Helter shelter: A whole-house checkup checklist


Just like your family, houses are full of things that need annual (and sometimes more frequent) checkups. Gutters crack, septic tanks leak, and furnaces stop working. Keep the following list on hand to remind yourself which household appliances and fixtures you can check yourself, which need professional attention, and approximately how much you'll have to spend on maintenance and repair.


Every Day or Week

- During the winter, press the test button on your carbon monoxide detector once a week to make sure it's working. Cost: Free.


- Take a weekly look at your water heater. A small puddle under the heater can quickly become a major flood if not caught in time. Cost: Free.


- Clean out the lint trap in your clothes dryer after each load. Cost: Free.


Every Month

- In warm weather, gnats can make their home in traps under your sinks. If you have this problem, pour a quarter cup of bleach followed by a gallon of water down each drain and let it sit overnight. This will kill the pests and prevent more of them from moving in. Cost: Under $1.


- Add enzymes to your septic tank to keep the bacteria levels high. One way to do this is to flush one cup of brewer's yeast down the toilet every month. Cost: Under $5.


- Drain lines leading to septic tanks and cesspools need to be kept clean. Pour a cleaner specially made for the job (available at your local hardware or home store) down the toilet every month or two. Cost: $6-11.


Every Two Months


- The seal on your refrigerator door will last forever if you keep it clean. Wipe it with a cloth or sponge and warm, soapy water. Cost: Free.


- Run a lemon through your garbage disposal to keep it smelling fresh. Cost: Under $1.


Every Six Months


- Lint in the dryer vent can create a fire hazard and decrease the dryer's efficiency. To clean out the ducting, follow the instructions on the owner's manual. Most tell you to detach the 4-inch duct that leads to the outside of the house by unfastening the clamp. If the hose is long, use a vent cleaning brush to clear the lint. If it's short, reach in and pull out the lint; use a rag to get at the last bits. Cost: $20 for a 10-foot vent-cleaning brush; $30 for a 30-foot brush.


- Replace the filters in your forced-air heating system. This not only cuts down on allergens, it preserves the life of the motor and blower, and keeps the ductwork clean. Cost: From under $1 for a basic filter to $15 for one of top quality.


- Change the battery in your fire alarm when daylight savings time starts in the spring and ends in the fall. Cost: About $2 for a 9-volt battery.


- When the weather turns cold, your automatic garage door opener needs to apply more force to open and close the door. You can increase the amount of force manually. Check the side or back of the unit for screws you can adjust with a screwdriver, and twist them in the direction indicated on the unit. When the weather warms again, decrease the amount of force by reversing the process. Cost: Free.


In Spring and Fall


- From the ground, do a visual inspection of the shingles on your roof. If you see any that are discolored or curled, chances are water is seeping underneath. Hire a contractor to add soffit and roof vents to your home. Cost: Varies by region.


- Look under the gutter. If you can see daylight between the gutter and the fascia board (the board the gutter is nailed to), the gutter has separated from the house. Remove the loose spikes and replace them with gutter bolts from the hardware store. Cost: $1.50 to $3.50 per bolt.


- If yours is a brick house, look at the mortar line for cracks and loose pieces. You can repair the damage with mortar in a tube. Cost: Under $10.


- Check your home's siding for pieces that are stained or chalky. Clean siding with a cleaner made specifically for aluminum or vinyl siding (available at your local hardware or home store). Cost: Under $15.


- Make sure that the phone or cable wires aren't frayed or rusty. If they are, call the phone or cable company to have the wires repaired. Cost: Free, unless the problem is inside the house; then, varies by region.


- Using your thumbnail, dig into the caulk around your windows. It should be spongy to the touch. If it's hard, replace it. Remove old caulk using a liquid or gel caulk remover. Then, with a caulk gun, apply urethane caulk, which has good adhesive qualities and is easy to paint over. Cost: $3 for caulk remover; $10 for caulk gun; under $10 for each tube of caulk.


Every Year


- The rubber hose on your washing machine can burst, unleashing thousands of gallons of water. Inspect the hose for stiffness, brittleness, or blisters. If you see any of these signs, replace the rubber hose with one of stainless steel. Cost: Under $30.


- Dirty filters and dusty ducts lower the efficiency of your air conditioner or central air system. What's more, low coolant levels can leave you sweltering on hot summer days. An appliance repair person can replace the filters, check the coolant level, and clean the ducts in the central air system. Cost: $45 to $125, depending on your system. Changing the coolant level can run you from $400 to $500.


- If you have a gas-fired furnace, a damaged heat exchange element can release carbon monoxide into your home. Have your furnace inspected and cleaned by a certified heating and cooling repair person. Cost: $50 to $100.


- A frozen garden hose can burst the pipes inside your house. Close outside spigots; detach and store hoses before the first freeze. Cost: Free.


- Door locks can become tight, causing your key to break inside. If your locks are hard to turn, use liquid graphite (available at your local hardware or home store) to get them turning again. Cost: Under $2.


SIDEBAR: Hassle-Free Home Hints


- Need to hire someone to do repair work? Go where the repair people go. If you're looking for a roofer, go to a roofing supply store and ask the manager for referrals. Looking for a handyman? Ask at the lumberyard.


- If your house has a sump pump that frequently runs, install a backup pump. Water-powered backup pumps are virtually maintenance free and will work continuously. Visit a plumbing supply store for more info.


- A chimney liner– a rust-free metal tube inserted into the chimney– is an inexpensive way to avoid costly repairs. A heating/cooling contractor can easily install one.


- Even if a faulty bathtub liner can be repaired, consider replacing it. Most new faucets are pressure-balanced, which means that if someone flushes the toilet in another bathroom, you won't get scalded in the shower.


This essay, distributed by the Featurewell service, originally appeared in Family Circle.