The Value of Proactive Home and Building Maintenance
You don’t have to tell insurance adjusters or fire and water restoration contractors about the merits of proactive home and building maintenance. They often see the lack thereof when they show up at losses.
Sadly, many home and building owners put off needed maintenance and replacement of building exterior components such as roofs, windows, and siding. They also delay much-needed attention to building interior items such as water supply lines, caulking, couplers, filters, and appliances. While there may be a slew of reasons for this procrastination, we know all too well how putting off preventative maintenance and repair can lead to much larger problems.
It’s also why many insurance executives as well as property managers gray prematurely. After all, they are the ones who tend to be rebuffed when they recommend proactive maintenance to their policyholders, association boards, and building owners. In particular, property managers hate unpleasant surprises, especially expensive ones. They tend to be budget busters which creates great angst among their association board members.
Many times the warnings and advice property managers give those responsible go unheeded. Said one frustrated property manager after a major loss hit her condominium building: “I wanted to shout; I told you so! But of course, I only mutter that in the car when I am driving home from my evening board meetings.” She added with a smirk, “Maybe someday when I am near retirement.”
Ice dams will for sure happen this year with the heavier snow and fluctuating temperatures. Homeowners may or may not know their houses are not properly insulated and prone to ice dams, yet they forget proactive maintenance to reduce the risk. Routinely, snowbirds will go down to warmer regions. Many will turn their thermostats down to dangerously low temperatures to reduce heat bills. After all, they aren’t staying in the house. This strategy often ends up with pipe breaks that allow water to run for hours and days.
Most property managers will tell you selling home and building maintenance is easier said than done, especially when times are tough, and inflation is high as it is now. “Have you seen some of the insurance increases we have been getting?” said one manager, “That’s tough enough to explain. How would you like to follow that up with a proposal for proactive maintenance?” The first thing board members may ask is if they can put this off for a while. It’s a tough question to respond to when nothing bad has happened recently.
Back in 1972, Framm Oil Filters ran some classic TV ads which touted the proactive benefits of doing regular oil and filter changes. They would show a major engine repair being done, and the mechanic would close the commercial by saying that needed service work like an oil change could have prevented a costly repair. The tagline was, “The choice is yours. You can pay me now…. or you can pay me later.” That foreboding warning perfectly summarizes the argument for proactive home and building maintenance.
A few horror stories provide convincing arguments for this as well. A flat roof collapsed from covered scuppers, creating water drainage through several floors of units that resulted in a six-figure water loss. How about the owner who complained about the strange noise in her bathroom fan and days later had a fire start in the same unit? Then there was the slow dripping another owner had in her bedroom window. Weeks later after a 5-inch rain, the water leaked into the unit below. Should we even bring up water supply lines, water seepage, failing caulk, and frozen pipes? Restoration companies can write a book about them.
Yet, the most compelling argument for proactive home and building maintenance is without question safety. You’ll recall the Champlain Towers Condominium in Surfside, Florida collapsed in June 2021 resulting in the death of 98 people. Alarmingly, that complex was built in 1981. There’s no doubt the salty beach air had some impact on the corrosion, but an engineer’s report released in 2018 identified issues with concrete cracking and exposed rebar. The engineer suggested doing a complete reconstruction, but no formal maintenance proposal was ever made to leadership. Following the collapse, investigators discovered water damage along with structural corrosion. Proof was eventually released of extensive corrosion and overcrowded concrete reinforcement.
What is the lesson learned for property managers and building owners? Proactive maintenance is not something to be delayed indefinitely. While collapses such as Champlain Towers are extremely rare, as our horrific failures like the 35 W Bridge in Minneapolis, these tragedies could have been prevented with scheduled maintenance. Now, it’s true the vast majority of major damage situations don’t result in injuries and death, but at a minimum, routine maintenance does enhance the quality of life for owners who sometimes have their world disrupted by months of restoration and reconstruction. It also prevents unpleasant financial surprises. At worst, the risk of death and injuries are reduced significantly.
There are also valuable lessons to be learned for the construction industry. Contractors should prioritize the highest quality, structural integrity, and safety standards in construction projects. Moreover, they must advocate this high bar with great urgency.
Many operators understand associations and building owners have tight budgets and funds are not unlimited. Given the probability of strong pushback that may damper their relationship, they are sometimes passive in recommending costly repairs. They’ve all lost bids to companies who stretch construction code leniency and undercut what should be done to do the job right. But ethics, honesty, and professionalism demand they do the right thing.
Proactive home and building maintenance has other benefits. Besides making good financial sense, as mentioned earlier, it often results in happier owners. The best owners and renters want to stay in their homes for a long time. When property is well maintained, owners feel more respected especially when their requests are handled in a timely manner. Their investment also appreciates instead of losing value. This also makes the resale process easier.
An annual work schedule is the best way to make sure homeowners and managers keep up with needed maintenance on their buildings. A multi-year plan is even better so scheduled maintenance can be stretched out and budgeted properly. In commercial settings, the plans should be shared with association boards and all vendors that work in the building and grounds.
Unplanned expenses do happen, but their frequency and severity will be reduced by a maintenance schedule. The “pay me now or pay me later” admonition should be your regular mantra. You can work with your preferred contractor to develop a maintenance schedule or do it yourself with input from trusted vendors.
In the commercial world, most companies would be more than happy to contribute their expertise. It’s advisable to consult specialty contractors such as fire and water damage restoration contractors, electricians, plumbers, landscapers, HVAC contractors, pest control, roofing, and exterior pros, sprinkler companies, elevator operators, appliance specialists, and locksmiths. Local fire departments are also good sources of information. Yes, it’s an aggressive undertaking and a lot of work, but the benefits will be long-term and you’ll be a hero.
Homeowners can get experts to help them too, but this will require spending some money. Many electricians and plumbers can be hired to do proactive maintenance checklists. One of the best ideas is hiring a home inspector, even if you don’t plan to buy or sell a home short-term. This will cost you a few hundred dollars but in the long run, can save you thousands when extensive problems occur.
Here are some suggestions for proactive home and building maintenance that will reduce expensive repairs down the road.
Annual Home Checklist and Inspection
This should include everything AND the kitchen sink. Let’s start with the interior.
We’re talking water supply lines (to dishwashers, washing machines, ice makers toilets etc.), sink connections, the toilet compartment itself, garbage disposal, power outlets, light fixtures, smoke detectors, CO detectors, sprinkler systems, and air filters. Interior caulking should be checked as well as all pipes, couplers, and valves. When applicable, the exterior should also be inspected. Building components such as the roof, exterior walls, chimney, fascia, caulking, windows, landscaping, outside sewer lines, etc., all need close scrutiny.
Outside, in many cases, trees and bushes are too close to the house and the roots can affect the foundation as well as sewer lines. Drain tile can plug up too and back up. Also, over time, the ground settles, especially after heavy construction nearby. Pets and pests often dig and burrow. Eventually, this can result in water draining back into the foundation. Trees and overgrown bushes should be regularly trimmed as the foliage contains water and can compromise siding and brick.
Sewer lines and city drains should be routinely checked for clogs. The sewer line coming in, as well as septic (if applicable) is your responsibility, not the local city or townships. The street drain is municipal property. Those issues can be remedied with a call to the city. Be alert to local work done on streets and gutters. There have been plenty of problems in recent years when entire neighborhoods are victimized by clogged city sewer lines. Establishing who is liable has the potential of being a disputed legal hassle.
Each power outlet should be checked annually. A malfunctioning outlet can mean a minor short or more serious damage to the line. Do-it-yourself electricians have been known to leave live wires inside walls. It’s recommended that licensed pros do your proactive checks and maintenance.
Commercial Applications: Responding to Owner Problems & Requests
We’re not talking about the high-maintenance people who call you routinely for every little knicky-knack problem and can’t be pleased. These are legitimate requests that need attention sooner than later or expensive repairs will be needed. Property managers can lean on their vendors here to triage problems that require an immediate response.
Focus on Root Cause Solutions, Not Symptoms
A common mistake is treating the symptom and not the root cause of a problem. An example is putting roof heating cables on the end of a roof that is prone to ice dams instead of addressing an end solution, which is either effective insulation, air movement, or both. Another common practice is caulking a leak in an area that needs significant repair. Waterproofing walls of a parking garage that is sustaining draining water from outside is prevalent and sometimes results in a longer solution, yet the root cause is water draining inappropriately from outside sources. Yes, we all understand the realities of annual budgeting and people’s wallets, but problems don’t typically go away by themselves, and permanent solutions are preferable.
Multi-family Building Issues: Are the Problems Individual or Widespread?
Is the problem contained to an individual unit or is it more common? Is there an issue with a toilet shutoff valve in one home or is this a condominium building where all units lack shut-off valves? Are you treating one unit for cockroaches? The chances are the problem is more widespread. You may be better off with an all-encompassing treatment and avoid piecemealing the problem. If all the water heaters were installed at the same time, and one fails, chances are others will be close to their end lives. It might be economically feasible to replace them all and get a better price.
Encouraging Owners to Be Proactive Stewards of Their Homes
It’s easy to see how this can be abused by some but it’s generally better to encourage owners to be proactive stewards of their own homes. It pays off in the long run. Owners typically like to protect their investments. Not to stereotype, but many renters have a different mentality since there is no financial stake in the property. But then there are plenty of owners who in their busy lives have other priorities than reporting slow leaks. One restoration contractor tells the story of a doctor they worked with who had a bad water loss but inexplicitly decided to fly out of town for an important conference and not tell anyone. It’s better to get on top of problems early instead of ignoring them. Regular tips can be sent out regarding fire prevention and water loss prevention.
Proactive home and building maintenance doesn’t have to be painful. Problems can be anticipated and dealt with effectively before they become major headaches. Also, in this post-pandemic high inflation era, supply line issues are still prevalent, and costs continue to increase. Funding needed maintenance and staying on schedule can prevent unpleasant and costly surprises and save money in the long run. Yes, that mechanic in the Framm commercial gave wise advice, “It’s your choice. Pay me now or pay me later.”