Further Adventures in Home Maintenance

As much as I've learned about money in the past five years, and as much as I like to share what I've learned, there are still times when I fail to follow my own advice.

As I've mentioned, we live in a hundred-year-old house. This is a great and terrible thing. The house is beautiful and full of character, but it's also a pain in the ass. In the six years we've lived here, one of the pains we've encountered repeatedly is the sewer line. About once a year, the thing clogs. But in the past year, it's clogged more like once a quarter.

Generally, we're able to handle the clogs on our own. We pour a little drain cleaner into the toilet or bathtub, and things magically work out on their own. But the recent clogs have been unresponsive to the magic of modern chemistry. In March, I finally broke down and called in a plumber. The plumber worked his magic, charged me 300 bucks, and asked if I wanted his boss to come give me a bid on repairing the sewer line.

“Sure,” I said.

The next day, a man named Jeremy showed up with his fancy equipment to scope out the problem with our line. Turns out the old concrete sewer pipe was probably laid in the 1940s or 1950s, and has never been repaired or replaced. There's a section about 90 feet from the house (about 20 feet from the road) that has developed a “belly”: for several feet, the pipe has sunk below the rest of the line. Near this belly, there's also a break in the line, and tree roots are encroaching. Basically, it's a mess.

“It's not a big deal,” Jeremy told me. “It's easy to replace. Your sewer line is easy to access because it's in the middle of the lawn. I can probably replace it in a day.” He quoted me a price of $1700.

Over the next couple of weeks, Jeremy called back twice to see if we wanted to spend the $1700 to repair the sewer line. “No,” I said. “Things seem to be okay for now.”

Well, things were okay for a while. Friday, however, the sewer line clogged again, and this time it was very very gross. Dirty water came flooding up into the bathtub. Yuck!

We called the plumber again. A different fellow came out and cleared the line. Because Kris and I were both home, he called us over to look when he'd finished his work. He had a camera 90 feet into the line, and he showed us the very damage that Jeremy had described. And then he said something that was very GRS-y.

“You can replace that five-foot section,” he told us, “but if I were you, I'd think about replacing everything from the sidewalk to the street. It'll cost more, but if you save up for it, it'll be more cost-effective in the long run. You've got other trees in that area, and they're likely to cause trouble eventually if you don't take steps to correct the problems now. And if you have us do all of it at once, it'll cost less than if we have to repair it in pieces.”

A plumber with advice on budgeting for repairs — I like it!

The real lesson, of course, is not to defer home maintenance. I know this is one of the cardinal rules of home ownership, yet for some reason, I always procrastinate. I think it's hard for me to spend on something that isn't really an immediate problem. It's May — my gutters aren't overflowing. I just had the drain cleaned — the toilet isn't clogging. And so on. But as we just learned, what would have cost me $1700 to repair in March will now cost me $2000 because I delayed. (That's $1700 for the repair and $300 for the most recent visit by the plumber.)

After the plumber left, Kris and I had a chat.

“This is kind of a pattern for you, isn't it?” she asked. She meant that I have a tendency to ignore warning signs and just hope that things will get better on their own. Last week, I wrote about ignoring warning signs from my computer as it began to fail. I've done the same many times in the past with cars, computers, clothing, home repairs, and (worst of all) my personal health. I don't fix problems when they're small; as a result, they often become big problems later on.

Basically, I should heed the advice I always give others. To quote Your Money: The Missing Manual:

Just as daily exercise and a sensible diet keep your body healthy and help you avoid costly medical bills, regular home maintenance keeps normal wear-and-tear from developing into problems, and problems from turning into emergencies.


When we bought our new house in 2004, the home inspector told us that for every dollar we spent on maintenance, we'd avoid roughly $100 in future repairs. He wrote in his inspection report, “In my experience as a professional home inspector, I have looked at hundreds of homes in all age ranges, and I have seen thousands of dollars of damage to homes that could have been avoided by spending $5 to $10 and just a few minutes of work.”

So, Kris and I are going to have some sewer work done.

Right now, we need to decide if we can afford to have the larger section replaced, or whether we'll just go with the small patch. And if we do replace the longer section, do we tap into emergency savings to do so? I think we might.

It's tough for me to accept that it's not just okay, but it's good to spend on solving small problems. It's like self-insurance, or an investment in my future. My hope is that you can have the wisdom to learn from my mistakes. If you deal with a small problem before it becomes a big problem, you can save yourself time, money, and hassle.

More about...Home & Garden

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