Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).
Help Clients Prepare for Weather Challenges
Will this winter pack a wallop? Help home buyers and sellers understand how to prepare for a variety of weather challenges.
September 23, 2015
Mother Nature often doesn’t provide advance warning that she’s about to unleash freezing cold temperatures and mountains of snow. Those living in colder climates are wise to prepare, whether they’re sellers needing to clear walkways and maintain a furnace in good condition or buyers eager to know that their future home will be well insulated and energy-efficient to avoid surprises after they move in. Knowing how to winterize a home is more than half the battle. Here are 10 challenges you can help your clients avert:
Accumulations of ice form at a roof’s edge and prevent melting snow from draining properly. Water backs up behind the ice and often leaks into the house, damaging walls, ceilings, insulation, floors, furniture, and more, according to Steve Kuhl, owner of The Ice Dam Company and Kuhl’s Contracting in Hopkins, Minn.
Why they happen: Kuhl says the dams result from multiple variables interacting: the home’s quality of insulation, amount of ventilation, and architectural design; the climate; and the home owners’ lifestyle. “We see more ice dams when home owners want their interiors warmer. Ice dams are primarily the result of heat escaping into areas of the roofline where it’s not supposed to be. The heat melts the snow on higher roof areas, and the melted water travels to areas where it’s below freezing such as the eaves. It then refreezes and accumulates into a dam that prevents melted water from leaving the roof,” Kuhl says.
Extra tips: It’s a common misconception that keeping gutters and downspouts clear will eliminate ice dams, but Kuhl says it’s a good idea to perform the task at least twice a year (more often if a lot of trees grow near the roof). Home owners should also be aware of how much insulation is suggested for their area by referencing resources such as Energy Star.
It doesn’t happen often, but an extraordinary amount of snow can become excessively heavy and push in a roof. That happened last year in many parts of the country, especially in Boston when nine feet of snow accumulated during a relatively brief period.
Why it happens: Buildings can only handle so much weight before they collapse. But they also need to be constructed properly with reinforcement that braces rafters together, says CJ Antonucci, insurance restoration manager with Nurzia Construction in Fishkill, N.Y.
Solutions: Have an insured, experienced roofer or contractor sweep or rake snow from the entire roof (not just the lower few feet near eaves), says Kuhl. Also, make sure anyone removing the snow does so gently, so no shingles, shakes, or other roof materials are damaged, says contractor Jeff Cohen, founder of Canada & Klein Ltd. in Winnetka, Ill. How much snow should cause concern? Jenn Koeune, maintenance manager at Orren Pickell Building Group in Northfield, Ill., says 18 inches or more indicates it’s time to remove it. “It may not mean the roof will collapse, but getting rid of it will alleviate ice dams and pressure,” she says. But Kuhl suggests removing snow that’s only four inches deep on homes if ice dams have posed a prior problem.
Just when you need heat, the furnace conks out.
Why it happens: There are multiple causes: Maybe it’s old and needs to be replaced, dirty and needs cleaning, or the filter needs replacing. If it’s a high-efficiency model, the exhaust pipe may be clogged and the system’s computer has alerted the furnace to stop producing heat to prevent carbon monoxide from entering the house, Koeune says.
Solutions: Advise home owners to be proactive and service a furnace annually before winter starts, says broker Jennifer Fivelsdal, ABR, GRI, with JFIVE Homes Realty in Red Hook, N.Y.
Take Steps to Stockpile Supplies
Many home owners get so busy in fall that they forget to stock up for winter. Then, when emergencies occur, many stores sell out of essential equipment quickly. Advise your clients to source supplies early on, including a good snow shovel or blower, bags of deicer, multiple flashlights, and extra batteries in case power fails. A good source of information is the federal government’s disaster preparedness site, which also recommends stockpiling canned or dry food for people and pets, clean bottles for fresh water, an emergency radio, and warm blankets.
Lights out! But that’s not all. Home owners experience more fallout when their refrigerator, freezer, sump pump, computer, and other appliances stop working.
Why it happens: It’s usually due to snow, wind, and ice damaging power lines.
Solutions: Home owners should have branches trimmed near power lines before winter begins. They may also want to invest in a stand-alone generator, which can power a few or all of their necessary lights, security system, garage-door opener, refrigerator, sump pump, and more. Stand-alone generators run between $5,000 and $10,000, but they can cost more, depending on the size of the home, what home owners want to back up, and how much power the systems require, according to Generac Power Systems, a manufacturer in Waukesha, Wis. Another related cost is that they require yearly servicing, Koeune says. A less costly option is a portable generator, but it’s only good for a few days, can power only a few appliances or lights, and requires gas or liquid propane to function, which may not be readily available, says sales associate Stephanie Mallios, with Towne Realty Group in Short Hills, N.J. Home owners should also check that their generator works properly to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, Fivelsdal says.
Extra tip: Advise home owners that whenever a big storm is expected to hit their area, they should unplug appliances to avoid power surges that may damage appliances and computers. They should leave on one light so they know when power returns.
Feel a draft? It doesn’t happen just in old houses.
- Even if a dirty furnace is still working, it will be less efficient and more costly to operate than a clean one.
- Many oil and gas providers offer a service plan that includes a once-a-year checkup, typically for a few hundred dollars.
- If home owners need a new furnace, suggest that they look for one that operates at 96 percent efficiency and has a 15- to 20-year lifespan.
Why it happens: Cold air can enter where windows and doors aren’t sealed well and cracks can occur in foundations, walls, roofs, and other places.
Solutions: Home owners should replace broken panes before winter, says Fivelsdal. If they can’t afford new energy-efficient windows and doors, encourage them to add storm windows and doors or to caulk window frames and weather-strip doors to cut down on leaks. Many big-box stores also sell kits to fashion makeshift double-insulated windows with plastic. These may not look great, but they offer an affordable seasonal fix. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program, the average home owner can save 15 percent on heating and cooling costs by air-sealing a home and adding proper insulation.
Extra tip: Suggest that home owners consider a professional home energy audit to check for leaks and measure their home’s insulation values.
Any pipes connected to appliances or fixtures on outside walls can cause ice to build up and pipes to freeze and perhaps burst.
Why it happens: Insufficient insulation or air leakage near a toilet, sink, dishwasher, or other water-using appliance can cause this common problem in below-freezing temperatures.
Solutions: All pipes leading to the units cited above should be wrapped with pipe insulation, and walls or crawl spaces near them should be checked for holes and sealed. When the weather drops below freezing, home owners should open cabinet doors in a kitchen or bathroom that has plumbing on an outside wall, and turn on faucets to allow hot and cold water to drip. That permits the water to run and eliminates freezing, Koeune says.
Extra tips: It’s smart to drain a water system and shut off the main water valve if home owners are away for even a few days when temperatures are expected to remain well below freezing, Mallios says.
Frozen exterior faucets or septic tank
The result can be an unappealing flood or backup of waste.
Why it happens: When outside water sources are left on, water can freeze in pipes, burst them open, and flood a home. A septic system can also freeze and cause waste to back up in toilets or sinks, Fivelsdal says.
Solutions: When temperatures dip, home owners should turn off the outside water for the season and disconnect drained hoses from faucets. A septic system should be checked and cleaned every few years to be certain it’s not full and prone to overflow.
Icy driveway, walkways, and steps
They can easily become slippery and cause falls and broken bones. They may also cause home owners liability issues.
Why it happens: When snow and ice aren’t removed promptly, they can form highly treacherous surfaces and paths — sometimes as slippery as an ice skating rink.
Solutions: Suggest home owners shovel as soon as a snowfall ends, and spread sand or other snow- and ice-mitigating material around. Caution them against using salt, which can hurt pets’ paws and soil alike, says Mallios. Some home owners heat their driveway, though this can be costly.
Extra tip: Home owners should also replace chipped or cracked stones and bricks, which may not be visible when covered with snow or sand but can easily cause accidents, Mallios says.
Flooded basement, foundation, or crawl space
Melted snow and ice can also enter a home at the ground level.
Why it happens: Any of the previously discussed issues may be the culprit of water leakage, such as burst pipes or a failed sump pump. But too much snow piled up close to the house also can push against walls and leak in when it melts. Insufficient drainage around the home is another common cause.
Solutions: Remind home owners to check for holes or cracks at the base of the foundation or in the basement at least once a year, both inside and outside. If land slopes toward the house, they may want to have landscape work done to ensure it slopes outward. They should also check that their sump pump works properly, and that they have a battery back-up or generator in case power fails or the sump pump can’t keep up with the amount of water flowing in, Koeune says. Exterior drain tiles also form a good line of defense to keep out water and are better than tiles installed inside. But interior ones are useful if the exterior perimeter of the home can’t be accessed easily, Antonucci says.
Come cold weather, many critters seek warm shelter — and your clients’ home might provide the perfect spot.
Why it happens: Animals get in any way they can, whether through the top of a chimney or by chewing away at a home’s exterior to form or enlarge an entryway.
Solutions: A cap should be installed on the chimney to seal it off. Trimming branches will help keep trees from becoming a launching pad for animals looking to break in. Also close small gaps or cracks that mice and squirrels can use as a way inside.