Category: Foundation & Framing

5 Home Repairs That Can Break the Bank (and How to Avoid Them)

Every homeowner knows that avoiding regular maintenance and upkeep can result in costly repairs. Here are five "sleeping giants" that left undetected—could break the bank.


A home is like a relationship—it requires a little bit of money and attention to keep it going strong. Neglect some easy, quick home repairs, however, and you may end up shelling out tens of thousands of dollars in expensive fixes. How can you discover these sleeping giants before they wake? Read on.



SLEEPING GIANT #1: Water damage in the bathroom

When the Giant Wakes: “There’s one thing that a homeowner could do that could save them thousands and thousands of dollars: prevent water damage,” says David Niskanen, owner of NW Property Preservation, a Seattle-area company that offers everything from basic handyman services through whole-house remodels. “Water kills houses,” says Niskanen.

The biggest place people let water go unchecked is the bathroom, says Niskanen. “They don’t keep the caulking around the tub. They’ll notice that caulking is going but let it go, or see that it’s molded and pull it out…. In showers it’s always caulking or grout between the tiles,” he says. If left unchecked, mold, mildew, and water will rot the underlying wood, chew through the shower pan, “and just destroy everything around it. It could easily be $10,000 or $15,000 to replace everything around a shower.”

Take Action Now: Homeowners should examine their bathroom with fresh eyes. “They should look for gaps in the caulking, either around the shower or the tub, including around the spouts in the tub, and also look for any missing grout,” says Niskanen. “They should also look for mold.” Mold isn’t the underlying problem, but the symptom of larger issues, cautions Niskanen; it indicates moisture coming from behind the caulking, likely thanks to a leak higher up in the bathroom. Replace any frayed, gapped, or absent caulking, or missing grout.

A few bucks on grout and waterproof caulk—and a few hours of work—will save you untold dollars and aggravation later.

SLEEPING GIANT #2: Poor attic and crawlspace ventilation

When the Giant Wakes: “What happens is that an unvented crawlspace or an unvented attic traps heat or moisture in those spaces,” says Mike Kuhn, the New Jersey owner of a HouseMaster inspection service and coauthor of The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Home Inspections. “Eventually the plywood is going to delaminate; that’s what the roof sits on. It’s also going to lead to excessive moisture” in those spaces, which creates mold, says Kuhn. He recently inspected a home that contained two separate attics—one side had a fan and was fine, the other had no fan and was coated in toxic black mold. “They probably have to tear off all of the roof” to get at the plywood, he says. “That’s not an unlikely scenario.” If a crawlspace isn’t vented and moisture festers there, “it could lead to framing decay,” he says.

What’s more, moisture and mold prematurely age roof shingles. “If you think you’re going to get 20 years out of a roof, you might just get 15 years.”

Take Action Now: Step one is to see what you can see on your own. Go into the attic and look (and smell) for trouble. Does it smell musty? Do you see mold or water? Do your eaves have soffit vents to help your attic “breathe”? Does your attic have a mechanical vent? If so, make sure the vent is working. If you’re unsure what you’re seeing, consider calling in a home inspector or a roofer to take a look—“somebody unbiased who’s not going to sell you something,” says Kuhn.

Next, check your crawlspaces—and remember, many people forget they have them, especially in cases where renovations or additions have obscured them.

One of the best simple solutions is an attic fan. “A simple exhaust fan and soffit vents that cost together maybe a few hundred dollars could save you thousands of dollars in roofing and structural repairs,” says Kuhn. “It’s not unusual to put in an exhaust fan that is controlled by both a thermostat and humidistat.” An entire system might cost $1,600. “But you might save yourself $16,000 in roofing damage.”


Termite Damage



When the Giant Wakes: Termites, those prolific munchers, can be devastating if they go unnoticed and unchecked. In most parts of the country, homeowners deal with subterranean termites that are hidden but come up to the house to forage, so “they might be very difficult to spot,” says home inspector Kuhn. Otherwise, they’re most obvious only twice a year when they swarm and come up out of the colony for a few days, flying around like ants with wings. “If you don’t understand that or you miss that indication of a potential termite colony in a house, you might not notice the termites until it’s too late.”

If termites go unnoticed for a long time, “The structural damage and repairs themselves could be $15,000” or more, says Kuhn; one current repair project Kuhn knows of will cost the homeowner $20,000, not including the inconvenience of moving out while floor joists are replaced.

Take Action Now: Don’t think you’re immune from termites. The insects live in nearly every state. Do an annual termite patrol around your house, paying particular attention to unfinished basement areas and darker nooks and crannies. (Underground termites need moisture to survive.) You’re looking for the termites’ tell-tale, pencil-thin mud tubes. If you see one, break it off to see if it is rebuilt. Also look for termite damage to beams, and possibly swarming. If you find some wood that might be infested, probe it with a knife blade or screwdriver to see if termites have hollowed it out; it might sound hollow if you tap on it.

Have any concerns or doubts? A detailed survey of your home “is best left to the professionals,” says Kuhn. “It might cost you $150 annually to have somebody come out and check.”

If termites are found, “The cost of a treatment might be $500 to $1,500 for an average home,” he estimates. That’s a pittance compared with the damage if you let it go any further.


SLEEPING GIANT #4: Poor septic system maintenance

When the Giant Wakes: An estimated one in five of all U.S. housing units are on septic systems rather than hooked up to a municipal sewer system, according to the EPA. “With proper usage, [the life of a septic system] can be extended…. They can go for quite a while,” says home inspector Kuhn. But “septic systems don’t have an infinite life span,” especially if they’re mistreated.

Think of a septic system as a machine, and if you don’t maintain this machine, it can essentially clog and stop working. “Generally, once a septic field is done, it can’t be repaired,” says Kuhn. “It has to be replaced.” Rules vary by state, but in New Jersey, where Kuhn lives, if you have an older system that fails, it has to be brought up to today’s standards, “and a new system can cost you anywhere from $25,000 to $45,000,” he says.

Take Action Now: Septic systems are pretty simple: Human waste goes from the toilet into an underground septic tank. The solids settle at the bottom. At the other side of the tank is an outlet baffle where the (lighter) liquids leave the tank and are dispersed into a leach field that usually consists of gravel and soil.

To keep this machine running smoothly, be sure to have your septic tank professionally emptied of solids every two to three years, depending on the occupancy of your house, says Kuhn, at a cost of roughly $200 to $300. (Check your system’s requirements.) If your tank isn’t emptied regularly, the solids and foreign items may work their way into the leach field, clogging it so it loses the ability to absorb liquids. To further reduce the chance of clogging, don’t put anything down the toilet except toilet paper (for example, no baby wipes or feminine products).


poor water drainage


SLEEPING GIANT #5: Bad drainage outside the home

When the Giant Wakes: Water that pools around the outside of your house looks harmless enough, but that water can cause major trouble, says contractor Niskanen. That water can leak into a basement, causing major mold and rot issues. It can even saturate the soil and cause the entire home’s foundation to shift, experts say. Now you’re talking tens of thousands of dollars in repairs.

Take Action Now: The next time it’s really pouring, head outside (with an umbrella!) and stroll slowly around your home’s exterior, looking for areas of ponding—a danger sign.

If you’ve got landscaping, make sure you haven’t simply piled up mulch and dirt around the house and created a big dam that keeps water next to the house. Pull that material away from the house. It’s doubly smart to get dirt and mulch away from the house and its siding because water will wick up the siding, and insects like termites can often use the dirt as a highway to enter the house, says Niskanen.

If you’ve got downspouts and gutters, make sure everything is connected and that they carry the water at least 10 feet away from the house. If needed, buy extenders.

Finally, make sure that your yard slopes away from your house so that gravity naturally carries water away from the foundation, says Niskanen. If that isn’t happening, you may need to bring in some dirt and grade your lawn so that water is pulled away. Aim for a minimum of six inches of slope for every 10 horizontal feet.



Quick Tip: Engineered I-Beams

Engineered I-beams surpass traditional framing lumber in strength and stability, avoiding many of the pitfalls to which the latter is sometimes vulnerable.

To save time and money on your next building project, one option is to use engineered I-beams. Made from engineered lumber products rather than whole trees, they’re extremely stable and uniform; they can be manufactured to spec; and they have pre-drilled punch-outs that save electricians and plumbers time and work.

For more on framing, consider:

Rough Construction
Engineered Wood Beams (VIDEO)
Factory-Made Flooring and Roofing Systems

How To: Toenail Lumber

Nailing a board at angle is a basic carpentry skill known as toenailing. Although the technique can be challenging to master, these guidelines can help you learn how to toenail wood the right way.

When framing a house, there are many applications in which you have to join two pieces of wood at a right angle, such as roof rafters, ceiling joints, and wall studs. Here’s how to hold your lumber temporarily with a toenail. Spike in a large nail to hold against your lumber to keep it steady while you toenail the opposite side. Remove the temporary spike and toenail the remaining side.

For more on framing, consider:

Rough Construction
Wall Framing (VIDEO)
How To: Make a Mortise-and-Tenon Joint

Quick Tip: Framing with Engineered Wood

Professional builders agree that compared with traditional lumber, engineered wood framing proves superior time and again. Here are just a few reasons why.

Framing a house using engineered wood has many advantages. Glue-laminated beams are stronger than their conventional solid, sawn counterparts. Engineered I-joists span greater distances, and their stiffness prevents squeaky floors. Oriented strand board sheathing prevents racking and provides good nailer for siding.

For more on framing, consider:

Rough Construction
Deconstructing Engineered Wood
Engineered Wood Joist System Discussed (VIDEO)

Quick Tip: Structural Insulated Panels

Instead of traditional framing lumber, homebuilders nowadays often use structural insulated panels, or SIPs, as the material combines insulating properties and remarkable strength.

Building with structural insulated panels is becoming a popular way to save construction time and energy dollars. Composed of thick, rigid expanded polystyrene foam sandwiched between sheets of oriented strand board, these structural insulated panels replace traditional framing, sheathing, and insulation.

For more on framing, consider:

Bob Vila Radio: Metal Studs
Advanced Framing Techniques
Structural Insulated Panels Discussed (VIDEO)

Quick Tip: Joist Hangers

Joist hangers not only simplify the framing process but also strengthen the deck or floor you are building.

When hanging floor joists, use joist hangers to make building a floor deck simpler. Place hangers every 16 inches on center. Position each hanger using the tab to hold it in place. Nail one side on at a time. Use a scrap of two-by as a nailing guide for the other side. If possible, nail them to your ledger board in advance. Now properly secure the ledger boards onto your walls. Set each floor joist into place and secure them with nails. Always check with your local building inspector.

For more on framing, consider:

Quick Tip: Using Metal Studs
How To: Identify a Bearing Wall
Engineered Wood Floor Joist System (VIDEO)

How To: Install a Sill Plate

Building a new home or addition? Here's how to install a sill plate directly onto the foundation.

Here’s how to properly install a sill plate on top of a foundation wall. Sink anchor bolts into your foundation every four feet, laying a sill seal on top of the foundation to create a weather barrier. Pre-drill two-by-six sills to accommodate the bolts. Use pressure-treated lumber to resist water and insect damage. Secure the sill in place with a washer and nut.

For more on foundations, consider:

Advanced Framing Techniques
Concrete, Block, and Slab Foundations
Home Foundation Inspection (VIDEO)

How To: Measure Concrete

For those building a new foundation, there's an easy way to calculate the concrete needed for the job.

If you’re pouring a concrete foundation, how do you figure out how much concrete you’ll need? There’s a pretty simple formula. Take the length in feet times the width and height of the wall to figure your cubic footage. Then divide that figure by 27 to get your cubic yards (because there are 27 cubic feet in a cubic yard). Most cement trucks hold between eight and 14 cubic yards. An average house with a full foundation will take four truckloads.

For more on cement, consider:

9 Easy DIY Concrete Projects
Bob Vila Radio: DIY Concrete
Concrete and Cement: A Case of Mistaken Identities

Quick Tip: Using Metal Studs

Easy to work with and impervious to insects and rot, metal studs are superior to wood members in many ways.

If your home improvement project calls for new walls, you might want to consider metal studs. They fit together like an Erector set, and you can fasten them with miniscrews. You can even use metal brackets and plywood to stiffen the walls, which makes hanging cabinets easier. Metal studs are lightweight and fireproof. They won’t warp or split. You don’t have to worry about termites and in some places, they cost less than wooden studs.

For more on walls, consider:

Bob Vila Radio: Metal Studs
How To: Find a Wall Stud
Building a Metal Stud Wall (VIDEO)

The Excavation and the Foundation

Consider this advice before building on the foundation and embarking on the excavation.

Home Addition Foundations


Before the building of an addition can begin, site preparation may be necessary. Are there any garden plants, shrubs, or other vegetation you want to remove and set safely aside for later replanting? If there’s a tree in the way, you’ll need to arrange for its removal. Any other obstacles to the process—an old patio, say, or a stack of fire­wood—must be moved out of range before work can begin. Depending upon where the work is to be done with respect to the street, additional preparation may be required to clear a path for the equipment and materials to reach the work site.

If you’re building a large addition, the arrival of a surveyor may signal ground will soon be broken. With a smaller job, your designer or contractor will probably begin the process by marking out the extent of the new, enlarged footprint of the house.

The plot plan will guide whoever it is that does the staking out. For a large project, a transit will be used, an instrument that establishes elevations and levels and points, to help precisely locate where the new excavation is to be done. When the staking out is completed, there will probably be stakes and connecting strings that mark where the excavation is to be done. Perhaps lines of lime will criss­cross the ground, extending beyond the actual location of the foundation or cellar hole to guide the men with the earth-moving machines.

Don’t faint dead away upon seeing the plot staked out. Even large structures can seem diminutive when reduced to strings or lime lines struck across the ground and viewed under the canopy of the sky. Your new, expensive, and carefully imagined space may suddenly seem rather small. So prepare yourself.

After you’ve managed to keep your cool on first look, take a second and closer peek. It probably makes sense for you to extend your tape measure from comer to comer. Think of it as a warm-up exercise for the job to come. Your purpose is to make sure the new foundation abuts the old structure where it’s supposed to be and oth­erwise matches the plan.

Now the noise can begin. Diesel-powered earth-moving machines arrive a day or so later. Often a back hoe will be enough, though for big jobs there may be a bulldozer (call it a ‘dozer) with a wide blade. Or an excavator, a descendent of the steam shovel, with its long arm and the bucket at the end. None of these machines move quickly; they weren’t built for speed. But they’ll shift gargantuan quantities of soil and, if necessary, tree stumps and miscellaneous boulders. They will leave you with a foundation hole dug to a depth of at least six inches below the frost line.

The frost line is the depth to which the winter frost penetrates the earth. In the northern United States, that means the foundation must be at least 3 or even 4 feet below grade; in southern regions where subfieezing tempeiatures are rare, the foundation may virtually sit on the surface. The base or “footing” of a foundation must be beneath the frost line to prevent the frost from thrusting portions of your founda­tion upward and causing your house to settle unevenly (which would result in cracks in the foundation and, eventually, cracks and other damage upstairs in your home). The deeper frost lines in northern areas are one explanation for why full basements are more common there.

The potential problems during the excavation process are too many rocks (if it’s solid ledge, blasting may be required); too much water (an underground stream or spring may require special drainage); or even soil problems. Some soils simply aren’t firm enough to bear the weight of a structure without additional support, typ­ically an enlarged concrete footing (see below). In parts of the country where soil problems are common, your designer or architect will probably have suggested you test it in advance.

Speaking of soil problems, you may need to protect the soil you have. You may even be required to construct fences, stake hay bales, or employ other means to pre­vent soil erosion in the event of a heavy rain.

Once you have a hole in the ground, the foundation can be built. The first step is the footing, usually a base of cement wider than the wall to be constructed on it that will distribute the weight over a larger area to prevent settling. (For a house built on piers, foundation pads for the supporting posts to rest upon are necessary.)

The walls come next (after the concrete sets, which takes an average of three to five days). The wall may be of cement block or of concrete poured into a wooden form that is removed after the concrete has set. Setting up the forms for a poured foundation will take a portion of a day; the forms will be stripped two or three days later. Stone foundations are almost unheard of these days, though for aesthetic rea­sons some concrete foundations are built with a small shelf set into the portion of the foundation that will be above grade (i.e., not buried) onto which a veneer of brick or stone can be laid to hide the less attractive concrete.

After the concrete forms have been removed, perforated piping (called drain tile) is laid outside the wall at its base in damp climates. These pipes will be pitched to allow the water that enters them to drain off and away from the foundation.

The earthmoving equipment will then return and backfill around the cellar hole. The soil on the surface must be graded so that when there is rain the water will naturally flow away from the house rather than into its foundation. Done by a bull­dozer or other earthmoving machinery, this work is called cutting and filling, as the blade of the ‘dozer serves to cut off the tops of the high spots and fill in the low ones. If you are planning on landscaping work later, now is the time to give the yard at least an approximate shape while the heavy equipment is there filling in around the cellar hole.

The foundation won’t be completed in day; a week or two to complete the various steps is usual. But once your foundation is ready, the carpenters can begin their work.