwasher and refrigerator drains clear and inspect valves and pipes for leaks that can cause mold, wood rot and other damage, and increase your water bill.
  • Condensation on windows and other signs of excessive moisture levels can cause damage over time and pose serious health problems. Use an air conditioner with a clean filter or a dehumidifier to help keep air dry in basements and damp spaces.

Air quality

  • Open windows when weather permits and turn on exhaust fans at other times to remove indoor pollutants.
  • Remove dust to improve air flow from heating registers, dryer vents and kitchen and bathroom exhaust filters. Vacuum inside the ducts of forced air systems.
  • Clean or replace air filters every three months or more often if it’s smoky outside.
  • Clear spiderwebs and dust from carbon monoxide and smoke detectors and security alarms, and replace batteries if needed. “I’ve seen people take the smoke detector down rather than put a battery in it,” said Eisenlohr. “People put maintenance off and don’t feel it’s important, but that could be a bad choice.”

Outside

  • Inspect weatherstripping around doors and windows for proper seal and make sure doors to the outside shut tightly. Caulking helps keep warm air inside during winter and cool air during summer.
  • Remove mud and dirt from the siding and check for holes and breakage. Repair siding and masonry surfaces as soon as possible.
  • Inspect exterior siding and trim for peeling or flaking paint. “Paint protects the siding and caulking plugs gaps that could allow water into the wall,” said Eisenlohr.
  • The south and west sides of your home may need more paint care, while the north side might need to be cleared of moss growth.
  • Inspect your roof for problems that lead to leaks and possible dry rot and structural damage from water. Secure any loose shingles or siding. Treat pests that can cause roof damage.
  • Examine the foundation walls for cracks, leaks or signs of moisture. Cracks in the foundation or masonry are normal, but changes in the size of the cracks might indicate a more extensive problem.

— Janet Eastman | 503-294-4072

[email protected] | @janeteastman

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