Home & Garden Columns
I have a terrible confession to make. I feel really bad about it, but it’s probably not going to change any time soon. I don’t care if your roof leaks. Okay, I know that I’m supposed to make a big deal about this sort of thing but I’m not going to. There, I said it and I feel a whole lot better.
Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. I do care if your roof leaks, but not that much. And I would argue that you shouldn’t, either. If the thought of dripping water bugs you so badly that you’re compelled to fix it immediately, I would say, “Get on with it, then,” and hand you the phone to call the roofer. However, for most of us, it’s just not all that important because roof leaks don’t kill people.
I’m interested in everything about the house but I’m most interested in things that can kill people or hurt them seriously or cause a massive loss of value. This is what might be called worst-case scenario inspecting and is what I try to do every day.
It is very easy to lose perspective when looking at a large list of maintenance issues and, to the credit of many of my clients; they will intuit and communicate this when we’re looking at their house, skyscraper or aircraft hangar. Most will say, “Please tell the things that you think matter the most” or “Can you tell me the five things that you’d do first after I’ve moved in?” This is a darned good start, to be sure, but it’s not enough. These questions should also include, “What’s going to kill me?” and perhaps “What’s going to end up costing me a bucket of money?” Even if I’m not asked, this robot comes preprogrammed to process all of these questions. Maybe it’s because I’m a worrier, but it doesn’t make any sense to me to look at a range of home inspection issues and to fail to list them by hazard level. Another criterion that must be made a part of this thinking is: What’s the cost and what’s the benefit?
So let’s take a look at a few things that I would place near the top (and near the bottom) of my worst-case scenario inspecting list. I would virtually always begin with those things related to fire. In my world, there’s not much worse than death by fire and although we can’t prevent all fires, we can certainly do a lot about preventing deaths caused by fires. So, my favorite inspection item is the smoke detector: low cost, high benefit.
CO (carbon monoxide) testers are similar. While fire is much worse and far more common than CO, CO still remains a killer that can be addressed with a $25 device and a $2 battery. By the way, let’s not forget batteries. Installing fresh batteries for smoke and CO detectors has an extremely high yield in our index of safety vs. cost. It’s amazing how many smoke detectors I see that lack only a $2 battery to make a life or death difference.
Fire escape is also very high on my list. This can include removal of window bars, installation of rope or chain ladders, training of children and accounting for the needs of the disabled (e.g. can they get oustside?). Window size and type is also a pretty large issue here. If a window doesn’t open enough to climb out (or for a firewoman to climb in!) it’s a BIG problem. Window locks that require a key are a huge hazard and have serious cost/benefit and worst-case indexes. The same applies to “double cylinder” door locks that require a key to escape.
Let’s jump down to the low end of the worst-case-scenario list and look again at our leaking roof (actually, your leaking roof; mine’s fine). If the roof leaks, it is almost impossible for this to cause a death (although my mind, like yours, is now rushing to picture all the wild Rube Goldberg linkages in which a wet spot overhead could be fatal.) In fact, for the most part, most roof leaks usually become extremely noticeable—if not unsightly—before they’ve done any significant structural damage. (I always like to remind people that wood is not easily damaged by water; they build boats out of it!) For the most part, roof leaks damage ceiling finishes and if allowed to advance can then damage other components such as wiring and framing. Yes, sheetrock and plaster are quickly damaged and possibly destroyed by roof leaks and this is sort of sad—but sort of not very much. It shouldn’t be anyone’s worst-case scenario.
I won’t miss the chance to throw in my personal dead-horse-celebre (would Mme care for her metaphores mixed or on-the-side): the earthquake. While you may never experience a very large earthquake, the worst-case scenario is very, very serious. There can be death (most likely by fire) and there will almost certainly be a great deal of property damage and loss after a very large earthquake. For my friends in the Bay Area, earthquake concerns definitely should take precedence over roof leaks. I would sooner see my client spend seven grand on seismic retrofitting for an earthquake that they may or may not experience than spend one grand fixing a leak that’s occurring today! If you live where earthquakes are less likely, substitute your own local disaster (tornado, locusts, Sarah Palin) and adjust your funding and action accordingly.
Now, I’m not actually suggesting that you simply let the roof leak. I am suggesting that you have a rational plan for home maintenance. It’s fine and good and terrific to spend money on the things that make you crazy as they present themselves to you, dirty paws and all, but it’s vital that we focus a portion of our energy to manage the things that might do great harm to us and those we love, even if the potential harm seems way off in the distance.
And of course, remember to eat out more often, smile a lot and get more hugs.