Updated on 09.19.14

Maintenance Lessons I’ve Learned as a Homeowner

Trent Hamm

screwdriverAs a first-time homeowner, there are a lot of things going on in the house that were basically a mystery to me. Being the curious sort, I’ve wanted to understand why things are happening, how things work, and how I can keep them working well. This has resulted in a few interesting lessons that are well worth repeating here to help out any potential new homeowner who might be curious.

Six Things I’ve Learned During My First Month As A Homeowner

1. Get to know the people at your local hardware store

I’m serious – this has been invaluable. My town has a small hardware store in it and over the last month or so, I’ve probably stopped in there about twenty times. I told them right off the bat that I was a new homeowner and I was trying to figure things out, so now I have a good relationship with them. The prices for things are a bit high, but I usually buy stuff there because the advice is well worth the markup. Do this as soon as possible – I’m as serious as can be.

2. Drain your hot water heater at least every few months

About two weeks after we moved in, our hot water heater started making a percolating sound – that’s really the only word that described it. It sounded like large ping pong balls inside the heater. Now, I didn’t know the first thing about hot water heaters, but that sound was ominous, so I stopped by the local hardware store and asked about it. It turns out that one should drain their hot water heater every three months or so to prevent sediment buildup, which causes the noise and can lead to a heater breakdown over time. All you have to do is find the faucet at the bottom of the heater, attach a hose to it, run the other end of the hose to the floor drain (or another place where hot water can go), and run it. I used a five gallon bucket the first time. The water ran a lot of nasty looking colors (reds and browns and a bit of green) before eventually turning clear after filling up two buckets worth. I then closed the faucet and the heater’s noise is now nonexistent.

3. Check your furnace filter immediately – and probably change it

I knew that furnace filters needed to be checked monthly (and often replaced), but it didn’t occur to me to do this immediately. When I finally did it (about two weeks after moving in), the filter was beyond foul, as if they hadn’t changed it in the last several months before moving out. If you’re freshly into a house, check out the furnace filter as soon as possible. Don’t know what to get? All you have to do is mark down the dimensions of the filter (find the filter and look at the side of it) and get one of the same dimensions at the store.

4. Change all the lightbulbs (preferably to CFLs)

This seems strange, but it was very worthwhile for me. Some of the bulbs had not been changed since the original homeowners moved in. Being neurotic about CFLs and energy conservation (and thus a cheaper energy bill). So, one afternoon I went around and changed every bulb in the house. Two of them were almost fused into the socket because they’d been in place for seven years or so – in one case, the bulb itself came off in my hand and it took extensive effort to get the metal piece of the bulb out of the socket. I recommend getting all new bulbs installed in a new house ASAP – and while you’re at it, just put in CFLs because they save a lot of energy and make for cheaper electric bills, both in terms of the lights themselves and the cooling as a result of the heat that incandescent bulbs put out.

5. Settle into maintenance routines

A lot of people feel overwhelmed by the amount of maintenance that needs to be done with a house. I’ve found myself that scheduling these home maintenance tasks really helps out with remembering to do them. Whenever I find something that needs to be done regularly (like draining the water heater), I just plan it in my scheduling program in perpetuity, then I just open the program every day. I use it to schedule every significant event in my life (birthdays, anniversaries, etc.), so it works well.

6. Define a cleaning plan

With two adults working full time and a toddler running amok, it’s easy to get the house messy and feel like there’s not enough time to clean it. What I did is define a cleaning schedule – one room a day, with two rooms on weekend days. That basically gives each room a thorough cleaning at least every two weeks. I usually schedule our high-use rooms weekly (living room, kitchen, family room, main floor bathroom) with the other rooms every other week and only doing the guest room before and after guest arrival. Doing this (and scheduling it) helps me keep the house clean.

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  1. Sara says:

    Having a defined cleaning plan is a great idea, but I do mine a bit differently. Instead of cleaning a room at a time, my boyfriend and I like to clean by type. For example, one weekend will be dedicated to dusting everything, then the next is for vacuuming all the floors, scrub down the bathrooms the next weekend, and deep clean the kitchen the weekend after that. This way the entire house gets thoroughly cleaned once a month, but I never have to spend more than a couple of hours on it at any one time. Of course, it helps that we keep the clutter to a minimum, and pick up after ourselves!

  2. phantomdata says:

    I just wanted to chime in about CFLs. I’m curious, everyone is making a big fuss about how they save money on electricity… but nobody seems to care about the mercury content. Not that I’m one to be scared about “evil radiationz and prions in my childrens” – but when the EPA tells me that I should evacuate the room for at least fifteen minutes subsequent to breakage and my garbage collection company won’t let me throw them in my garbage… I’m a little worried. Do you have any thoughts on this?

  3. Michelle says:

    Thank you, phantomdata for bringing that up! Because of the mercury content in them, CFLs are toxic!

    Not only are these bulbs dangerous in the house, but they are devastating to the environment and to our food chain once they’re used up. A used bulb legally becomes hazardous waste and cannot be simply thrown into the garbage (it says so right on the CFL packaging), but this is also true of batteries, and how many people do you know who DON’T just throw batteries away?

    Once mercury gets into a landfill, it’s almost a sure thing that it will get into our foodchain – mine, yours, and that of your children and grandchildren. You care about your children, right?

    These bulbs are a VERY short-sighted “solution” to our energy problems. DON’T USE THEM.

  4. neilxu says:

    The CFL bulbs contains less mercury. This is the fact:

  5. Bill says:

    You probably need an expansion tank on your hot water heater (“gurgling”)

    Draining will not get as much stuff out as once every year or socutting power, draining the tank, taking off the drain valve and using that as access for your wet/dry vac in order to suck sediment out of the bottom (check the anode as well)

    I trust the first 2 comments are a joke – a single CFL saves several times the mercury it contains.

    In a hot climate like mine, you save even more electric power by avoiding the heat generated by traditional incandescent bulbs.

    In the U.S. at least, coal is THE fuel for electric power.

    Unfortunately, burning coal releases large amounts of mercury (and no, buying renewable credits doesn’t change the base-load generation mix)

  6. David says:

    getting into and planning a cleaning routine is great, and definitely a good idea to do a little bit everyday so you aren’t bogged down on the weekends. Just beware that it can be hard to keep up with this while working and taking care of your children.

    Make it a point to set a half hour a day to do some chores around the house it will pay off on the weekends.

  7. Brandon says:

    CFLs are not a danger to you. It’s just an urban legend.


    I’ve used them for over 2 years now and haven’t broken (or had to replace one yet). They are a great value over the long term.

  8. Angel says:

    In regards to the CFL’s I was reading some information about CFL’s and the amount of mercury they contain and it is only 5 milligrams (approx. the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen). Of course any amount of mercury is dangerous but as Bill had stated in his comment coal burning releases mercury into the air. Coal fired power generation accounts for 40% of mercury emissions in the US. Use of CFL’s reduces power demand which helps reduce mercury emissions from power plants.

    For me the good for the environment out weighs the bad- (a chance that I may drop a bulb, which can be cleaned up).

  9. thordora says:

    We try and stick to a cleaning routine, and we find it helps-that way no ones getting a nose out of joint about someone doing more. Our problem with two small kids and only one day off together is getting the actual home maintance done-yard work, home improvement, etc. Almost impossible!

    And CFL’s have helped in our house-and I was under the impression that there are disposal methods for these?

  10. Jess says:

    Random suggestion: if you ever run into a problem with a broken bulb that’s still stuck in the light socket, cut a potato in half and stick it on the broken bulb. It’s big enough that it should hold all the broken part and still give you enough to hold onto so you can unscrew it.

  11. brent says:

    that’s just the beginning.

    when do you mow?

    do you need to get the leaves out of your gutters?

    what condition are your fences in?

    what’s your plan of attack in the garden? are you gonna let it wither and die this summer or try to make it through the ‘drought’?

  12. kazari says:

    Well Brent,
    http://www.flylady.net has routines for the inside of the house, and a home maintenance journal for the outside.
    it’s based on the idea of one weekly clean (for about an hour) and then 15 minutes every day, with a focus on a different room every week.
    hmm. that sounds much more complicated than it actually is.

  13. Jared says:

    @Jess: Damnit, that was my comment! I was so excited no one had mentioned it yet…

    If you’re a little suicidal, you can flip the switch on and use a pair of needle-nose pliers. :D

  14. Kenny says:

    Furnace filters are cheap. One other good idea is to pay a professional to “maintenance” your heater element and/or cooling element. Watch to see how he does it (they love the attention usually), then you can do it from then on out!

    Keeping the heating elements clean as well will keep things more efficient.

    I am slowly making the switch to CFLs and noticed my electric bill is much less than usual. It’s a curse, really, becaus enow my wife wants to turn the AC on more to keep the house cooler since we’re spending less than we expect each month!

  15. Joe says:

    Make sure to turn off you water heater before draining it.

  16. viola says:

    Also you can buy the better furnace (or AC) filters that last 3 months & save yourself the headache. I have to buy these anyways since they help my allergies & control dust in the house better. The cheap-o blue ones that you replace every month are useless..you can throw sand through them.

    I buy the cheaper version of the good ones (white accordian looking) in a 3 pack, I think by 3M. The “Filtrete” Brand is way more expensive & I couldn’t tell a difference.

  17. Eric says:

    Don’t forget to have your AC checked once a year and renew your termite bond…it’s just worth it!

  18. Deb Coyle says:

    I have a natural gas furnace. Does this type of furnace have a filter?

  19. Dorky Dad says:

    When it comes time to replace the water heater, go tankless.

    And yes, Deb, a gas furnace does have a filter.

  20. Deb Coyle says:

    Hey Dorky Dad, thanks, but I cannot find a filter on my natural gas steam furnace. Thanks.

  21. rhbee says:

    Geez, I feel like one of the three princes of Serendip. Yesterday, before leaving to go inspect a rental property that had just cleared escrow, I read this post. So I jotted down check the filter, and when I got there took a look. Ugh. The inch thick filter was two inches deep in dust and the whole unit looked like it hadn’t been touched in years. And bye the bye, Kenny, I had had the owner pay for a HUAC firm to come out and check the whole unit so I guess I was just lucky not to have been there and learned from his or her example. Anyway, thanks Trent for the timely stuff.

  22. JRMan says:

    Forced air furnaces (gas or electric) have furnace filters; hot water boiler systems do not. So on your steam furnace, you will be looking all day!
    Here’s what Energy Star says about CFLs:
    A link about disposal is found toward the bottom of the page.

  23. Gina says:

    Thanks for the reminder to drain the hot water heater. There was no visible gunk in the water I drained into the bucket so I mixed plant food with it and used it on the flowers.

  24. Paul says:

    Thanks for all the great tips. I found this page because our hot water heater was making that noise. I just finished draining it and the noise seems to have stopped.

    Thanks again.

  25. Ed says:

    For electric water heaters, you need to kill the electricity to it before draining the tank. Flip the breaker in the main breaker panel before draining the tank. The heating elements and thermostats will not know the tank is empty, they will just know the temperature dropped and the water needs to to be heated up. If the heating elments come on and they are exposed to air it could cause damage to the elements and its electrical circuits.

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