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In these tough economic times, I consider it a privilege to own a dwelling. But when it comes to home maintenance, I must admit I miss calling the landlord.
Something always seems to be falling apart in our century-old Victorian, "Mr. Blue," and I have a lingering sense of dread that our dear house is coming apart at the seams.
The counterparts to people like me -- who find home maintenance daunting -- are people like Ken Adams, of Adams Design Construction Ltd., and Mark Lydon, of Artisan Energy. I contacted Adams and Lydon to talk about what homeowners should do to prepare their homes for winter. These guys are like family doctors for homes, offering checkups and referring them to the proper specialists.
Looking for potential problems
Adams offers a $95 exterior checkup for homes, which he subtracts if you hire his firm to do any of the work. (Full disclosure: Adams and his crew finished our attic several years ago.) Lydon is a consultant who looks at your home's energy profile, identifying goals for safety, comfort and reducing your carbon footprint. He then refers you to contractors who can do the work.
Maintenance is key to saving money in the long term, says Adams. His checkup focuses on five fundamentals: roof; siding; windows and doors; porches, decks, and stairs; and the foundation. On a steamy August day -- when it was admittedly a little hard to wrap my mind around winter preparation -- Adams joined my husband, Andrew, and me for a spin around our house.
"We're looking for potential problems that can be solved in a timely manner to save you money and to save your energy costs," said Adams, who walked around the house several times, craning his neck to get different angles and poking around under our painting tarps. He writes up a report with photos that helps homeowners prioritize which projects to tackle immediately and which ones they can put on hold.
"A lot of exterior home issues -- who wants to deal with them? It's not like having your friends over and saying 'Hey, look at my new kitchen,'" Adams said. I immediately felt better for ignoring some issues that Adams was about to address.
Our checkup revealed some good news: Our porch isn't sagging or heaving. And our stone foundation was in decent shape, though he wasn't a fan of a veneer that had been slapped on it. To keep our foundation strong, in the next five to 10 years, we could chisel out the crumbling mortar (starting with our crumbly cellar stairs) and use a limestone mortar to tuck-point. " I wouldn't mess with it until you have to mess with it," Adams said.
More good news: Our damp basement is actually okay, but we can do more to direct water away from the foundation. On the far side of the house, we encountered a buckling sidewalk that slopes toward the property. Adams recommended having our teens "wear proper footwear" and sledgehammer it out so we can landscape it to slope away from the house. That would reduce the amount of water seeping in.
Adams recommended cleaning and painting around the basement windows and -- by pressing a key into the window trim -- found that we didn't have too much trouble with rot.
Because we're in the middle of scraping and painting our house, he gave us some tips for caulking to seal around windows and corners, leaving room under the wood shingles for the house to "breathe." He told us to pay special attention to painting the "end grain" of our porch and trim -- the rough side of the wood that often conducts water and can start the process of rotting.
He recommended trimming our apple tree where it overhangs (and scrapes) the porch roof. And for the most part, our 10-year-old roof and gutters make the grade.
All in all, we breathed a sigh of relief after our checkup. We have Adams' blessing to prioritize our painting project and the caulking, sealing and repairs related to that project. Andrew has already trimmed the apple tree, and next spring we'll have a fun family project day when we smash up the sloping sidewalk (while wearing proper footwear). And in a few years, the boys can earn money for college by tuck-pointing our foundation.
Bring on the 'nerd gear'
Mark Lydon of Artisan Energy also visited so I could sample his building performance testing and energy-efficiency consulting. Unlike Adams, who works with paper, pencil, camera and binoculars, Lydon brings an arsenal of what he calls "nerd gear." During a full assessment, he spends a few hours in your home and sets up crazy-looking equipment like a blower door (a giant fan in a frame that fills a doorway) and an infrared camera. These assessments run $300-$600, depending on various factors. Lydon has assessed more than 1,500 homes in the past seven years, and he also works as a consultant for an hourly rate.
"I want to know what makes sense to do in terms of improvements to help the homeowner achieve the goals they have," said Lydon, after I gave him a tour of our house.
Like a holistic physician, Lydon likes to get up close and personal. "I go into attics, I go into basements, I go into weird crawl spaces, using fans and cameras to figure out what makes sense to do," he explained.
"I'm prioritizing based on safety first, durability second. Making sure a house doesn't kill you with air quality, making sure a house doesn't rot with respect to water quality, making sure a house doesn't have an accumulation of water in the basement or water in a wall that's going to rot away a surface. And I look at ice damming. Icicles are major hazards to houses."
We discussed good ventilation, and, like Adams, Lydon recommended directing the flow of water (especially during "springtime melt") away from the foundation. He thought we should halt our painting project if we wanted to get insulation blown into the walls before the next paint job.
This was advice we wouldn't be able to take, despite a hefty discount offered by Focus on Energy -- one-third of the cost -- and a federal tax credit of $500. With these incentives, Lydon estimated we might pay $2,200 instead of $4,000 for the project.
Many homeowners identify high utility costs as a chronic problem, says Lydon, and he recommends scrutinizing your utility bill and comparing it to an average. He suggests inexpensive ways to improve your home and your energy habits. Call a professional to give your furnace a tune-up, and change those filters.
If you can't afford the hefty price tag for energy-efficient windows, Lydon said, consider using plastic insulation kits: "It doesn't look good, but we all did it as college students; we can still do it as adults." He suggested energy-efficient thermal window coverings and caulking around window trim. Suspecting I wouldn't like it, he also suggested replacing more of our incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents.
Lydon's most salient advice for preparing for winter sounds more like advice from a grandmother than from an energy consultant: "Some people's resources are tapped, their kids are going to college, they can't be dumping money into their home. I'll literally ask them: 'What do you wear in the winter?' Sometimes if your budget's 500 bucks, and that's what you've got to prepare for the winter, I'm going to say buy really nice natural fiber long johns and good slippers and wear a hat. Adjust your wardrobe. You want to put the insulation as close as possible to the body."
I like that. People like us, who can't afford a couple thousand dollars' worth of insulation, can wear our insulation -- and turn the heat down.
We have a plan
Even without Lydon's help, homeowners can take a bite out of their utility costs by contacting Focus on Energy (focusonenergy.com). I picked up a flier that came in my MGE bill and called for a "free professional installation of energy-saving products that can help you save up to 10% on your utility bills." I could have screwed the bulbs in myself, but less than a week after I made an appointment, a friendly guy named Greg from Focus on Energy came over and, for free, replaced 12 incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents. We still think they shed harsh light, but we're going to give it a try.
Greg twisted on a new showerhead in our upstairs bathroom (the one that bathes four humans, on average, per day), saying it will save us a gallon per minute. A new aerator in the bathroom sink will save us some more, even if we have to wait a little more for the hot water. He turned down our water heater from 123° to 120° and installed some insulation around our hot water heater, saying we can insulate more ourselves for some significant savings.
Mr. Blue's not ready for winter yet, but thanks to these guys, we have a plan.
Adams Design Construction