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Homeowner blues (and green)

by Karen on July 14, 2011

Last Sunday, Tony noticed a wet spot on the ceiling in the dining room. Oy.

It hadn’t been particularly rainy, but we’d had a little rain that morning, so we assumed it was a roof leak. Roof leaks aren’t covered in our homeowner’s warranty, but the roof passed inspection with no concerns, so we assumed it would be a small leak caused by the crazy storms this season and that would be relatively easy to patch.

Monday morning, I made free estimate appointments with 8 different roofers. I wanted to cover all my bases. During the inspection, we were informed that our garage door’s extension springs weren’t really safe on a door that size, and we had the whole thing converted to a safer torsion spring shortly after we moved in. Estimates ranged between $130 and $500 for the same job, so I learned my lesson about the importance of getting multiple estimates.

The first roofer who came out climbed onto the roof and said he couldn’t see any problems that would be causing a leak. Then he climbed into the attic to see where the water was coming from. I was impressed with his diligence, since we were in the middle of a heatwave, and the attic was probably 150 degrees.

He climbed back down and gave me the bad news. The water on the ceiling wasn’t caused by a roof leak. The water was coming from condensation on an air conditioning duct in the attic. We’d need to call an HVAC specialist. The roofer (who also owns properties and provides remodeling work) referred me to an HVAC specialist he trusts, and didn’t charge me a cent for his time. Thanks, mister!

I called the HVAC specialist, who gave me a few educated guesses over the phone about what could be causing the problem, but said he wouldn’t be able to work in the attic until the temperatures fell back down to normal. It was around 100 degrees here Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, so I don’t really blame him. We watched the wet spot on our ceiling get bigger and waited for the temperatures to fall a little.

When a new spot showed up on the ceiling Wednesday morning, I called and asked if there was anything we could do to at least slow the water down before it damaged the drywall or began to leak through. He said he’d come out first thing in the morning before it got too hot.

We discovered a couple things about our house that we didn’t know before. Part of the problem? Our air conditioning system was installed in an extremely unorthodox way. When the house was built in 1970, it probably didn’t have central air conditioning. When someone installed it later, instead of running the air conditioning through the furnace, they installed a separate air handler in the attic. A broken blower in that air handler was somehow causing air flow to run abnormally cold through the ducts, which was creating condensation.

The good news: He was able to stop the condensation and fix the problem for now with a $100 repair to the air handler. The bad news: It’s just a band-aid. The strange installation could eventually lead to a larger problem that can’t be fixed, and since it’s so old, he thinks the whole system will likely need to be replaced in the next 3-5 years. To the tune for $8,000. Gulp.

I asked why this wasn’t caught in the inspection. He said in decades of HVAC experience, he’s never seen anything like it, and it’s likely that the inspector just didn’t know to look for such a strange thing. He said it’s possible even the guy who remodeled the house didn’t realize the HVAC system was set up so strangely. As long as it was working, there was no reason to get up there and investigate inside the ducts.

Well, crap.

I was relieved that he was able to come up with a solution for now that didn’t require us to shell out that kind of cash. Now we have some time to plan and prepare for an $8,000 investment in our heating and cooling system. We’ll also get a second and even third opinion before we do anything to see if an entire system update is really necessary.

After the repair he made yesterday, it seems to be running more efficiently now. With temperatures so hot, the house just wasn’t staying as cool as we wanted, and the air conditioner really seemed to be struggling. After he fixed the problem, it’s much more comfortable in the house.

It’s not a complete shock. We knew the air conditioning unit was pretty old before we closed on the house, and we knew we’d probably have to replace it at some point. An new AC unit is a few thousand dollars, though — an entire system update is going to be close to three times that. Harrumph.

I’m thankful that something minor went wrong first, so at least now we’ll be prepared. If the entire system had died on us suddenly, we would have been shocked at the price tag to fix it. That broken blower saved us from the shock, because now we know what’s going on with it, and we can prepare to make the necessary changes in a few years.

The moral of the story? Owning a home really is so much more expensive that just your mortgage payment. Thankfully, we have some time to prepare for this investment, but it could have just as easily stopped working overnight and required an $8,000 investment immediately.

If you’re considering buying a house, do not wipe out your savings accounts to do it. An inspection won’t catch every potential problem, and new problems can spring up overnight. As a homeowner, you need a healthy savings account more than ever.

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