Spring Into Maintenance
by Terry Meany
It’s been three years since my wife and I sold our home in Seattle and started renting in California. Not a bad move as house prices have only dropped here in the state capitol, although an uptick is just around the corner according to any real estate agent who manages to get quoted in the Sacramento Bee. In the less than two years our current landlord has owned this joint, he’s had one tree removed ($1,200); replaced the gutters (to match the 1962 vintage gutters, which themselves were replacements about ten years ago), two electrical panels (I can only estimate that it cost thousands, as the project got way out of hand), the microwave oven, furnace thermostat, sprinkler controls and food disposer; snaked out the bathroom drain; repaired broken patio tiles which have cracked again; and hired a yard service. Now he’s looking at a leaking water service line that needs replacement, plus cleaning those nice, new gutters so they don’t rust out like the last set did. When we move out, the carpet will need replacement in our unit and probably a new paint job.
Ownership might well raise its ugly head again at some point, so I should avoid excessive smugness of my current property-free life and at least mentally prepare for climbing on roofs again and snooping around crawl spaces.
Although maintenance is a year-round love affair, it can be especially romantic in the spring, when warm weather rolls in and we start wringing ourselves out after the winter rains, which beats chipping the ice off as they do in fun places like Montana or Minnesota or Maine (alliteration unintended, all these places are ridiculously cold, unless you’re a caribou).
Water is funny stuff. We can’t live without it and all the while it wears away at paint and wood and roofs every chance it gets while putting out the welcome mat for molds of all kinds.
Outside, water makes its mark on your paint, regardless of how much you paid for the last recoat. The main places to check are the windowsills and any wood close to the sidewalk or driveway, especially any vertical trim around garage doors that butts up against concrete. Even cedar or redwood will eventually rot as it wicks up water, unless the builder was clever enough to keep it an eighth of an inch or so off the ground—but I digress. Instead of just touching up the jambs and the trim, repaint the full assembly so it looks uniform.
Do the same on the windowsills. Remove all loose and flaking paint—mind the lead-based paint removal rules—and recoat the entire sill.
If you have the misfortune to have a wood deck (they look great, for about a month, and then they are simply hateful), thoroughly clean it with your preferred deck cleaner, give it a few days to dry and then reseal. I used to sand our own deck and made it look (briefly) like new, but then deck cleaners became my new friends. Good friends, too, as they never borrow money or ask for rides to the airport. Before you seal and after it’s dry, sand down any splintered areas, especially handrails where tenants will be running their hands.
While you’re outside, you cannot escape gutter cleaning or at least inspection, even if your property is treeless. Gutters are, I’m convinced, designed by those who make a living cleaning gutters, as they always attract twigs, leaves, bits of roofing, small toys and a mysterious black stew of detritus. Wear latex gloves when you clean out this glop, as the ceramic grit that washes off roof shingles can leave a skin rash.
The best way to clean gutters, besides hiring it out? There isn’t one, but there are dumb ways to do it, such as scooting along the roof instead of working from a ladder (guilty as charged) or trying to shoot out the gunk with a hose. This is a scoop-and-dump job, followed by a good rinsing. Be sure to rinse out the downspouts and check that they’re clear of debris. Check that the ends are not crimped from someone having stepped on them or run over them with an unruly car.
If you’re doing the gutters, you should check out the roof. Most roofs spend their days in dependable deterioration, moving towards retirement at a predictable rate. But if a heavy wind picks up the edge of a shingle and blows all or part of it off, you’ll want to replace it to ward off any leaks and excess wear and tear in that area.
Many roof leaks occur around damaged and rusting flashing and cracked rubber plumbing vents. Rusted flashing might not be leaking, and if it’s just surface corrosion and you want to extend its life, wire brush the corroded areas and paint with an exterior metal paint.
If the flashing looks questionable and you don’t want to tear it and the shingles out to repair it just yet, you can always slip new sections of flashing under the old. Roof caulks and patching material are not the best approach to repairing holes and cracks, but small sections of flashing tucked under those damaged areas will do an acceptable job. As far as those rubber roof vents go, once their gaskets crack, they have to be replaced.
Do you really want to wash the windows? No, but do them anyway. At the same time, you can scrub down the entire window opening and remove the winter grime. You don’t need any premixed cleaners, just a bucket of water and a squirt of Dawn liquid dish soap. Why Dawn? It’s always been the preferred product by window washers I’ve known, but probably any competing product will do, just don’t use an excessive amount.
The real trick is the squeegee. Use an Ettore, made by an Alameda company that created the modern squeegee. Their website (ettore.com) will give you all the window washing instructions you never knew you needed.
We don’t have the freeze cycle in the Bay Area that occurs in less civilized parts of the world, but check your foundation for cracks while you’re wandering around outside. Most are minor and can be left alone, but not if you discover anything major. What’s major? Hairline cracks (less than 1/16 of an inch) are not, quarter-inch cracks can be and should be addressed, and anything larger must be addressed. In the land that earthquakes never forget, you don’t want major damage when timely—albeit expensive—repairs can prevent them.
Although you might be tempted to add new caulk over old cracked caulk around windows and doors and other exterior seams, it’s not a great idea. You’re better off removing the old material and then applying new. Remember, you’ll have to paint it unless you use pure silicone caulk, which will cause problems later when someone does paint over it and the paint doesn’t stick. You can use a narrow brush for covering the caulk (think artist brushes here) to blend it in with the existing paint.
As goes caulk, so goes sash glazing, the putty that seals glass in older wood windows. If it’s cracked or has fallen out, you need to replace it to protect the wood and prevent seepage under the glass. DAP 33 is the standard, available-everywhere product for this repair, but bear in mind it has to cure for a couple of weeks before it can be painted. If it goes unpainted, it will dry up, shrink and eventually loosen and fall out again.
If you haven’t checked the dryer vents since, oh, forever, now is a good time. If you have a particularly long duct run, you might want to have it professionally cleaned (yes, there are companies that do this, often the same ones that clean furnace ducts). You can also purchase dryer vent cleaning systems, which are arrangements of brushes and screw-together rods for loosening old lint and whatever else resides inside your ducts. My favorite method, if done regularly, is to pull the hose from the dryer and blast it with an electric Makita Blower, which is a smaller, but powerful, version of a leaf blower. I dote on this tool; it can do no wrong and does do much right.
Returning to water for a moment, if you can arrange access to your unit(s), a once-a-year plumbing check is good preventative maintenance, especially checking that all the shut-off valves work and move freely. You really don’t want one of those snapping off or freezing up on a tenant who’s trying to do the right thing and turn the water off when an unexpected broken pipe is about to soak the floor and the tenant below.
If you find any leaky faucets, replace the worn washers. Take a flashlight under the sinks and hope you don’t find any errant water looking for a way out. Flush the toilets and look closely at the floor. If there’s even a hint of water, arrange to reset the toilet immediately and be prepared to repair damaged flooring if the tenant has no idea how long it’s been leaking.
Finally, fill the sinks and part of the tub with water and let it drain out. Slow drains now will be stopped up drains later, so bring out the snake and clear them up. Like all things maintenance related, it’s better to deal with a small problem now than a big one down the line.
Terry Meany is a former contractor and landlord. He is now a fulltime writer and author of Working Windows: A Guide to the Repair and Restoration of Wood Windows, from Lyons Press. He is cost-conscious but not cheap, and he knows deferred maintenance always costs more in the end. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.