For many, homeownership is the fulfillment of a dream, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be a serious pain in the you-know-what. Even though it can save you money in the long run, keeping up with home maintenance can be exhausting and costly. But experts say there are still certain tasks you should prioritize. Whether you have the know-how to do it yourself or have to call in the pros, here are some gaffes experts warn you to guard against.
It’s easy to take gutters for granted, but experts are unanimous: don’t. “While gutters may seem like they can’t cause much damage, if the home’s gutters are leaking or clogged, this can cause water to not drain properly, which leads to erosion and cracks in the foundation,” says Kam Gondek, president of Gutter Pros in Chicago. “This, in turn, causes basement flooding and a world of other very costly issues.” Gondek also warns that water trapped in clogged gutters can expand during very cold weather, potentially causing gutters to fall. The solution? Gondek recommends a yearly cleaning, just after most leaves have fallen, to make sure there are no obstructions.
A pressure washer seems like an efficient way to keep your home looking fresh, but a regular old garden hose might be the better bet. “A pressure washer can actually damage your exterior elements, as it may strip the paint off of your siding or loosen your shingles,” says Constantine Anest, owner of Ethos Roofing & Restoration in Denver. “This may lead to further property damage, as stormwater will now have easy access to the underlying layers of your home’s exterior.” If you just can’t resist the pressure washer, be sure to use caution, urges Albert Lee, founder of Home Living Lab. “The pressure washer should be used at a 40 degree angle to avoid head-on pressure,” Lee says. “When dealing with fragile surfaces like wood, homeowners can also opt for a low-pressure nozzle and maintain a distance of 6 inches away from the surface.”
“It amazes and slightly scares me how many adults don’t know about dryer vent lint and the hazards it can produce for your family and home,” says David Drab, owner of Strong Wall Construction in Maryland. “Dryer vents can build up with laundry lint, which is highly flammable. A telltale sign it might be time to clean your vent is if your clothes are taking longer than usual to dry, indicating a clogged vent is present.” Drab recommends having the dryer vent cleaned at least once a year, but says large households that do a lot of laundry may need to do it two or three times a year.
There’s nothing quite like a yard full of lush, mature trees, but experts urge homeowners to keep an eye on them. “Trees can become a major liability if not properly cared for,” cautions Michael Clarke, founder of home management platform Pulled. “Large branches can fall onto roofs or windows and cause damage from wind or heavy snow.” Of course, trees are also a favorite conduit for creepy crawlies and other pests. “Branches too close to your roof provide rodents easy access, which can then create a way to enter your home’s attic, destroying your insulation,” says Andy Lindus, chief operating officer of Wisconsin-based Lindus Construction.
Need help cutting back trees or handling other household maintenance tasks? Check sites like Thumbtack to find professionals in your area.
Products such as Drano are a convenient way to clear a stubborn clog from your sink or shower drain, but plumbers almost universally urge caution. “Chemical detergents are the worst enemies of every bath or kitchen sink,” says Stephany Smith, plumbing engineer at MyPlumber in the U.K. These clog cleaners can actually just “push the clog down the pipeline, causing even more stubborn obstructions to deal with.” That means you may yet end up paying a plumber a few hundred bucks to unblock the drain. A better DIY solution for stubborn clogs, Smith says: A drain snake that can physically remove the blockage.
Join the club if you’ve completely ignored the valves under your sinks or behind your toilets. While common, that negligence could be very costly if it goes on too long, experts warn. The valves have a “vital role in cutting off the water supply when you are away for a long time or need to stop water if there’s a pipe leak, appliance fault, or fixture installation,” Smith says. “Clean rust, dirt, and debris off the valve by using a mixture of soap and water. This is a simple five-minute chore that can prevent a water-damage situation.” Smith also recommends turning the valve on and off once every six months to make sure it hasn’t gotten stuck in one position, and replacing it every five years.
We rely on our heating and cooling systems to keep us comfortable throughout the year, so why do so many of us turn a blind eye to routine maintenance? Brandi Andrews, owner of National Air Warehouse, says regular HVAC upkeep includes keeping up with filter changes, ensuring units are clean and free of debris, and bringing in experts to do an annual checkup. “If you fail to do this, your machines will begin to perform at a lower level and could eventually stop working altogether,” Andrews warns. “Regular maintenance on these units is important and should be addressed on a yearly basis.”
Remember, not every cleaner is suited to every surface. Cristina Miguelez, remodeling specialist at Fixr, warns that two of homeowners’ favorite cleaners, vinegar and bleach, can cause trouble if you’re not careful. Bleach, for instance, “damages living finishes on metals, often casting severe discoloration.” And vinegar, everyone’s favorite natural cleaner, “is extremely acidic,” she warns. “It can remove the weaker particles on a stone countertop or floor or it can remove some of the weaker particles on a bronze, brass, or copper metal finish. When this happens, you will see dulling or etching of the surface of the stone or metal.” She recommends opting for commercial cleaners made specifically for these surfaces instead.
They’re the workhorses of our kitchen, but appliances’ work doesn’t end after they’re installed. Routine maintenance can be the difference between many seamless years of use and repeat visits from an expensive repair person. For instance, the dishwasher needs regular attention, says Romana King, director of content at Zolo. “Yes, they clean the dishes, but they’re not made to clean themselves. Food residue, soap, and grease can build up inside and cause them to malfunction. Have them cleaned every two to three months.” Another tip, according to David Cusick of House Method: Keep the areas under and around your appliances clean. “The last thing you want is to one day pull out your refrigerator and see mold or heavy dust against the wall. Be vigilant and give your kitchen a deep clean once or twice a year.”
Any homeowner knows that burst pipes are an expensive nightmare, but one of the simplest ways to keep it from happening is one we often overlook. “Not draining and removing outdoor hoses for winter can result in burst pipes and water damage,” cautions Eugene Sokol of Plasticine House. “Even frost-free taps designed for subzero temperatures need the hose removed, so the faucet can drain, or else it can rupture. I learned the hard way; I thought someone else had removed and drained a hard-to-reach hose. Coming home to water in the basement, soaked insulation, and soggy drywall wasn’t pleasant. That little repair cost $15,000.” A similar consideration, if you have a sprinkler system, Drab says: Make sure it’s clear of water before temperatures plummet below freezing, or you could have costly repairs on your hands come spring.
Few of us relish dealing with a constant influx of pests such as insects and rodents, but one of the easiest ways to keep them out has nothing to do with spraying chemicals all over your home. “Take a little time to walk around your home and look for exclusion opportunities,” says Wesley Wheeler of Bug Lord. “Exclusion is the act of making it difficult or impossible for pests to invade your home, and it often has the benefit of making your home more energy efficient by keeping the cold air outside and warm air inside. When winter approaches and the weather gets cold outside, many pests are attracted to the warmth of our homes.” Common offenders that are easy to remedy include holes in window screens and around cracks and holes around window frames, uncovered exhaust vents, and old or missing weather stripping, Wheeler says.
Whether you do it yourself or invest in a pro, there’s nothing quite like freshly gleaming windows — or the frustration of seeing spots on the glass soon after they’re cleaned. Don’t blame it on the rain, says Sarah Brunette, senior brand director of Window Genie. “There is a common misconception that rain causes dirty windows, but that’s not the case. Rain passing through a dirty screen will carry dirt and debris, which causes those splotches after it rains. It’s important to brush and rinse window screens each time you clean your windows to ensure they stay cleaner, longer.”
Home-maintenance checklists often include ensuring your attic is adequately insulated, a project most experts agree will help keep your heating and cooling bills in check long-term. And while this is a seemingly easy do-it-yourself project, it can go awry if you don’t know what you’re doing. Sokol warns homeowners to make sure they don’t cover their soffit openings. “The soffits are vents that provide airflow in and out of the attic, helping to prevent moisture damage to the underside of the roof deck, and even ceilings and walls. I helped remove insulation covering the soffits at a neighbor’s home,” he says. “A helpful individual covered the soffits to prevent the draft blowing into the attic. They ended up with water streaming down the inside surface of windows, mold and mildew growth on ceilings and walls, and ceiling drywall sagging. The cost of all the repairs topped the $10,000 mark by the time all was repaired.”
One of the simplest ways to keep your bathroom dry and clean is by doing something that should become second nature, Lindus says: Running your bathroom fan every day. “Building codes may not require a bath fan for bathrooms with a window, and oftentimes bath fans that are installed only meet the bare minimum requirements, without providing adequate ventilation for the space,” he warns. “This is troubling because bath fans act as a preventative for moisture issues, such as mold. Bath fans should be turned on before showering and should run for at least 20 minutes after the shower is complete.”
Water features come in many shapes and sizes, from modest bird baths to elaborately landscaped ponds. But having standing water on your property is the surest way to increase the number of mosquitoes buzzing around your house. “The trick is to keep the water moving or oxygenated with a small pump,” says Paul Johnson, founder of the Tick and Mosquito Project. “When it comes to mosquito breeding grounds, flowing water is fine, standing water is not.” Johnson says that can mean looking for standing water in places you may not expect it, too. “This means clearing clogged gutters, keeping buckets stored inside or upside down, and not allowing water to pool in toys, old tires, or anything else in the yard. I once saw a mosquito-infested yard that had a single wheelbarrow in the corner, and rainwater had accumulated in it for weeks. I am sure it was the home to thousands of hatched mosquitoes.”
Lots of homes rely on sump pumps to combat moisture in the basement, but this is not a “set it and forget it” piece of equipment. Periodic inspections are crucial, says Simon Hooton of North Ridge Pumps, not just to ensure the pump is still working properly, “but also to ensure debris has not entered the pit where the pump is drawing fluid from, potentially clogging the unit.” Hooton recommends homeowners check their sump pumps at least every six months, making sure to test any battery backups or water-level alarms as well. “Failure to regularly inspect pumps could lead to them failing, leading to flooding, and at worst invalidation of your home insurance policy if basic precautions have not been taken.”
Ever met a really handy person who can just never seem to finish a job? It’s a common issue for homeowners who have a hard time prioritizing. “We are all capable of so many things, but it can get the best of us,” says Rob Shaw, a handyman with Pro Tip. “Replace ambition with discipline. [Do] one project at a time; that way, if you incur additional time or monetary costs, you’re not spreading yourself too thin. It is often mentioned that multitasking is not as effective as we think it is, and home improvement is no different. We are much more capable of finishing one project than we are of finishing three or four in the same timeframe.”
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“People have so many things going on in their life,” says John Bodrozic, co-founder of HomeZada. “Relying on your memory on what tasks to do and when the last you did them is almost always forgotten. This ends up costing you money in the long run with more expensive repair costs and higher utility bills.” Bodrozic recommends building a home maintenance calendar with automatic reminders, personalizing it with your home’s unique needs. “It only takes a little time upfront to personalize your schedule, and then you are set.”
Even if a particular project is well within your scope of expertise, you’ll need the right tools to tackle the job. “It can be very tempting to wedge that butter knife into the groove of the screws you are trying to put in,” says Marty Basher, home improvement specialist with Modular Closets. “However, it is much better to just get a flathead screwdriver. It is the right tool for the job, and will be infinitely more efficient and easy to use. Never try to rig the wrong tool into the being the right tool. Doing this can cause all kinds of complications and will definitely be a safety hazard. Make a list of the tools you need, get them, and know how to use them.”
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We all want to save money, but overconfidence can end up costing more — a lot more — in the long run. “Between knowledgeable neighbors and YouTube videos, there’s no lack of help these days in figuring out how to tackle simple repairs,” says Richard Reina, product training director at TOOLSiD.com. “However, a homeowner can get into trouble if they try to take on too much. You need to be honest with yourself regarding your own abilities.” Basher warns homeowners against tackling plumbing and electrical problems in particular. “The worst mistakes DIYers can make often happen when they try to fix things under flooring and behind walls. A regular homeowner can not tell if wires are faulty, if pipes are placed improperly, or if something is up to code. This means that not only do these homeowners run the risk of fires and flooding, but also fines from the city they live in. On top of that, all of these problems can cost several thousand dollars to fix.”
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