8 critical home repairs you can't ignore

Don't let your home fall down, burn up or kill you

Here's one of the harsh realities of owning a home: Some problems just can't wait. You have to fix them now.

It doesn’t matter how inconvenient the timing might be. Or how much these home repairs might cost.

We're talking about leaks and shorts and cracks and critters that will literally cause your abode to fall down, burn up or kill you.

If you're lucky, a few hundred dollars will put things right. If you're not, the bills could run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Ignore these critical repairs, and the damage will just grow and become more expensive. And this is not the kind of work most homeowners can do themselves.

Sink 10 or 20 grand into remodeling a kitchen or bathroom, and you can enjoy the high-end stainless steel appliances, granite counter tops or Jacuzzi tub every day.

There's no joy in fixing stuff like roofs and furnaces, wiring and foundations. Most of the money is spent on boring stuff you never see, hidden behind walls and ceilings or in the darkest recesses of your basement.

But here are 8 critical problems you have to deal with right now — or else.

Leaky roof

You know you've got a problem when: A wet or discolored spot appears on the ceiling.

What causes it: Broken or missing shingles, or a crack in the flashing used to seal chimneys, skylights and vent pipes.

The worst that can happen: Structural damage in the attic that rots the decking, beams and joints, and allows mold to grow in your insulation.

Fix it yourself? You have to be able to find the leak, which can be tricky. The water rarely comes in directly above the damage you see inside, and there can be more than one source of seepage. Then you'll need some basic carpentry skills and the ability to work on a steeply pitched roof.

Who should you call? A roofer.


Overtaxed electrical

You know you've got a problem when: Outlets or switches are warm to the touch. Lights flicker. Fuses repeatedly blow out or circuit breakers keep flipping off.

What causes it: Drawing too much power through outdated electrical systems. (Modern 3-wire Romex-type wiring didn't come into widespread use until the 1970s.)

The worst that can happen: A fire burns down the house. Faulty electrical systems cause 45,000 home fires every year.

Fix it yourself? Bad idea. Only a handful of homeowners are qualified to diagnose a faulty electrical system, much less rewire a property to put all connections into junction boxes or upgrade a panel box. You run a huge risk of making the problem worse.

Who should you call? An electrician.

Broken pipe

You know you've got a problem when: A discolored spot on a wall or ceiling grows into a dripping bulge.

What causes it? Cracks in old pipes and joints.

The worst that can happen: A flood that ruins drywall, insulation, carpets, furniture and belongings. (And remember, this isn't necessarily fresh water. It could be wastewater headed for the sewage system.)

Fix it yourself? You'll need to be pretty handy with a wrench and propane torch. But the one thing that you'll absolutely have to do is turn off the main water valve to your home until you can isolate the leak.

Who should you call? A plumber.



Natural gas leak

You know you've got a problem when:  A rotten egg smell permeates your home. (Natural gas is odorless, but your utility company puts mercaptan in it so that you can tell if it's escaping.)

What causes it: Something as small as a pilot light that's out or a gas burner on the stove that's not completely off, or something as big as a broken gas main leading to your house or running through your backyard.

The worst that can happen: An explosion and fire that destroys your home.

Fix it yourself? Not a chance. This is as dangerous as it gets. If a quick check of the stove doesn't reveal the source of the gas, get out of the house. You can open windows on your way but don't turn on anything electrical.

Who should you call? 911, which will dispatch gas company technicians to find the source of the leak.

Basement cracks

You know you've got a problem when: You can see them, and water is seeping through. In more serious situations, upstairs walls also crack and separate from windows, and doors won't close.

What causes it: Poor drainage that allows water to pool around the house, causing concrete walls to buckle and settle.

The worst that can happen: Water and mold will make your basement unusable and structural damage will occur in the rest of the house.

Fix it yourself? Not unless you're up for some serious digging. Repairs often require exterior basement walls to be excavated and water-proofed, and the yard to be regraded so that rain drains away from house.

Who should you call? A contractor that specializes in crumbling foundations. You need an expert opinion on what's causing the problem and how it should be fixed.

Untrimmed trees

You know you've got a problem when: You can hear limbs brushing against the walls or roof in a storm.

What causes it: Untrimmed trees or large bushes growing too close to the house.

The worst that can happen: The limbs break shingles or siding, allowing water into the house, causing rot and mold.

Fix it yourself? It's possible if you can use the ladders and saws required to reach and remove the offending branches.

Who should you call? Call a tree service if you're not steady on a ladder or have to remove branches that are so large they'll be tough to control when they're cut. (That can require ropes and skills not many homeowners possess.)


Cracked heat exchanger

You know you've got a problem when: (In order of ascending seriousness) You have your furnace cleaned and inspected. Your carbon monoxide detector goes off. You get sick.

What causes it: The heat exchanger in your furnace is what separates the warm air that circulates through the house from the exhaust gases that are supposed to go up the flue. Cracks caused by metal fatigue can allow poisonous gases such as carbon monoxide to seep into the air you breathe. 

The worst that can happen: Carbon monoxide poisoning.

Fix it yourself? Not unless you're a trained HVAC technician.

Who should you call? A heating and cooling company to help you decide whether it's cheaper to install a new heat exchanger or replace the entire furnace. (Heat exchangers should never be patched.)

Cohabitating critters

You know you've got a problem when: You see them. You hear them. Or you find the damage they've done.

What causes it: Unwelcome guests can be as small as termites seeking food (beams and joists) to raccoons looking to live in your attic and crawl space.

The worst that can happen: Wood-devouring insects can wreak serious structural damage. Larger animals tear up insulation, spread toxic feces and even spark fires.

Fix it yourself? Not many homeowners have the training required to purge pests such as these.

Who should you call? Exterminators or animal control experts who can not only get rid of the pests but find where they entered the home and make the fixes required to keep the next wave of little invaders out.

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Thanks to the experts who contributed information and advice to this slide show:

  • Nicholas Iarocci, president of Source Development, Garnerville, New York
  • Danny Lipford, host of Today's Homeowner, a nationally syndicated radio and television show
  • Ron Hazelton, host of Ron Hazelton's HouseCalls, a nationally syndicated television show
  • Paul Ryan, the owner of Paul Ryan Construction in Duluth, Minnesota