Spring Real Estate 2002

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 13, 2002
Is your house crumbling?
How to keep your aging house safe

by Patricia Gos·lvez

When leaves change from luscious greens into gorgeous browns, burgundies and oranges, they fill our neighborhoods with beauty. Although spectacular, homeowners should consider this also as a reminder to clear out gutters and prepare for the upcoming winter.

According to Forrest Linebarger, president and owner of FCI Construction Inc. in Mountain View, there are a number of tasks homeowners should do annually, besides fall gutter-clearing. Termite inspections and underground leakage/moisture checks are a must, especially for those with older homes, Linebarger said.

Also, take notice of time's toll on your home. Perhaps your floors have become uneven and begin to slope. This can be serious because "it could mean that the foundation is collapsing or settling and needs to be supported. And if you wait too long, it can collapse and cause significant damage," he said.
"If you place a marble on the floor, and it rolls to the wall, you may have foundation issues," he added.
Cracks in walls and ceilings can be a sign of foundational shifting or weakness. And cupped or lifted roof shingles should be inspected before water damage occurs.

However, utilities rank highest when weighing what's most important in home maintenance, especially plumbing and electricity.

Homes built in the 1970s and earlier are most susceptible to ailments such as failing plumbing and overcrowded circuitry. Because of the popular materials used at the time, as well as the now outdated electricity codes, these homes' utilities should be inspected and replaced relatively soon.

Galvanized steel was a popular piping material in the 1970s, and its lifetime of 30 years is up.

Indicators of failing pipes can include a reduced water flow at faucets and showerheads, or evidence of reddish-colored water flushing through before the water runs clear. To ensure that water supply pipes are not hazardous they should be inspected for leakage and rust build-up at least once a year.

Some may find that their pipes are a combination of galvanized steel and copper, "a bad mix. These two work terribly together," said Linebarger.

Corrosion occurs when these two materials are in contact because the electrical ions cross over from one metal to the other, explained Linebarger, who's working on several projects in Palo Alto, including the Casa di Bambini day care center on College Avenue. Copper and galvanized steel should be separated by at least six inches of brass piping or a dialectic union, which will separate all metal contact by keeping them apart, he said.

Pinpoint leaks are also a common galvanized steel ailment. However, they are often left undetected due to the fact that homeowners don't have their crawl space checked during the rainy season.

"Don't wait until your pipes burst because the damage done will be far greater than the amount saved by not replacing these things earlier," warned Linebarger.

An easy way to check if your home has galvanized piping is by looking inside your water-heater cabinet. If the pipes coming out of the wall are copper-colored, then they are presumably safe. If the protruding pipes are silver-colored, it is more likely that they are made of galvanized steel. Since the two materials may be mixed, it's not a bad idea to get them inspected anyway.

Checking out electrical system is a little less straightforward. According to Tom O'Connor of O'Connor & Sons, Palo Alto, much of the old (as in 40-50 years old) wiring has proven to last.

"The only problem is they didn't put in enough of it," he said, adding "they didn't anticipate the need for so many circuits." New homes feature closer to 40 circuit breakers than the four commonly found in older homes.

In his opinion, older wiring tends to develop two problems: Either it's inadequate for today's needs or problems have emerged when unqualified people have modified the original.

A common mistake is to replace a double-pronged outlet with a three-pronged outlet, without adding a grounding wire. Cosmetically, the electrical plug fits into the outlet, but it is not grounded and can be potentially dangerous and a shock hazard.

"Over-use of electrical extension cords is a problem," said Linebarger. Older homes usually don't have enough power coming in to support the amount of electricity being used, "so people choose to use extension cords and end up overloading the circuits and causing a fire."

O'Connor noted that he's most frequently called when circuit breakers are tripping, indicating the home is on overload and may need more circuits.

"Flickering lights are something to watch out for. It's kind of like getting chests pains. It's not a good sign," he said.

"Overloaded circuits are a fire risk. You should feel the extension cord to see if it's warm, and if it is, use a wider extension cord or if you can, install another circuit," said Linebarger.

"Most electrical fires are caused due to over-use of extension cords," he added.

With so much to keep track of and maintain, it would be useful to file all home maintenance information in a cabinet, complete with receipts, repairman's names and guarantees.

By keeping a file of all home maintenance and repairs you could save yourself quite a headache when it come time to repair something. By having the numbers, dates, and manufacturer's information handy you can substantially reduce the amount of time and money it would cost to repair a faucet, sink, or any other appliance.

An inventory of all home improvements, including gutter clearing and termite inspections should also be documented and filed so that if ever disaster strikes, whether it's an earthquake or something more preventable like a pipe bursting, you can be prepared with your home's maintenance history.

When to check?

Roof = every three years, especially if wood shingles are lifted or cupped
Plumbing = every three years
Crawl space under home = every rainy season to ensure that there is no excess moisture or rotting
Circuitry = when dependence on extension cords is apparent or when lights flicker