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Top 10 Repair Questions

Expert answers to the most frequently asked home maintenance questions

This "Top 10 List" is no late-night-television joke. We put it together based on your most frequently asked home maintenance questions. Then we found the experts to answer them. Whether it's sweaty windows, peeling paint, wet basements, or sagging floors, you've probably encountered one or more of these headaches as a homeowner. Here's what you can do about them.

1. Drywall Nail Pops

Pops occur when lumber shrinks and exposes the shank of a nail or screw, according to Myron Ferguson, a drywall contractor in Broadalbin, New York. Pressure on the loose drywall panel causes the head of the fastener to pop through. To repair, drive a drywall screw about 1 1/2 inches above or below the pop on the same stud. Press the panel firmly against the framing as you set the screw. Next, remove or reset the popped fastener. If the surface is damaged, Ferguson uses mesh tape to strengthen and conceal the repair. "Compared with paper tape, mesh trowels out thinner." Improper fastener length can also contribute to the problem. When installing drywall, make sure the screws penetrate the stud by at least 5/8 inch; nails should penetrate the stud by at least 7/8 inch. Don't set the fastener too deep; tearing the paper surface also reduces the holding power of the fastener. "Do it right the first time," urges Ferguson. "Use a screw gun and wallboard adhesive. Applying adhesive reduces the number of fasteners needed."

2. Asbestos Siding

”Many contractors have misled homeowners by claiming that all asbestos-containing materials in homes must be removed,” says Ken Giles, spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission. This may be true for loose or damaged materials, but the best way to handle asbestos siding is to leave it alone. Shingles contain nonfriable asbestos, which means that the fibers aren’t released unless they’re sawed, drilled, cut or broken. Other remedies include encapsulating or covering the siding. To encapsulate, paint the siding with a latex masonry primer and high-quality latex paint. But don’t sand or scrape the shingles. To prepare the siding, just scrub with a soap-and-water solution, then rinse with a hose. To cover asbestos siding, install insulation board and vinyl siding over the shingles. Make sure screws penetrate at least 3/4 inch into the wall studs. Removal is the most expensive solution, and should be the last resort unless it’s required by state or local regulations, or if you’re considering a major exterior renovation, such as a large addition. Asbestos removal must be done by a certified contractor (look under “Asbestos” in the yellow pages). Improper removal is illegal and increases the health risks to you and your family.

3. Mildew on Exterior Paint

John Stauffer, technical director of the Paint Quality Institute in Spring House, Pennsylvania, says you should make sure you’re dealing with mildew and not just dirt: Place a few drops of bleach on a suspected stain, wait a few minutes and then rinse. If the treated area loses its color, it’s mildew (bleach does not affect dirt). “Mildew can be eliminated by treating the surface with a mixture of one part bleach to three parts water,” Stauffer says. “Leave the mixture on the surface for about 20 minutes, then rinse thoroughly.” As always, wear adequate hand and eye protection. While it’s impossible to keep your walls free of mildew, there are things that you can do to prevent it from returning. When repainting, clean the surface and paint when it’s completely dry. Don’t paint on a windy day if nearby surfaces are mildewed, because the spores can blow over and infect the fresh paint. Many high-quality paints on the market contain a mildewcide, but you can also buy an additive to help paint resist mildew. Also, use latex paint, which resists mildew better than oil-based paint because it contains fewer nutrients for the mildew to feed upon. Gloss level also plays a role in mildew growth. Glossier paints are less porous, so dirt and mold spores have less to grab hold of. And because darker colors dry faster than lighter colors after it rains, they are less receptive to mildew.

4. Truss Uplift

Truss uplift, or truss arching, is caused by wood reacting to changes in humidity, according to Rachel Smith, technical director of the Wood Truss Council of America in Madison, Wisconsin. The problem usually shows up in winter, when the bottom chords (the ceiling joist part of the truss), which are buried under ceiling insulation, stay warm and dry. Top chords, on the other hand, are exposed to moister attic air. As a result of the different moisture levels, the top chords expand and the bottom chords contract, which causes the bottoms of the trusses to bow, or lift, off of the wall. To confirm that this is the problem, use a handheld moisture meter on the top and bottom chords. But also ask a contractor to look for any settlement of bearing walls, headers, beams or floor members. In fact, truss arching is the cause of only about 20 percent of reported cases of partition separation, according to Smith. If the problem is moisture-related, installing attic ventilation can help correct the problem. Eave vents in combination with ridge vents are most effective.

5. Popcorn Ceiling

Whether you hate the look or have dirt and stains on your popcorn ceiling, your best option is to remove the old texture and start from scratch. “Sprayed acoustic ceilings are notorious dirt and dust collectors,” says Kevin Bush, a drywall contractor in Boyer-town, Pennsylvania, “and patching water stains and cracks is almost impossible.” Although only a small percentage of sprayed acoustic ceilings contain asbestos fibers, have a small sample tested before starting work. If the lab gives the all-clear, use a ceiling-texture scraper to remove the old finish. This tool consists of a handle, blade and plastic bag. As you scrape, the bag catches most of the debris, making cleanup easier. You won’t get a smooth ceiling after you remove the acoustic. Most contractors apply only two coats of joint compound to drywall joints when the ceiling will be covered with a popcorn finish. For a smooth finish, you’ll need to sand and apply a third coat. Then paint with a drywall primer followed by a flat ceiling paint. It hides imperfections better than glossier paints. If you want to apply a new texture, the simplest is a “knockdown” finish. Thin down some joint compound with water and roll it on the ceiling with a medium-nap paint roller. When the compound is almost dry, run a wide trowel over the surface. The semismooth surface can be painted with a glossier paint without sacrificing its “hiding” quality.

6. Wet Basement or Crawl Space

A number of circumstances can cause a wet basement or crawl space. First, it’s important that gutters are clean and downspouts divert water away from the house, according to Mark Kuzila, director of the Conservation and Survey Division at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. If water from a downspout is puddling around the foundation, divert the water by extending the downspout at least 10 feet from the house. Surface drainage is also important. Watch how the water puddles the next time it rains. Fill any low spots that puddle within 10 feet of the foundation. For best drainage, the land surrounding your house should slope away from the foundation at a rate of 1 inch per foot, including the driveway, sidewalk, and patio. Problems with subsurface water are generally more serious and will require professional help. The least intrusive solution is to install a sump pump, but when subsurface water is putting pressure on basement walls, it might also be necessary to install a subsurface drainage system. This involves excavating around the foundation and installing 4-inch drainage pipe covered with gravel. In severe cases you may need to contact a soil engineer to investigate the depth and direction of the subsurface water.

7. Sagging Floors

Sagging or sloping floors could be the result of inadequate support beams that are deflecting or failing. Rotted sills or an inadequate foundation are other causes. In addition to affecting the floor, these conditions can cause wall cracks and make doors and windows impossible to open. According to Dr. Sarah Kirby, housing specialist at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service in Raleigh, sagging upper floors and those caused by insect or water damage should be looked at by a contractor. You can sometimes correct minor sags on the first floor yourself with a pair of screw-type jack posts and a wood or steel beam to bridge the jacks, but this procedure is difficult and somewhat risky. The posts need a very firm foundation. Even if you have a 4-inch concrete slab, you still need to create a concrete pier pad for the jack that’s 18 to 24 inches square and at least 12 inches deep. Once these pier pads have cured and the jacks are in place, begin by raising the floor slowly, as little as a quarter turn per week. Jacking slowly allows for settling without serious disruptions or sudden stress. Lifting might create additional wall cracks and change door and window margins.

8. Sweaty Windows

”Condensation has been a persistent and often misunderstood problem associated with windows,” says Dariush Arasteh, staff scientist at the Environmental Energy Technologies Division of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, California. In cold climates, condensation collects on windows when the temperature of the glass drops below the dew point of the inside air. Minor sweating is normal with most windows, but excessive condensation can contribute to the growth of mold or mildew in or on the walls, damaged paint surfaces and eventually rotted wood components, says Arasteh. Newer low-e, double-glazed windows can reduce frost and condensation because interior glass surface temperatures are warmer. In an existing home with older windows, the simplest and most effective way to control condensation is by reducing interior humidity. Using vent fans (in the kitchen and bathrooms) and dehumidifiers also helps lower interior humidity levels. The National Fenestration Rating Council, an organization that tests the energy efficiency of windows, is developing a new condensation resistance rating that will appear on window labels; however, until such a rating is available, a lower U-value generally indicates greater condensation resistance.

9. Peeling Exterior Paint

”The main cause of paint failure is inadequate prep work,” says Doug Hanhner, team leader/supervisor of the Benjamin Moore Paints Product Information Center in Flanders, New Jersey. Glossy surfaces must be sanded; otherwise your new paint will start coming off in sheets with the first major change in temperature. Another common problem is moisture getting behind paint and working through the surface. After power washing your house, allow at least 14 days for the siding and sheathing to dry before painting. Occasionally, moisture escaping through walls (especially in the kitchen and baths) can cause paint to peel. Painting too early in spring or too late in fall can also cause paint to fail prematurely. Even though it may feel dry to the touch in a day or two, latex paint needs to remain above 50 degrees F for at least 14 days in order to cure properly. To deal with peeled paint, scrape down to a solid base (preferably bare wood), and apply an alkyd primer. Alkyds penetrate deeper and adhere better than latex primer. “Latex primers breathe better, but alkyds prevent moisture from getting trapped between the primer and base, which can also lead to paint failure,” explains Hanhner. Apply two topcoats to build up a sufficiently thick skin. When rolling or spraying, you should also “back brush” to help “seat” the paint, which creates a stronger mechanical bond with the surface.

10. Rotted Beams, Joists, and Sills

"The most common signs of rot are stained or soft wood, the presence of black or yellow fungus, insects or, in the case of painted wood, a soft depression under the surface of the paint," says Mark Cramer, president of the American Society of Home Inspectors in Des Plaines, Illinois. To determine the extent of the damage, probe the area with an ice pick or screwdriver to check for soft or spongy wood. If the rot damage exceeds 10 to 15 percent of the beam, it usually requires a structural repair. Using a pressure-treated replacement will prevent the problem from reoccurring, but in most cases, an epoxy patch is a faster, less expensive fix. Most repair kits contain a consolidant, which hardens any questionable wood, and a two-part epoxy. When properly mixed and used with the appropriate fillers, structural epoxies are stronger than the original wood.

Where to Find It:

American Society of Home Inspectors

932 Lee St., Ste. 101

Des Plaines, IL 60016

800-743-2744 Conservation and Survey Division

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

113 Nebraska Hall

Lincoln, NE 68588-0517

402-472-7523 Efficient Window Collaboratice

Alliance to Save Energy

1200 18th St. NW

Ste. 900

Washington, D.C. 20036

202-857-0666 North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service

North Carolina State University

Box 7605

210 Ricks

Raleigh, NC 27695-7605 data/hc2.html


Sagging floors Paint Quality Institute

Rohm and Haas Company

100 Independence Mall W.

Philadelphia, PA 19106-2399

215-592-3000 U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

Washington, D.C. 20207


"Asbestos in Your Home" booklet United States Gypsum Co.

Box 806278

Chicago, IL 60680


First Coat drywall primer Wood Truss Council of America

1 WTCA Ctr.

6300 Enterprise Ln.

Madison, WI 53719

608-274-4849 Further reading: Drywall: Professional Techniques for Walls & Ceilings

by Myron Furguson

Taunton Press

Taunton, CT

144 pages, $19.95 Residential Windows: A Guide to New Technologies and Energy Performance

by John Carmody, Stephen Selowitz, Dariush Arasteh and Lisa Heschong

Norton & Company

New York, NY