6 Maintenance Problems You Didn’t Know You Had

Sure, you know to maintain the obvious stuff, like gutters. But what about out-of-sight-out-of-mind tasks? Neglect them at your peril.

We’ve been around the block a few times, learned some things the hard way, and stockpiled some great maintenance advice. If you’re new to homeownership, these tidbits can prevent costly gaffes, saving you heartache -- and money. And if you’re a seasoned homeowner, you might just learn a few new tricks.

1. Your Washing Machine Has a Secret Filter That Needs Cleaning

Washing machine in home's basement
Image: Liz Foreman for HouseLogic

You’re probably hip to the fact that your dryer has a filter that catches lint, and that you need to clean it nearly every time you dry clothes.

But did you know your clothes washer also may have a filter? Check your owner’s manual to see if your washing machine has accessible filters for drains, lint, and water supply hoses.

What it does: The filter catches lint, debris, and sometimes your pocket change. Typical filter locations include:

  • Behind a removable front panel at the base of the machine
  • Inside the washing drum near the top
  • At the hot and cold inlet hoses

How to maintain it: If your washer has filters, inspect and clean them at least once each year to keep your machine running at peak efficiency. A clogged filter might be to blame for drainage problems and excessive vibration.

Here’s how to clean a washing machine drain filter:

UK Whitegoods Limited

What it could cost you: $75 to $150 per hour if you have to call the repair guy.

Related: How to Care for Your Washer and Dryer

2. Your Chimney Crown is Crying for Attention

An old chimney with a ladder leaning against it
Image: Bronwyn8/iStockphoto

What it does: This cap of cement, or crown, covers the top of the masonry -- the brick, stone, or block walls of your chimney -- and prevents water, debris, and critters from getting in your home. It forms a collar around the flue -- the part of a chimney that sticks out the furthest and is the fireproof channel for smoke, sparks, and heat.

The crown is slanted to shed water, but all that exposure to the elements puts stress on it, causing cracking and chipping. (Check your chimney and crown every year with an annual maintenance inspection.)

How to maintain it: Apply a layer of brushable crown sealer (yes, they actually have that specific product — about $60 per gallon) to heal it up. While you’re up there, you should:

  • Spray exposed bricks with clear masonry sealer to protect against moisture. Use a garden sprayer.
  • Add a stainless steel chimney cap with a spark arrestor, which prevents burning embers from escaping the chimney ($70 to 120).

What it could cost you: If water gets behind the crown, it can drip down into interior framing, causing mold and rot that costs thousands of dollars to repair.

Tip: Since we’re talking about roof work, we feel obligated to share some safety advice:

  • Don't get on the roof if you're scared of heights, the roof is wet, or the pitch is 4-in-12 or steeper.
  • Set up your ladder properly. (Fiberglass extension ladders are heavier than aluminum but help protect against electric shock from accidentally touching power lines.)
  • Keep the work area free of tools and debris.
  • Wear traction footwear, such as boots with soft soles.
  • Wear a safety harness. (Buy one for $200; rent one for $30 per day.)

3. You’ve Been Misled About Power Washers

A deck board damaged by a power washer

Those motorized washers are recommended as a panacea for all kinds of cleaning tasks, from blasting grit off driveways to cleaning siding and decking boards.

What it does: A power washer uses a motor to deliver water at extremely high velocity for blasting surfaces clean. If you're not careful, you can:

  • Dig mortar out from between bricks
  • Force water up behind lap siding, getting moisture inside your walls where it can cause rot and mold
  • Scour areas of softer wood grain from decking boards, leaving you with awkward ridges and gouges
  • Tear vinyl siding and window frames
  • Peel paint from exterior surfaces
  • Hurt yourself (Never let kids play with a pressure washer!)

Watch a pressure washer carve a pumpkin and cut a board in half:


How to clean without a power washer: Do yourself a favor and go with a garden hose, a good cleaning agent, and elbow grease. Sensible trumps speed (and everything will get just as clean).

What it could cost you: Replacing deck boards costs about $2 per square foot. If you need to remediate mold because water got behind your siding, you could be looking at $500 to $6,000 or more.

4. Your Water Softener Has a Love-Hate Relationship with Salt

Water softener machine in a house

What it does: A softener removes minerals that make water hard by filtering the water through salt crystals. Water softeners protect against such hard-water problems as:

  • Reduced cleansing action of soap
  • Lime scale and buildup inside pipes
  • Soap scum on shower walls

How to maintain it: If your salt tank seems to be full but the water doesn’t feel soft and you detect unusual spotting on dishes and shower enclosures, you may have one of these problems, says Katie Goodale of HomeWater101.com:

  • A salt bridge is a hard crust that can form between the salt and the water entering the tank, preventing the salt from doing its job. Solution: Use a long-handled tool, like a broom, to poke the salt bridge and break it up.
  • Salt mushing occurs when dissolved salt forms a sludge at the bottom of the softener tank and prevents proper circulation of water. Solution: The cure is to completely drain the tank, removing any salt and residue. Using high-quality salt helps alleviate the problem.

What it could cost you: A complete replacement of plumbing pipes due to excess lime scale inside pipes costs $2,000 to $15,000.

5. Your Water Shutoff Valves are Stuck

Water shutoff valve below a sink
Image: Jay

What they do: Many of the water-supply tubes that connect to faucets and toilets throughout your house have shutoff valves that can close off the flow of water in an emergency, or if you’re changing out an appliance or fixture. You’ll find them:

  • Under kitchen and bathroom sinks
  • Behind toilets
  • Behind the clothes washing machine

These valves aren’t used very often, sometimes not for years. Unfortunately, that’s a problem. Over time, the valve handles may become rusted in the open position and useless.

How you maintain them: Once each year, lubricate the valve stem (WD-40 is always good), let it sit for 15 minutes, then close and reopen the valve several times.

If you’re replacing any fixtures, we recommend quarter-turn, ball-type shutoff valves ($10). These valves use only a 90-degree turn of a handle to completely shut or open – making the turn off faster. They have a minimum of moving parts, and their simplicity makes them very reliable over the years.

What it could cost you: Thousands of dollars in water damage if a leak occurs.

6. Your Ducts are Leaking

What they do: You know forced-air ductwork channels warm or cool air around your house. But did you know changes in temperature cause ducts to expand and contract slightly? Over years, ductwork joints may work loose.

That’s bad news. In fact, Energy Star says that 20% to 30% of the air moving through ducts in attics, unheated basements, and crawl spaces leaks out through holes and poorly connected ducts.

How do you know? Some clues include:

  • Utility bills that seem unusually high
  • Rooms that seem like they never get warm or cool enough
  • Strange, unexplained odors (It may be that ductwork has come apart, letting in earthy crawlspace smells and worse -- mold spores.)

If you have any of those symptoms, it’s probably time to check your ductwork.

How to maintain them: Attics and basements are relatively easy to inspect. If you’re not squeamish about slithering through crawl spaces, you can check the ductwork under the house yourself. Repair holes and open seams with metal tape, not the familiar “duct tape” product.

Otherwise, call in a pro for a $100 to $200 duct test to determine if they’re leaking air.

What it could cost you: Hundreds of dollars in energy costs every year.

Tip: If you like scented air, sprinkle a few drops of an extract (cinnamon, vanilla) or essential oil (lavender, mint) on your furnace filter before you install it.

Related: Do You Need to Clean Your Ducts?

John Riha
John Riha

John Riha has written seven books on home improvement and hundreds of articles on home-related topics. He’s been a residential builder, the editorial director of the Black & Decker Home Improvement Library, and the executive editor of Better Homes and Gardens magazine.