I must admit, when I bought my first home in 1985, I was so naïve. Growing up on a small farm with livestock, we were fairly self-sufficient. My dad made sure we knew how to handle many things around the farm, but there was still plenty I did not know. I remember when I got my first car, (a 1967 Toyota Corolla given to me by an aunt and uncle) my dad made me change all four tires, so I would know how to change a tire and not need to depend on anyone else. Roadside assistance – no way! And God knows we couldn’t afford it even if it had been available. I wish everyone ascribed to my dad’s idea of preparedness when it comes to owning a home. I’ve created a list of things YOU need to know about your home.
A client called me around 10:00 pm one night in October of 2018 exclaiming, “My toilet is overflowing.” When I asked if she had turned the water off, her answer was, “I don’t know where the cut-off valve is. My neighbor is trying to find it!” What a horrible time to try to locate the water control—it’s dark and gallons of water are flooding your home.
It’s always better to do some research before a claim occurs! Let’s explore nine essential home knowledge topics. This represents the minimal body of knowledge you should have as a homeowner.
- Know your property lines. I’m surprised by the number of people who do not have their property surveyed. I learned this lesson the hard way. When I finally had my property surveyed, the property line actually ran straight through the middle of my home! It was a total cluster to correct. Most communities mark property lines with iron stakes at the corners and in areas where property lines meet. You can request a plot from your city or county government. Look at these specific areas and use a rake or shovel to uncover them. If the stakes are deeper (they usually are), a metal detector can help you find their location. Mark the areas, so you know where they are. I will never again buy a piece of property without having a survey. Do you know how many people have built storage buildings, garages, and other structures on a neighbor’s property? Another plus, knowing where your property line is lets you know whose trees are whose. Get a survey to avoid this.
- Find the cut-off valve to your water. Water is becoming one of the most damaging insurance claims. A burst pipe can send gallons of water into your home damaging your home’s interior (flooring, drywall and ceilings) and your personal contents. You should have a cut-off valve in the house and one outside of your home as well. In urban areas, the cut-off valve is usually in the front yard, and a water key will turn it off. Everyone in your household should know where the cut-off valve is located. If you know where the cut-off is, but you aren’t home when the water loss occurs, you are no help. Knowing this information and acting quickly can save time and thousands in loss damages.
Other preventative measures include checking all toilets and sinks for leaks or constant running. Look under all sinks to make sure no water is leaking. If you have leaks, have them repaired quickly before they become a bigger problem. Every insurance adjuster can tell hundreds of stories about clients leaving town on Friday and returning on Sunday evening to find thousands of dollars in water damage. These incidents could easily have been avoided IF the client had TURNED OFF their main water valve BEFORE going on vacation. As Ben Franklin noted, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
- Locate your main electrical breaker. Knowing where the juice comes in to your home is vital. In case of emergency, the main breaker may need to be tripped. Again, everyone in the household should know the location of the electrical breaker box. In addition, don’t trust the labels in your breaker box. The labels can be marked incorrectly, and you don’t want someone injured because the labels were wrong. For example, one outlet in a room might not be on the same circuit as the others in the room. This outlet may not be listed on the panel at all. Always use a voltage detector to make sure no power is running to an area you are working on.
- Have a working fire extinguisher. In fact, you should have more than one. If your house has more than one story, you should have a fire extinguisher on EVERY floor. Fire extinguishers should be easily accessible. Replace your fire extinguisher when it expires. They DO NOT last forever! I had to use my fire extinguisher on my chimney one time. I live in a protection class 10 which means the fire department is a long way from my house. Having a good fire extinguisher and being able to use it helped save my home from a fire.
Kitchen fires can escalate quickly, and if you don’t know the location of the fire extinguisher, small flames can become a big blaze in a matter of minutes. The fire extinguisher should always be visible in the kitchen. Fire extinguishers are not just a matter of convenience. They can be a matter of life and death. Throwing water on a grease fire is the first reaction for many people, but that’s the absolute worst thing you can do. The water is worse than gasoline. Check out this Youtube video to see what I mean.
- Find your hot water heater and drain. If your hot water heater starts to leak, it can be drained using the plug on it and a hose. If you are home at the time of the mishap, you should be able to accomplish this quickly before too much damage is done.
Regularly checking your hot water heater to ensure it is in proper working order is important. By the way, 120 degrees is the optimum temperature for your hot water. Water hotter than 120 degrees can scald a child.
A small investment in a blanket for your water heater will gradually save you money on your heating bill over time by keeping the heat in the water instead of letting it disperse slowly into your basement or utility closet. Be careful not to cover the water heater’s top, bottom, thermostat, or burner compartment.
- Identify your air filters and returns. You should know where all of your air filters are located, so you can change them regularly. If you locate your air handling unit, the filter is usually a large rectangular area. Air filters get very dusty especially if you have indoor pets. Make sure your air filters are cleaned frequently—as in monthly. Changing filters is easy but must be done. Always keep a spare on hand so you can change the filter when needed. Outdated filters have a negative impact on air-flow, making your HVAC work harder.
- Know the location of your attic access. Check the insulation level in your attic. You should have at least six inches of insulation in your attic. If you don’t have six inches of insulation, you should add additional insulation. If you can see the tops of joists, you don’t have enough insulation. Recommended insulation levels for most attics is 10 to 14 inches deep, depending on the type of insulation you choose. Make certain your hatch is insulated as well by gluing a 4-inch-thick foam board to the top.
It is important to frequently check your attic especially if you store personal items in it. Rodents can invade these spaces and destroy your belongings which may or may not be covered by your insurance depending on the type of policy you purchased. Here in east Tennessee, bats can also be an issue. And trust me bats in your attic is an expensive issue. Water leaks from your roof can also damage personal items. Take the time monthly to look in your attic.
- Inspect any exposed pipes and protect them. A few years ago we had a number of water claims when the temperatures dipped well below freezing for several days. Several clients had pipes exposed in the garage and under the house. These pipes were not properly protected and froze or burst. Wrapping pipes with pipe insulation in cold basements or garages can make a big difference.
- Knowing the lay-out of your plumbing pipes, ductwork, wires, and cables is important before you start drilling holes to hang your favorite items on the wall. Locating these can be done with a stud-finder. Stud-finders can be purchased at your local hardware store. They aren’t perfect, so you should still be extremely careful when drilling into a wall.
A good fact to know is that house wiring runs horizontally from outlet to outlet so avoid these areas. Also be careful close to wall switches.
These nine tips can make home ownership more enjoyable and safer. I’m a firm believer that homeownership is not for everyone as it carries huge responsibility. Renters can call the landlord for repairs or hire out the repairs, but as a homeowner, you are responsible for everything that happens at your home. Unfortunately, everything that happens is not covered by your homeowners insurance, so you want to be proactive.