Here's a five-step plan of attack for looking at your house with the careful eye of a pro.
A good way to examine a roof from down below, Tom says, is to use binoculars—or better yet, a camera with a telephoto lens, which you can use to create a lasting record.
1. JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER
The logical place to start any fall maintenance inspection and repair list is outside, where you can take in the big picture. For Tom Silva, that means doing something as simple as standing and looking at the house. Conspicuous changes from year to year, like cockeyed windows or a sway in the roof, indicate an ongoing problem, such as a compromised foundation that's pulling the house down.
But you also need to look at the parts that make up the whole: chimney, roofing, flashing, siding. Take note if anything is broken, cracked, curled, split, or crooked. But also pay attention to less overt signs: stains on siding that could mean water isn't flowing through the gutters and downspouts, peeling paint or missing mortar in distressed spots, small holes or droppings near animal or insect nests. Be especially conscious of the presence of vermin, because they chew on framing and wiring.
Don't just look at the house; look around it, too. Trees hanging over a roof aren't just a storm threat, they may scrape roofing, give animals an access bridge, or lean dangerously close to power lines. Overgrown foliage might be more than an eyesore if it masks foundation and sill problems and contributes to siding damage. Roger Cook, TOH landscape contractor, says, "You should be able to walk between the plants and the house, even if just to have access for maintenance." Also, be sure the ground slopes away from the house and sits at least 8 inches below the sill.
Note cracks in walkways and driveways before cold weather and frozen ground open them up and exacerbate the tripping hazard. Give fences, gates, and stone walls a little nudge to see which parts are vulnerable to tumbling in the next big storm, and take note if retaining walls are bulging or failing.
2. COME IN FOR A CLOSER LOOK
Once you've taken in the general state of affairs, you should examine trouble spots with a keener eye. Think about the places where water has been, or could be, coming into the house and reaching the structure. Contractors and inspectors alike repeat this mantra: Water is the biggest enemy of a house.
The possibilities are limitless, but doors and windows are obvious places to start, says Joe Corsetto, the president of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) and the owner of Shelterworks, an inspection firm in New Jersey. These will always take the brunt of abuse from rain and snow. Look at sills and thresholds for cracks. Make sure caulking, weatherstripping, and glazing haven't split or worn away.
Check all framing supports—sills, posts, headers—for signs of deterioration caused by insects or rot. Probe wood with a screwdriver, looking for soft, flaking, crumbling, or damp spots. Keep an eye out for the mud tunnels made by termites or the neat holes drilled by carpenter bees. And make sure all supports are still actually connected—to the parts they hold up and to the footing or framing underneath. Be especially aware if the foundation has new or expanding fissures. "A crack that changes or grows over the seasons is a sign of instability and should be looked at by a foundation expert," says Tom.
Your house's skin is also vulnerable, so you need to look closely at siding and roofing for signs of failure. Stains or cracks on siding could mean water is running down the face and getting into walls. Use binoculars to look at the roof up close—is the flashing rusted, curled, or missing? Are there cracks, missing shingles, crumbling pieces? Check asphalt for dry, blistering, or curling shingles; wood for rot and splits; slate and tile for breaks; flat roofs for holes. Tom recommends going to the attic on a sunny day and turning off the lights. If you see daylight, water has a place to get in.
But you don't always need the sun to spot the problems. Next time there's a heavy rain, watch the water as it pools around your house. You'll soon spot any big issues, such as how water gets into your basement or whether or not your sump pump turns on when it should.