- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 2004

When Mary Chlopecki and her husband moved into their home in Falls Church last fall, they expected to make a few repairs. After all, the house had been built in the late ‘70s and the previous owners had lived there for 26 years, so it was hardly likely that the place would qualify as pristine.

The little fixes and adjustments they anticipated, however, turned into some big-ticket items.

“We had an idea that there was some work that would have to be done,” says Mrs. Chlopecki, an attorney. “Once we got in, though, we realized there was a lot more.”

For example, neither of the fireplaces had a flue. There was mold under the wood paneling. The roof needed venting. And the entire duct system had to be flushed after it was found to be filled with dust and pet hair.

The dream of homeownership — whether it’s a brand-new home or a fixer-upper — can cloud some practical concerns.

The fact is, during the first year or so, most homeowners end up having a lot more to deal with than simply picking out furniture or redoing the kitchen.

Even in new homes, pipes can leak. Foundations can crack. Things may smell a little funny. And before you know it, that hairline crack in the bathroom tile can turn into a disaster.

“People sort of get blinded by the niceties,” says Charles Itte of Itte Associates, a Silver Spring-based home-inspection company that works throughout the Washington area.

“They don’t have the familiarity with how things work,” he says.

So what do you do when the nails start popping and the kitchen floor begins to bubble up?

Nip it in the bud, says Eileen Lynch, a Leesburg homeowner who encountered a host of issues when she moved five years ago — into a brand-new home.

“You have to spend a lot of time reading and doing research,” she says. “Talk to neighbors and find out what problems they have. You have to become familiar with things you never had to deal with before.”

Owners of newly constructed homes are more likely to forgo inspections than other homeowners, to their detriment.

Just because a home is new doesn’t mean that it is without problems. Miss Lynch, for example, encountered plumbing problems, window problems and a buckled kitchen floor — all in her first year of residence.

Some problems, such as nail pops, can be resolved fairly easily with a call to the builder. Other issues may take a whole flurry of calls, such as when Miss Lynch tried to get the builder to fix a problem with the plumbing lines leading to her dishwasher.

“They tended to do the quick and easy repair rather than replacement,” she says. “So I insisted.”

Whatever the age of your home, there are a number of problems that may need to be addressed.

A leaking shower pan, if left unfixed, could lead to water damage later. A crack in the tile could mean an unsteady foundation.

But whatever the issues, it’s important to not wait too long. Damage will almost certainly get worse over time.

One of the biggest culprits is moisture, says Mr. Itte, a certified home inspector who has been in the business for 22 years.

“That’s the biggest hot-button item,” he says. “With moisture comes things like mildew and mold that may not be easy to spot at first. Ninety percent of the time, though, it’s something simple to correct. All you may have to do is clean out your gutters.”

That’s why getting a home inspection is so important, says Rachel M. Miller of the West Coast-based Miller Law Firm, whose book “Home and Condo Defects: A Consumer Guide to Faulty Construction,” has been endorsed by a number of consumer advocacy groups.

“We recommend hiring an inspector even if you’re looking at a brand-new home,” says Miss Miller, who co-authored the book with her father, Thomas E. Miller, who also is an attorney.

The book is available from Amazon.com and from the law firm’s Web site, www.constructiondefects.com.

Commonly found defects include leaking roofs or windows, mold and mildew problems, fungal damage, and water seepage.

“It starts with the building envelope,” Miss Miller says. “So look for any kind of water intrusion; stains in the corners or ceilings, or concrete or stucco.”

Even if you haven’t had your home inspected before closing, an inspection during the first year is not a bad idea, especially with more and more sellers demanding that you buy their homes “as is.”

“I’d say 30 to 40 percent of my business right now is from people who are already in their homes,” Mr. Itte says.

After Mrs. Chlopecki and her husband moved into their home, they had an inspector go over the place carefully. He found enough issues so that the couple had to reprioritize their to-do list.

“I have a page-and-a-half-long list of things that need to be done,” Mrs. Chlopecki says. “We’re starting with the things that need to be done to protect the structural integrity of the house.”

What does a home inspector do? For one thing, he or she explains how your house works beyond that garage-door opener or the nifty little switch that triggers the stereo. Most homeowners will accompany the inspector as he makes his rounds.

“I show them the guts of the house, where the shut-off valves are, how the electrical system works,” says Mr. Itte, who is certified under the auspices of the American Society of Home Inspectors, one of the national home-inspector-accrediting agencies. “It’s a lot about demystifying the house for the owner.”

ASHI maintains a list of certified inspectors searchable by ZIP code on its Web site, www.ashi.org.

Most inspectors will do a partial inspection in one area if you suspect a problem.

Even without a home inspector, there are a number of things homeowners can do to minimize those big repair bills down the road. Mr. Itte recommends keeping an eye out for potential safety issues, such as electrical problems, and for things that might affect the structural integrity of the house, such as problems with the roof.

Many home experts recommend setting aside 1 to 3 percent of your income to go toward repair costs.

This may seem to be an overly large sum, particularly for a new home, but should you ever want to resell, a well-maintained property will usually bring a higher price.

Regular repairs can also keep a small-scale job from turning into a large-scale project.

Can a new homeowner stick the seller with the bill when something goes wrong within the first year?

Hardly, says Steve Milkey, a Realtor with RE/MAX Allegiance in Georgetown.

“After closing, the seller is off the hook,” he says. “Your only recourse is if you can prove the seller hid a defective item in his disclosure.”

After the first year, most builders are off the hook, too.

“If you don’t file a claim within the statute of limitations, you are forever barred,” Miss Miller says.

That’s why it’s so important to keep up with repairs and do preventive maintenance, such as cleaning out gutters and setting downspouts properly.

According to “Preventative Maintenance and Home Repair,” a publication of North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/fcs/housing/pubs/fcs440.html) homeowners should check both home and property every six months.

The publication also recommends inspecting one area per month, starting with the foundation and working your way upward and inward all the way to the roof.

Documenting what you do to your home is also important. Set aside a folder or portfolio for photographs of problems, repair records and copies of letters to your builder or other organizations and their responses.

Keep a log of telephone calls, letters and response times.

Of course, not every homeowner has time to do the basic maintenance or the wherewithal to do basic repairs. That’s where your contractor or handyman comes in.

“We found significant variation in price bids for what we needed,” Mrs. Chlopecki says. “Fortunately, my husband knows who the good people are.”

In today’s hot housing market of busy professionals, a good handyman can be hard to find. Many contractors and handymen have to be booked months in advance and don’t necessarily feel that they have to return every call.

Check with neighbors for recommendations. Get estimates, investigate references and don’t make final payments on the project until everything is done to your satisfaction. And once you find a good handyman, hold on.

Getting good service also means being informed enough to talk to your service people intelligently about what needs to be done.

Mrs. Chlopecki, for example, now considers herself an expert on carpet and tile installation. Miss Lynch familiarized herself with the challenges faced by owners with the same home model in earlier phases of her development.

So, at the weekly neighborhood get-togethers, when the neighbors started grousing about all the extra money they were spending on unanticipated repairs after laying out such a large amount for the houses, Miss Lynch says, she didn’t join the chorus.

“I knew what to expect, so I was able to plan better for the costs,” she says. “You just have to keep on top of things.”

Bottom line: Don’t let little problems become big ones. When in doubt, hire a home inspector.

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