Home Economics: The high cost of deferred maintenance

Deferring repairs "never helped to sell a home," said an agent, "and it helps less now than ever." They can result ?in big losses for the seller.
Deferring repairs "never helped to sell a home," said an agent, "and it helps less now than ever." They can result ?in big losses for the seller.
Posted: March 16, 2012

You didn't have the money to hire a plumber to fix the leaky pipe in the basement, so you got the brilliant idea to use bubble gum and duct tape to repair it "temporarily."

Maybe that was fine for you, but what about the next person? We mean, of course, the next owner of your house. Will bubble gum and duct tape create a laugh, or will the buyer and his or her inspector wonder if there are any other quick fixes around the house?

"Deferred maintenance never helped to sell a home, and it helps less now than ever," said Cheryl Miller of Long & Foster Real Estate in Blue Bell. "The cost of deferred maintenance for a home sale today results in a significant amount of loss on sale dollars for a seller."

Most of Miller's buyers seem to have a clear understanding of economically deferred maintenance, and sometimes they are even comfortable with a few of the bigger issues.

"Buyers just want to understand what they are getting into before they commit," she said. "Money mitigates problems."

"I can't get over how much I see," said Harris Gross of Engineers for Home Inspections in Cherry Hill. "From expensive to cheap, people think houses take care of themselves. They never think how condo fees paid each month go to maintenance."

These fees "represent the costs of running the building the same as you would have in a house," said Allan Domb, the Center City Realtor and developer. They also pay for professional management, something Domb cites as a time-saver for today's busy condo owner.

Remember, when selling a house in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, sellers must fill out disclosure forms identifying "all known material defects about property that are not readily observable."

Trying to hide defects from a buyer is not only illegal, but also will likely torpedo a sale.

Time, or lack of it, may be a major reason maintenance is deferred. Many homeowners often say they aren't aware of problems because they don't have time to go looking for them.

"People often plan to do certain repairs, but don't get around to them, and eventually don't even notice them," said Marilou Buffum of Prudential Fox & Roach in Chestnut Hill. "They live with them until they plan to sell their house and are advised by someone like me to fix them."

While acknowledging that he tends, too, to put off regular maintenance, Chance A. Brown, a Houston real estate broker, suggests in a blog post that some of these jobs take less time than we think they do.

"Sure, you're supposed to change that air filter every 30 days, but it's no big deal if it goes 60 days, right?" Brown asks.

Probably, but "what happens when that clogged filter causes bigger problems over time for your air-conditioning system?"

Decks should be sealed annually. A gallon of water seal is about $17, he said, "and it will take you an hour or two, depending on size of the deck, to seal it well.

"On the flip side, a 2-by-4 costs $2, but you have to have the tools to cut and install it," Brown said, adding that "you have to seal it anyway."

Many homeowners often aren't aware there is a problem, perhaps because they don't have enough time to realize it.

Some of those are "big issues that sellers do not think to check, such as chimney liners, parts of roof, gutters, termites and their resulting damage," said Carolyn Sabatelli, an agent with Weichert Realtors in Media.

Some repairs are often too small to be worth a contractor's time, and homeowners - especially ones with children - can't seem to find even a small opening in their schedules to tackle it.

Money, too, especially in these uncertain economic times, can be an issue with especially large repairs. So the problem is deferred, and, in many instances, forgotten.

Home inspector Kristin Keller of Key Building Inspections of Kimberton said, "Deferred maintenance is the most common category of concerns we identify in home inspections."

They come in several different styles, she said.

â ¢I'll get to it later: A pot under either a plumbing fitting or wet spot on roof sheathing.

â ¢Out of sight, out of mind: Cracks in the chimney cap, which leads to "I didn't know there was a problem" - despite chimney bricks in the attic the consistency of sugar cubes from water seepage.

â ¢Amateur repairs: Shoe strings securing plumbing lines to the structure.

â ¢Too hard to get to and/or I thought I'd move before it got too bad: Cracks in roofing tar and caulking.

â ¢The builder said it was OK: Settlement of soil around foundation preventing storm water from percolating at least 10 feet away from the structure.

â ¢It's always been like that: Old electrical wiring that was good enough for Grandma with a light and radio in the family room, but can't keep up with the TV, computer, stereo, plus lights in the family room when the air conditioner and dryer are running.

â ¢The usuals: Rot in trim, uneven walkways, deteriorating paint, cracked masonry, siding in contact with soil, vegetation against the house and/or power lines, lack of servicing of major appliances, stuck windows.

Every home inspector and real estate agent appears to have his or her favorite deferred-maintenance example.

Gross updates his Facebook page with the latest examples, including junk-filled yards, unrepaired fire damage, wobbly chimneys, and a flue used for BB-gun target practice.

Keller has her own set of favorites, including a furnace filter "sucked into the unit because the filter has a thick and no-longer-permeable coating of animal hair and dust, including a mostly decomposed mouse."

She inspected a basement "with so much termite damage to the floor joists that the owner had installed lolly columns about every four feet.

"Unfortunately, columns aren't much good at supporting papier-mache," Keller said. "Our screwdriver went completely through several joists."

One roof had three 10-inch sections of tree branches penetrating the rubber material. "Apparently, a tree had fallen on the roof and the tree had been cut away. But the branches through the roof," she said, "were doing an 'adequate' job of preventing leaks."

Contact real estate writer Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @alheavens.

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