For home repairs, think structure and safety first, fun stuff second

With a vintage home in St. Petersburg's Old Northeast and a 1900 farmhouse in Maine, Suzanne Laurencell, 60, has learned a thing or two about keeping up a home.

First things first: Keep a roof overhead and the walls standing. The period-sensitive kitchen renovation and upgrade Laurencell wants in her 1948 St. Petersburg home must wait. "The roof is my project du jour," she says.

Having to choose between necessary repairs and "fun" projects is more critical these days, given the economy.

"The wise thing for people to do now is to do a master plan (for home maintenance and other projects)," says Tim Rhode, a St. Petersburg architect who specializes in renovations. "Then you can chip away and do things one at a time. When people do things in a hurry, they often have to undo it later."

Think of it as a punch list of "skilled and unskilled projects, and you can tackle the unskilled ones yourself," says Don Strobel of Strobel Building in St. Petersburg. On the home maintenance side, your main concern should be protecting your home from wind, fire and water damage.

"Buying a new house doesn't mean you don't have to maintain it," Rhode says. "Pay attention to your house and it will last longer."

Once you set your master list of what you want to do, decide which projects you can handle and which you want to farm out to professionals.

Doing repairs and renovations now might be cheaper, as some builders are passing along savings on labor costs to clients. Many repair services are offering coupons on their Web sites as well. Also, be sure to check for those projects, such as roofing and insulation, that may qualify for federal tax credits through the economic stimulus plan.

So what things should come first on that master list, especially given the economy?

>> If your roof comes off (during a hurricane), it's a worst-case scenario," Rhode says. So make that a priority. Also, if it's in your budget, bring your roof, windows and doors up to the latest Florida building code, which could bring a reduction in your wind insurance premiums.

>>Upgrade old wiring, especially knob and tube wiring. You'll lessen the risk of an electrical fire, and the upgrade may help you retain your insurance carrier (or find a new one), Rhode says. Plan to budget around $7,000 for an average-sized single-family home.

>>Make sure you have fire detectors in every bedroom, says Strobel, and in the hallways too.

>>Be diligent about repairing water damage, Strobel says. Water "gets into places that, once it starts in on a material, it can spin out of control." And then bad can get worse: "Water attracts termites." Make it part of your regular routine to check around windows, doors and eaves for water damage, he adds. Replace any rotting wood, such as window sills.

>>"Caulk is cheap," Strobel says, so use it to patch any cracks you find in the exterior of your home and replace old caulking around windows to keep water out. In Tampa Bay's climate, Rhode says, caulk lasts about two years.

>>Painting your house regularly is another way to protect it, both experts say. "You can't just paint your house once and expect it to last for 10 years," Rhode says. "You have to do it every three or four years." Think of splurging on an elastomeric paint, which will last longer and, because of its elasticity, doesn't crack as much as cheaper paints.

>>Mold is another thing you want to keep in check. If you see mold in the bathroom, for example, consider installing a vent fan. For about $400, says Strobel, you can pay for a fan with an automatic shut-off device.

>>Check sagging floors before you repair them, Rhode says. Often the problems with such floors are more psychological than structural. Older homes tend to have longer spans between the joists supporting the floor, which causes them to sag. Check below the house; if there is no sign of crumbling piers or deterioration of the stem walls, put this repair off until later.

Elizabeth McCann is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg.

For home repairs, think structure and safety first, fun stuff second 04/03/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 3, 2009 4:30am]

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