Homeowners Survival Guide

A survival guide to conquering the mossy, damp, and vermin-related surprises that come with owning a home.

By Allecia Vermillion May 22, 2013 Published in the June 2013 issue of Seattle Met

One year ago this summer, my husband and I signed an avalanche of paper, took on a heart-stopping amount of mortgage debt, and officially became homeowners of a 1920 Craftsman. There have been beautiful moments—wine on the porch, stringing up Christmas lights, discovering yellow tulips planted along our front fence. But also check-writing, brow-furrowing, slightly frightening moments. In our first 12 months as homeowners we have remodeled a bathroom, had our back door smashed in and our valuables burgled, and suffered an abrupt change of view when the neighbors decided to cut down a 20-foot laurel hedge. Owning a home will always be fraught with the unexpected, but here are a few common scenarios that are relatively easy to prevent.

See 7 more things every homeowner should know...


Climbing on the roof has its perils—including damage to your roof.

Moss on the Roof

It’s Alive!
It’s a vicious cycle: Dampness invites moss, which in turn traps Seattle’s inevitable rain until it slowly deteriorates the shingles that stand between your house and the elements. Brett VandenBrink, owner of AA Window and Gutter Cleaning in Kirkland (, says his team encounters roofs so spongy and rotten that walking on them sends feet plunging through to the plywood beneath. Raccoons have also been known to use soft, mossy roof patches for, uh, copulating. Moss starts accumulating on shadier sides of the house (usually the north and anywhere that doesn’t get direct sunlight). The most common solution, says VandenBrink, is to hire someone to rake and blow plant life loose and apply a yearly spraydown of zinc sulfate to create a moss-hostile pH balance on the roof. 

Who you gonna call?
A company that carries its own insurance, absolving you from any liability if somebody falls.



Old Wiring

The Curse of the Knob and Tube

Homes built in the 1940s or before usually harbor the scary-sounding “knob and tube” wiring system wherein little bits of porcelain create a barrier between heat-carrying wires and a home’s wood frame. “It was designed in a time when our bedrooms had a light and maybe a clock,” says Steve Bryan, formerly a contractor, now a home inspector with 22 years’ experience (, and the guy who scoured my house after our offer was accepted last spring. Older homes might have two, maybe three circuits for the entire house, while 20 or more circuits power newer houses. Crowding our modern breadth of flat screens, wireless routers, and phone chargers into insufficient outlets can create a fire hazard—precisely why most insurers won’t cover a home with more than 10 percent knob and tube. 

Who you gonna call?
Electricians can replace old systems by dropping new wiring down from the attic or working up from an unfinished basement. Some specialize in updating knob and tube and employ clever tricks, like pulling out baseboards to run new wiring. These folks might cost an extra $10 an hour, says Bryan, but you’ll spend much less on carpentry or drywall repairs.


It Came from the Sky

Come fall, foliage piles up in gutters, leaving all that rainwater with no orderly exit strategy. Annual cleanings are just about the cheapest and easiest way of preventing all the other household horrors that come with drainage problems. Common sense dictates scheduling a cleaning after most of the leaves have fallen. When Brett VandenBrink of AA Window and Gutter Cleaning does gutter estimates, he’ll pull up your address on Zillow or Google Earth to look at the pitch of your roof and the prevalence of leaf-bearing trees nearby so he can quote more specific price. Does that freak people out? “Maybe five years ago, but today most people are comfortable with the idea.”

Who you gonna call?
Someone who works from a ladder rather than climbing on the roof—it’s safer and prevents roof damage.



The Thief in the Night (or, More Likely, the Day) 

Seattle police respond to more burglaries in the summer months, when homeowners leave doors and windows open day and night. And daytime—usually between 9am and 2pm—is the preferred window for breaking into a home according to Kristi Roze, a former Redmond police detective who now works for Absolute Security Alarms in Ballard ( The alarm industry has made major technological leaps in recent years, she says. Today systems are cellular rather than connected to a landline, and motion sensors and glass-break sensors mean you don’t have to have a device tacked on every single window. 

Most thieves are seeking easy-to-sell, small electronics and jewelry, says Roze. “We don’t typically see people in this part of the country breaking in and stealing the Picasso; these guys don’t know what to do with really high-end valuables like art.” The first stop is almost always the master bedroom (a likely repository for cash, jewelry, medications, iPads), so a motion sensor in the hallway or stairs is important. Many systems let you distribute personalized codes to cleaning people, kids, and housesitters, and come with smartphone apps that activate and deactivate the alarm remotely and track who’s coming and going. Parents can even receive an email or text alert if a kid isn’t home and disarming the system by a certain time. Thank goodness this technology didn’t exist during my own teenhood.

Who you gonna call?
Your insurance company, since installing an alarm system earns you a discount on your homeowners policy.


When drainage systems fail, water collects around the house, primed to seep into the basement.

Backed-Up Sewer

The Burbling

Trees—or specifically their roots—can intrude on the pipe connecting your house to the sewer system by burrowing into any piping joints in search of water and nutrients. When backups happen, you might find a most unsavory sludge burbling up through the lowest fixture in your house.

Sewer scoping, or sending a small camera into your sewer, can provide both a riveting DVD to haul out at parties and a good diagnosis of where you might have problems. Bryan recommends a commercial herbicidal foam called RootX, which can kill invasive roots without damaging the sewer system. An alternating annual schedule of RootX and professional cleaning can ward off serious problems for years, he says. Homeowners are responsible for their sewer lines until they meet the main line that runs underneath the street. Ignore invasive roots from a tree in the strip of grass by the curb, and you might be applying for city permits to block traffic and paying for someone to dig up your street to fix the problem. Seattle residents can find a diagram of their home’s sewer lines (known as a sewer card) at

Who you gonna call?
It’s a common complaint that some sewer repair companies take financial advantage of your dire straits, so get good referrals and multiple bids.



The Spores That Wouldn’t Die

Where there’s mold, there’s moisture. And it’s pointless to clean up the mold unless you address the cause. Usually it’s pretty straightforward, says Steve Bryan—a leaky pipe, a water heater, four people taking hot showers in a bathroom without a working fan. Mold and its less-fuzzy fungal cousin mildew wash away with detergent and water, but fixing mysterious dampness might mean replacing drywall and any wet padding underneath the carpet (rugs can be cleaned, pads can’t). When mold accumulates around windows or in closets or on boxes in a basement, it’s often caused by dust and dirt languishing in areas with high moisture levels, insufficient heat, and inadequate air circulation.

Who you gonna call?
A general contractor or plumber can handle most dampness issues. If you do end up needing a full-on mold remediation service, find one that’s licensed by the EPA as an industrial hygienist.



Horror on Basement Island

Most Seattle-area houses sit atop clay soil—great for retaining moisture and rotten for draining. That’s why homes are equipped with gutters and downspouts and underground drain lines to convey water away from your foundation and into the city storm drain system. When that system fails, water collects around the house, primed to seep into the basement. It wasn’t such a big deal until we started turning our unfinished basements into rec rooms and filling them with carpet and drywall and home entertainment centers. But poor construction choices like cheap drainpipes or improperly waterproofed crawl spaces can also cause issues in newer houses. Likely culprits include clogged gutters and wayward tree roots disrupting underground drain lines, says Aaron Calvo, general manager at Perma Dry Waterproofing ( in Renton. Overzealous mulching in garden beds around a house also invites water damage. The area where your foundation meets the framing material is called the sill plate, and if soil is piled so high it meets the siding, it can allow water to seep inside. In that case, Calvo says, “You don’t need a new drainage system; you need 10 minutes and a shovel.”

Who you gonna call? 
Many landscapers replace downspout drain lines. Specialty drainage outfits will probably charge more but offer more fail-safe systems. It can also be a fairly inexpensive project for a handy homeowner.




The Demon in My Toilet

Roof rats are notoriously agile climbers that can make their way into a home’s attic via overgrown tree branches. Then there’s your standard brown Norway rat, known to make unscheduled appearances in area toilet bowls—58 were reported in King County in 2012. Rats are great swimmers with a keen sense of smell, according to Don Pace, the health department’s czar of belowground rat control in Seattle ( Rodents get into the sewer system and head toward the enticing aroma of kitchen sinks and garbage disposals, usually coated with grease and old food. When those pipes get too narrow, rats end up emerging from the nearest toilet bowl. Pace has seen rats make their way as high as the eighth story of an apartment building. “If the lid is up, they’ve got about a three-foot vertical jump.” It’s a rare scenario, but one gross enough to haunt your dreams.

The county recommends flushing any toilet-emerging rats and blasting old food out of your pipes with a monthly dose of bleach (one cup) followed by a rinse of boiling water. Rats also like to nest in sheltered outdoor areas, close to food sources like bird feeders or exposed garbage, or in overgrown ivy or blackberries. 

Who you gonna call?
Seattle residents should call the King County Public Health Department at 206-263-9566 to report a rat sighting. And for the love of all that is holy, keep your toilet seats down. For serious rat problems—or wasps, mice, carpenter ants, or other marauding pests—a pest control company can determine the best battle plan.


Sump Pumps

Horror on Basement Island II: The Sump Monster 

Sump pumps are a common solution when drainage systems and gravity won’t play nice. Depending on the quality of the pump, it might last 10 years. But guys in Calvo’s line of work are more conservative: “Check your pump once a year and replace it after five years. No fail. No excuses. No matter what. It’s the heart of a drainage system; if it fails you’re the only one to blame.”

Who you gonna call?
A drainage company or plumber specializing in sump pumps. When it comes to the quality of the pump, you definitely get what you pay for; look for pumps made of sturdy materials like metal or steel and stay away from the plastic stuff.

See 7 more things every homeowner should know...

Published: June 2013

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