When you think of the basics of a civilized family existence, a decent home is foundational. Doesn’t grace at your table frequently end with thanks for “the roof over our heads”? But not all home repair jobs are equally vital. The roof? Yes, you need a good roof. But, if you’re facing financial difficulties, a lot of other jobs can be dodged until thing improve.
Here are three home repair jobs that require immediate action, and three you can skip — for now.
Jobs that require action now
A leaky roof. You’ll notice a common theme in this short list of must-do house repair jobs — they all involve ways your house can be seriously damaged by water. A leaky roof tops the list.
You may think the ugly circle of mildew on your bedroom ceiling is harmless, but it is a clear sign that water is getting in somehow. Other signs of a leaky roof are sagging ceilings, a wet or moldy smell, and, obviously, water droplets anywhere on the ceiling, wall, or floor.
If you see any of these signs, call a roofer immediately! Water can wreck wood, plaster, drywall, and just about any other building material that it comes into contact with, so a leaking roof can do serious, expensive damage. However, you shouldn’t rush to accept the first bid you receive, no matter how panicked you are.
Roof replacement is not a complicated construction job, so a lower bidder will probably do about the same quality job as a higher bidder. Get multiple bids, ask for references, and then sign an agreement with the lowest bidder — as long as their references check out.
Leaking water heater. Again, water can be a killer. If your water heater springs a leak, you can be in for serious trouble (not to mention a lot of cold showers). Like the roof, replacing a water heater is not a complicated job. It does require a plumber (unless you’re quite handy), but it’s an everyday job for a residential plumber. Get three bids, and go online to see what a typical water heater would cost if you bought it yourself.
Obviously the professional installation will bump up the price a couple of hundred dollars, but if Home Depot is offering your type of water heater at $400 and the plumber wants $1, 200 to put one in, you’re getting ripped off. Plumbers who make weekend calls sometimes charge more than they should, figuring you don’t want a cold shower on Sunday morning. Don’t do it — you can live until Monday without a shower.
If the water heater is leaking on Saturday night and it’s more than a pile of towels can absorb, you should be able to find the valve to turn off the water going into the heater. Then on Monday morning make some more calls and you’ll surely find a plumber offering a fair price.
Broken sump pump. Okay, for this one you might pay the emergency plumber weekend fee, especially if water is filling your basement. But if you’re reasonably handy and it’s not an emergency situation, you might try this one yourself. It’s going to be easier than either of the two jobs above.
Exact details are beyond the scope of this column, but here are two basic tips: (1) unplug the pump before you touch anything; and (2) when you go to the hardware store, try to buy precisely the same pump that just broke (as counterintuitive as this may sound, you’ll know you are getting the right pump). Whether you do this yourself or hire a plumber, get it taken care of before more damage is done!
Three Jobs You Can Put Off
Damaged siding. Yes, water can seep in through damaged siding, but not nearly as much as comes in through a leaky roof. There’s a reason you see houses with 30-year-old siding — rarely is there an urgent need to replace it. Most people replace their siding for one of two reasons: (1) it’s ugly and they want to update the house; or (2) they want to insulate their home, and adding new siding is a nice complement to that job.
Obviously, you’ll need to use your head with this one, but there is typically no need to panic over what might turn out to be cosmetic damage. You should also keep in mind that total replacement is not the only solution — if your siding is just damaged here and there, fix those pieces and you’ll be good to go.
Painting/patching/cracks. A fresh paint job is a great way to make your interior look great, but if money is tight, try simply cleaning the walls instead. Depending on the paint, you can usually wash your walls with mild detergent in warm water. Then fix nail holes with a bit of spackle and a dab of touch-up paint. A few hours work and your walls will look much better.
Of course, if you’re dealing with damaged or cracked paint (or caulk) on the exterior, you’ll need to assess the situation. Often times a quick touchup job can save major headaches down the line.
Broken dishwasher/washing machine/dryer. Yes, living with broken major appliances can be inconvenient, but you can certainly get by without all three of these. In fact, your great grandparents probably lived without any of them! Get your hands in that sink and go to work! Your wallet will thank you.
Build a cash cushion
These are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to home repairs. The point here is that certain things need to be dealt with immediately, whereas others can be dealt with as time (and money) allows. In general terms, if there is a risk of water damage or fire, you’ll need to act quickly. But if not, you may be put things off for the time being.
But… It’s important to keep in mind that you’re really just delaying the inevitable. If you find yourself having to put off repairs for financial reasons, that’s a pretty clear sign that you need to do a better job of building a cash cushion. Dust off your monthly budget and multiply it by three (or six, or whatever multiple you’re comfortable with) and set that as your target.
From there, it’s simply a matter of tightening your belt and setting aside whatever you can afford in a dedicated savings account at your favorite bank. It may take awhile to get there, but once you build savings into your budget, it’s just a matter of time before these sorts of crises will be a thing of the past.
4 Responses to “Three Urgent Home Repair Jobs, and Three You Can Skip (or at Least Delay)”
This article is spot on! Waiting to fix your roof isn’t just expensive, it can be dangerous. Thanks for addressing basic home ownership issues. (We’ll be sharing this on our Twitter feed later today!)
Thank you, Jenny, for your detailed response to my comments on replacing the water heater. You definitely have more experience with this topic than I do, but I think you missed the point I was making. The point is that if you learn that a water heater suitable for your needs costs $400 and the plumber wants $1,200 to install a water heater, he is essentially charging you $800 in labor, which is too much. Yes, it’s possible he’s offering a better quality water heater, but then you’re not comparing apples to apples. And yes, I understand the $400 price doesn’t include labor, but $800 is too much labor to install a water heater, which is not a particularly difficult job. I got the idea for this topic from personal experience. It was a Saturday night when our water heater sprung a major leak, and the plumber who came out wanted $1,800 to install a new one. We went online and saw that an appropriate water heater for our home was about $400. So we politely declined the plumber’s offer, and in the morning called another plumber. He charged us $900 to install a water heater that has worked perfectly ever since. Didn’t we save $900 by waiting overnight? Yes, even though it’s possible the other plumber was offering a better quality water heater (but I don’t know that, and don’t really care, because this one is way better than what we had before). And by the way, I live suburban Chicago, so I’m guessing we have the same plumbing regulations as any urban area. Having said that, yes, I appreciate the value of journeyman tradesman and definitely recommend using them on any essential job.
you said it. water is the killer. blocked gutters, leaky pipes, broken garden hoses, all need fixing as they will cost you money and cause you pain. ANything that makes you work more is a blessing in todays age of desk jobs. not just your wallet your health will reward you too.
If Home depot is charging $400 for a water heater and a plumber is charging $1200 you are NOT getting ripped off.
Plumbers have access to a better quality of water heater than what you can buy in a retail store. You usually get a better warranty, and in the case of buying a Bradford White water heater, it’s made in the USA. Not Mexico like most other water heaters you can buy.
Big box stores may offer installation services that seem far less expensive than a plumber, but they do either one of two things; they send out an apprentice to do the work instead of a trained journeyman – which is illegal in most states – or they sub the work out to a plumber who pays his guys on commission. Their goal is to take the $800 quote you may get from the floor guy at the box store and nickel & dime you up to far more than $1200.
We’ve had customers get a bid from us, think it was too high, and go with a phone quote (bad!!) from a big box store. Turns out, while our price included everything including removal of the old heater, the bid they got didn’t include any of the required code upgrades, they were charged for taking the new heater down a flight of stairs, the old heater up the flight of stairs, the disposal of the water heater (which should never be charged for – we scrap it out and get paid there for the old one) and a handful of other unnecessary add-on charges. They wound up with a bill that was two or three HUNDRED dollars more than the bid we gave them.
Plumbing rates are different around the country. Paying for a licensed, bonded, insured plumber who obeys the law, gets the proper permits, and pays the proper taxes will insure you are supporting your local tradespeople and economy.
In Washington and Mississippi there is a huge backlash against unlicensed plumbers doing work illegally for big box stores, and taking work away from the experienced guys.
That kind of unilateral statement – If you’re paying $1,200 you’re getting ripped off – is damaging to our trade and patently false. Maybe in some areas of the country, but certainly not in any urban centers. Some states on the East Coast even require a plumber to hire a licensed electrician to do part of the work. Which again, drives the cost up for the consumer.
The development of a safe water supply, untainted by human waste has saved more lives than all doctors combined over the whole history of human development. (Citation National Geographic History of Plumbing) It’s the first thing established in third world countries when we provide aid or in areas hit by disaster. Plumbers get little enough respect as it is, while being responsible, ultimately, for keeping sewage out of the drinking water.
Here is how your advice should read. Straight from a plumber’s daughter, who’s worked in the trade for 16 years. Get 3, in-person quotes. Make sure everything is included in the quote. Pick the middle quote (never take the lowest quote on ANYTHING – you will not save money) and be sure the technician who will be performing the work is a journeyman plumber (or whatever level is required by your state – check labor and industries’ website) and that the company has all the licenses and bonding required. If they don’t, no matter how great the price may seem, RUN AWAY!! If they don’t have the proper bonds, and they cause property damage to your house, you have very little recourse to getting them to fix it. Either pick one of your other plumbers or get another bid. You can also negotiate with your plumber. prices are usually flexible to a point, and if you have two bids that are close but you like one company better, they might match the other price or get closer to it.
I normally enjoy your blog and find the information in it helpful. This particular entry is off base and I don’t feel you did enough research to understand what you’re talking about regarding costs to install a water heater.