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.