This old house

There’s much to like about older homes, but they can also come with some challenges. Postmedia Network

We purchased an old house once, ONCE!

Actually, we still live in an older home, built in the 80’s. So, when people question what type of home is the better investment, new or old, several factors come into play. Plus, our history of home ownership somewhat bucks the seemingly natural progression of buying an older home first, fix it up, sell, then buy an old home, renovate, sell, then build a brand new home.

We progressed from building a brand new semi-detached, followed by a brand new home a few years later, to buying a century old farm house, then moving into our existing, simply older home of today.

After 30 years of living in various new, old, and very old structures, what single distinguishing home feature separates the then and now of home building? The use of the basement.

Our first two homes were new, with finished basements. Our last two homes were old, where in the century home we were faced with a dungeon, essentially unsuitable for modern human life, whereby a basement renovation would have cost more than the price of the home. Our existing basement space is typical of most homes built in that era. That being a generally low ceiling, unfriendly placement of duct work (requiring anybody over 5’8” to duck every five steps) and the occasional puddle of water on the floor. So, other than being a relatively good venue for youngsters to hone their wrist and slap shot skills, the 30-year-old basement can be a risky investment living space wise. Risky, but not impossible.

The advantage new homes have is that the basement walls have not only been sealed with foundation tar, but they’ve been subsequently covered with either a plastic dimpled membrane, or water sheading type of fiber matting. Plus, the weeping tile systems are perfectly clean, effectively diverting water into a sump base, or sewer system.

In the olden days, concrete basement walls were simply tarred, with sediment and soil settlement certainly having somewhat compromised the weeping tiles effectiveness by now. When the homes defensive system breaks down, water gets in.

So, what do you do if this great older home comes for sale, but you really need the space provided by a finished basement? Well, you either walk away, or forget putting money into the more fun, kitchen and bathroom areas for now, and call in the backhoe. Only by excavating around the foundation, installing a new impermeable membrane, and new weeping tile drain, can you really be guaranteed a dry space for the next 20 years.

Although never chosen for their basement advantages, older homes are often attractive due to their uniqueness, reasonable price, but most often, location. Location is huge, whereby the best strategy asset wise, is usually to buy the worst home on the best street. Therefore, if this old house is livable by your standards, then every penny you put into it should increase its value, and be recuperated if you decide to sell years later.

What can you expect to replace or repair in an older home? Well, if history, or our experience, is any indication of what is, most homes for sale are at the end of their work cycle. In other words, we haven’t met a homeowner yet who chose to update their furnace, re-shingle the roof, or renovate the kitchen and bathroom areas, before putting their house on the market. It’s been more of a take it as is, sure we’ve just given the place a coat of paint, but basically that’s the price, and if anything should break or go wrong, may the strength of your faith pull you through.

Best bet, have an accredited home inspector, or home builder friend, take a walk through this older home with you. They’ll have the experience to ignore the staged bowl of fruit and fresh flowers on the counter, and get right to checking the age of mechanical systems, roofing, windows, and the general integrity of the homes envelope.

Good building.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard

Don’t sweat it

Wet windows? Handyman Hints can help. Postmedia Network

Why are my windows sweating? This is one of the more common questions asked by many a frustrated homeowner during this time of year. And, the answer to this dilemma is not always easy.

If you’re a Leafs fan, it’s just indicative of a clouded vision that will most likely plague you throughout the entire winter season. If you eat pasta with every meal, then use this carbohydrate overload to sweat it out in your home gym, then follow things up with a 20 minute hot shower, you’re likely stirring up more humidity than tropical storm Otto. Or, if you’re the sort of person who’s deathly scared of the cold, and have resorted to saran wrapping every window and non-essential entrance door with the same diligence you used on your luncheon pork chops, proper air circulation is going to be an impossibility.

Basically, you’re trapping humidity in the home. As discussed last week, too much humidity in the home can lead to all kinds of damage to your finish trims, framework, while ultimately encouraging mold growth. So, how do we eliminate excess humidity? It’ll take a combination of air intake, air exhaust, and air circulation.

Unless you’re willing to confine your brisk walks to the areas of the home, going from kitchen, to dining room, then up the stairs, through the bedroom, and back down again, air circulation is best handled by mechanical means. If you own a furnace, keep the fan working fulltime, and, don’t forget to change or clean the filter on a monthly basis. If your home lacks the necessary ductwork to circulate air, consider replacing your ceiling light fixtures with lighted ceiling fans.

Again, and especially during the really cold days, have the fans turning on a continual basis. A working ceiling fan will not only prevent condensation, but with the air being constantly churned, should eliminate any cold areas in the room that are close to the windows. If replacing every ceiling fixture seems excessive, then at least install a table top oscillating fan in the more problematic rooms.

Proof of air flow successfully removing condensation can be witnessed every time you turn your car’s windshield defrost switch on.

Next, air exhaust. Basically, if you’re creating steam or heat, then you’ve got to exhaust it to the exterior. Not into the attic, or the garage, or into the wall or joist system, but into the great outdoors. So, make sure every bathroom, and the kitchen, have their own exhaust fans. Bathroom fans should operate on a timer, set to 30 minutes once you step in the shower. Clothes dryers also create a ton of moisture. As a result, make sure the joints in the dryer ductwork are taped, and lead to a proper dryer exhaust vent (one with a flapper inside). Plus, disconnect the pipe every couple of months to verify that the lint hasn’t balled up inside. Definitely avoid choosing one of those interior exhaust kits for your dryer, they’re about as effective as investing in behavior lessons for your cat. Next, with all this mechanical air circulation and exhaust, comes the need to mechanically bring fresh air into the home.

This duty can be handled by installing a HRV (heat recovery ventilation) machine in your basement, or adequately sized utility room. About the size and weight of a 26 inch television (Quazar, not flat screen) the HRV system exhausts the stale air in the home, and replaces it with an equal amount of fresh outdoor air. The heat recovery is handled by a honeycomb type core that transfers the heat from the air going out, to the new air coming in. HRV units can work independently of your heating system, or be connected to your furnace, taking advantage of the room to room service provided by the existing ductwork. HRV’s will also filter this new air entering the home, and help control overall humidity levels, delivering a healthier living environment for the home’s occupants.

Good building.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard

Some frosty window art

Ah, the good ol’ days of frosty window art are practically upon us.

Certainly a cherished pastime by many a youngster, and those young at heart, pressing your nose, or lips, against a chilly window pane, then viewing the reaction of warm flesh meeting ice, has always been good entertainment. Or, when it’s early morning, after a painfully frigid night, and the frost on the glass is particularly heavy, who can resist pressing the side of a clenched fist against the pane, then topping the imprint off with the tips of their fingers, creating the all-time classic, little footprint?

Born from generations of high humidity producers, otherwise known as those who enjoy cooking pasta, taking long, hot showers, or who engage in regular conversation involving large gatherings, frosty window art becomes possible when a thin layer of ice forms on the inside glass pane of various windows in the home. Windows of preference often include those in, or close to the kitchen, and especially bathroom windows, since they’re located in prime, high humidity territory.

As much as frosty window art is an exercise in imagery and artistic expression, at least until the sun hits the pane, it’s unfortunately a sign of an unhealthy home environment. Frost on the inside pane of a window occurs when warm, high humidity air, touches the cold surface of the glass, exploding onto the pane, revealing itself as condensation. If the pane of glass is really cold, this condensation will freeze, creating the not so beloved, frosty glass extravaganza.

Condensation and the ensuing frost on your window panes is not a good thing because this moisture eventually melts, running down the glass pane, inevitably settling on the sill. Or, the water could seep through a crack in the sill, or seem in the casing, making its way into the wall cavity. Either way, condensating windows lead to rot or mold.

So, what’s the game plan? Well, you’ve got to lower the amount of humidity in the home. The simplest way is to open a window. Although hardly scientific, winter air is very dry, or low in humidity, so when it mixes with your high humidity indoor air, it somewhat creates a balance. The weakness in this strategy is of course knowing when to open or close the window, and properly circulating this new air (perhaps by having the children and whatever pets can follow a pattern, run a circuit around the furniture). Or, you could modify your living habits, perhaps by cutting your shower time down to five minutes, and using only lukewarm water. Plus, maybe lay off the pasta, or anything boiled, fried, or foods essentially requiring heat, since these cooking processes all create moisture. Unfortunately, you’ll have to rely more on garden salads and other similar rabbit foods.

Now, if these solutions seems unlikely, then you’re going to have to get mechanical help. First, make sure all the bathrooms have an exhaust fan that directs air to the exterior, either through the roof, or a side wall. Never vent moist bathroom air into the attic, or into the soffit panels. Next, put these bathroom fans on a timer, having them run while you shower, and a full 15 minutes afterwards. Kitchen fans, similar to bathroom fans, should vent to the exterior. Some kitchen fans have a charcoal filter/interior venting option. Avoid this strategy. Sure, the fan will make for an easy install, eliminating grease and various cooking smells, but the filter cannot absorb steam, the main culprit in our battle against moisture.

If things haven’t cleared up yet, you could invest in a dehumidifier. Although it means having a slightly noisy piece of furniture in the room, and having to manually empty it, or minimally provide a drain source, dehumidifiers are proven effective.

Best bet, invest in a HRV (heat recovery ventilation) unit. HRV’s have become the standard in new homes, and work in conjunction with your furnaces ductwork.

Next week, more on dehumidifying your home. Good building.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard

A well that you want to keep dry

“Are you a fireman?” was the question posed to me after giving this particular customer a quick lesson on the building code regarding egress basement windows and window wells.

“Don’t be ridiculous madame,” was my reply, “my proficiency at playing ice hockey is far too poor to be ever considered for such a position.”

This response references a local hiring practice that’s enabled our firefighters to go undefeated in charity hockey games for the past 40 years.

The issue at hand was her basement window, which had an existing window well, that she wanted to cover with some type of plastic canopy. Her idea was to somehow fasten the appropriate-sized canopy to the steel wall of the well.

Window wells are one of those necessary evils. They aren’t so attractive and they have a tendency to collect water against the foundation, which is not a good thing. In severe rains, they’ve also been known to create an interesting type of aquarium featuring some of our local frogs, insects and plant life, which can be a little unsettling for the unsuspecting basement dweller upon opening the curtains at sunrise.

However, when the landscaping has buried a portion of your basement window into the soil, a window well is what you’ll need to provide the necessary spacing for light, and escape. So – and addressing the issue at hand – this person’s desire to cover the window well is a prudent decision.

Window wells are good at collecting water, doing what wells are designed to do. However, water that pools at the foundation will creep down the wall and then infiltrate your finished basement through some little crack.

That’s the reason why we cover our window wells. The only flaw in her strategy was that she wanted to fasten the window well lid to the well. That’s when I explained to her the error in performing such a task, since it would eliminate an escape route, should there be a fire emergency.

“Oh well,” she continued, “if it was an emergency and I had to force it open, I could certainly do so.”

That’s when I explained the egress principle, which states a proper escape route must not require the escapee to figure out a latch or combination lock, or have prior knowledge as to how something opens— and certainly not require force.

When smoke fills a room, you’ve got about as long as you can hold your breath, which under duress is about 30 seconds, before the carbons and smoke matter overwhelm you. So, escape has got to be swift, and easy.

That’s when she blurted out the fireman quip.

The best system is a flip up lid that attaches to the foundation. These well covers are available with ridged, clear plastic tops that are extremely lightweight, requiring little pressure to open, while effectively diverting water away from the well. Then we discussed depth of the lid, which in this case needed to be about 14 inches.

A 14-inch lid indicated a 12-inch deep window well, which of course raised the question as to what use this basement room served. The building code doesn’t require storage, closet, or furnace rooms to have a window, so regardless of the size of the window, or depth of window well, compliance would not be an issue.

However, if this basement room were a bedroom, then we’d have a problem. Basement bedrooms require a window that when slid open, provides at least 3.8 square feet of escapable space, with 15 inches being the minimum opening of any one side. Along with this minimum window size, comes a minimum window well size, which states that the well must have a depth of at least 22 inches.

If you’re planning on renovating your basement with the idea of creating a few new bedrooms, make sure the window sizes and window well depths, conform to code.

Good building.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard