Buying a house is pretty much buying a lifetime of worry and anxiety: That collection of wood, metal, tile, and gypsum held together by the dark magic of physics is always plotting to ruin you. Aside from the routine maintenance that all houses require, there are always going to be expensive, shocking surprises like leaking roofs or busted furnaces that require a lot of money and sweat just to get you back to where you were the day before.
But at least a leaking roof or a busted furnace typically offer you some warning. Leaks usually start off small before they’re emergencies, and that furnace was probably acting up for months before it finally wheezed out its last breath. Most of the things that can (and will) go wrong in your home will typically give you plenty of warning before they completely fail. But sometimes the danger is hidden and silent right up until it turns into a huge problem, which means you’ll have to be proactive and check for problems regularly.
Nails that miss the framing lumber, sticking out into the air, are sometimes called “shiners” in the construction industry. A few shiners are usually inevitable, but you shouldn’t have a ton of them—especially when it comes to roofing nails. The problem with shiners is that these exposed nails can become frosty with condensation during colder weather, then drip water onto the framing of your house. And there won’t be much warning because these exposed nails are typically hidden up in your attic or behind ceiling and wall drywall, allowing them to slowly rot your home’s framing without any visible evidence—until the damage is done. All you can do is make sure you get up into your attic to observe the state of your roof from the inside, and monitor the humidity and moisture levels of your home for subtle signs that there’s water getting in somewhere.
Bulging water lines
Is your washer hooked up to the water supply using inexpensive rubber hoses? Do you even know what kind of hoses have been used? Because the hookups are often hidden behind the washer, they’re often an out-of-sight, out-of-mind situation. You should take a peek back there now and then, though, to see if those hoses have developed tell-tale bulges that signal the hose is close to failing. If you don’t go back there to check, that failure will happen suddenly—most likely when you’re not there to turn the water off.
Hidden water leaks
Modern plumbing is magic: You turn a spigot, and clean water just rushes out of a faucet or showerhead! But we don’t often ponder how that water gets to all the rooms of our home, in part because the pipes that carry that water are often hidden in the walls or run under the house through a crawl space or basement (or even under the concrete slab). That means that leaking pipes can go for long stretches of time before any sort of problem is noticed, soaking parts of your house that were never meant to be wet. The only way to defend against this sort of slow, silent destruction is to go spelunking under your house now and then and monitor your water meter so you’ll notice spikes in usage that can’t be explained.
If your home isn’t brand-new, you have to wonder what the previous owners got up to. While a lot of DIY renovations turn out perfectly fine, inexperienced or lazy DIYers often cut corners—and a very, very easy corner to cut is to just cover something with drywall instead of properly removing it. You’d be amazed at the stuff some folks will “bury” under drywall or other materials: HVAC registers, pipes, live wiring and electrical boxes, exterior weep holes, even windows. A buried window could develop a leak that will slowly ruin your home’s structure, hidden from you for months or even years before the damage becomes so great it breaks through. You can employ a stud finder that can also detect electrical lines to find hidden wiring, and hidden windows (that are also hidden on the outside of the house) will usually result in a cold spot in the wall that can be detected manually or by using a thermal imaging camera.
Radon is a colorless, odorless gas that can make you seriously ill. While radon testing is pretty common during the home inspection process, it isn’t always performed. If you’re not sure about your home’s radon status, you can hire a professional to conduct a test or use a store-bought test kit. And you definitely should, because radon won’t give you any sign that it’s slowly making you sick.
There are plenty of signs that your home has been invaded by hungry termites that are cheerfully converting it into a pile of sawdust. But those signs only serve as a warning if you actually see them. Termites often invade areas of your home that aren’t typically exposed to you—like the floor joists, wall studs, and rafters up in your attic. Sure, eventually their presence will be known, but unless you conduct a regular check-in of hidden areas of your home it might be way too late by the time you notice the little bastards.
Everyone is (rightly) terrified of mold growing in their home, but mold isn’t always obvious. Mold can grow in hidden, out-of-the-way spots in your house for years before there are any visible surface signs of it. And the symptoms of a mold allergy are easily confused with other respiratory diseases—assuming you have any symptoms at all. If there’s mold growing under the wallpaper or behind the drywall, you might not notice until it’s at disaster, gut-renovation levels. It can be tough to check for hidden mold, but getting into attics, crawlspaces, and other areas of the house that are normally hidden from view is a good start. And any time you open walls or floors for renovations or repairs is an opportunity to check for hidden mold.
Did you buy a charming fixer-upper? As long as the electricity works, you’re fine, right? Maybe not. Just because the lights turn on when you flick the switches doesn’t mean your wiring is okay. Old-school “knob and tube” wiring was never meant to last more than 20 to 30 years, and even modern wiring is only expected to last 50 to 70 years before the insulation breaks down. But failing wiring may show no signs at all until it burns your house down. If your home is older, it’s a good idea to have an electrician conduct an inspection unless you know for sure how old the wiring in your walls is.
Asbestos and lead
If you bought an older home and didn’t inspect for lead and asbestos, you might be surprised to find that your home has a lot of lead and asbestos in it. Lead pipes are especially dangerous, as they can slowly poison you and yours without any overt signs. You can usually find out if your house has lead piping just by contacting your water utility, and you can also inspect the pipes yourself and conduct tests using a coin and a magnet to determine if they’re made of lead. If your home was built after the 1970s it probably doesn’t have any asbestos materials in it—but if it does, that stuff could be silently making you sick. The best way to check for asbestos is to call for a professional inspection.