Title: "How Your House Works: A Visual Guide to Understanding and Maintaining Your Home"
Author: Charlie Wing
Publisher: R.S. Means, 2012; 208 pages; $22.95
By the time you see this, I pray that Hurricane Sandy will have wound herself down, giving our East Coast friends and neighbors a moment’s rest before they begin putting their homes and towns back together again. There were many stories of heroism and rescue to come out of this disaster, but one that touched me personally probably failed to make many front pages.
Brooklyn, N.Y., writer Deanna Zandt realized early on in the storm that the wind had blown her home’s fire hatch wide open. In her own words:
"I went to the back of the house, slowly, and noticed light and a breeze coming through the cracks of the doors of my back closet. Opened the doors to find that the lid to the fire escape roof hatch had blown off. Here’s the problem with this whole lid-blowing-off thing: it’s not just the rain. An open window/door/whatever during a hurricane creates a pressurized situation that allows very little wind force to lift a roof right off of the house. Only thing we could do was take turns holding on. Holding on to our roof."
Zandt and her landlords spent the next six hours — six hours! — taking turns holding their roof down, with a rope; she chronicles her household’s extraordinarily brave, smart and ultimately successful efforts in a comedic/terrifying blog post, here.
MacGyver wouldn’t be proud: He’d be in awe. Zandt detected the issue and was able to heroically avoid true disaster only because she and the others in her household (and some family members from afar) realized it presented a much graver danger, if not dealt with, than it would appear on the surface. They understood how a home works, and that positioned her to hold onto her roof. Literally.
When it’s time to study up on real estate, often in anticipation of buying a home, we tend to focus on the transactional and financial aspects of the experience. We read books and blogs on homebuying; we download lists of interview questions to ask agents; and we fixate on what to offer and when to lock our interest rates. We tend to leave the understanding of the literal nuts and bolts of our properties themselves to the inspectors, investing blind trust in them mostly because in this day and age where we focus on digital information and content, it’s much, much harder to wrap our heads around the physics, engineering, mechanics and myriad moving pieces of what is still legally called "real property."
But this knowledge is essential — and it doesn’t have to be painful to acquire. I can’t tell you the number of times, as the owner of a home in pretty great condition, I have had to call on my relatively rudimentary knowledge of building basics, acquired through years of selling real estate, reading inspection reports and compacting myself into crawl spaces that my own clients, the owners-to-be, have never been in, alongside the inspectors.
If you are planning to buy or build a single-family home, or you already own one, listen up. I’m about to make a bold statement. You should own this week’s book: "How Your House Works: A Visual Guide to Understanding and Maintaining Your Home," by Charlie Wing.
"How Your House Works" is precisely what it says it is: a beautifully illustrated, diagram-packed, no-frills guide to every component and system of your home complete with super-short, plain English mini-tutorials that explain each visual.
Don’t be intimidated by the idea of diagrams: Wing, a national home improvement and repair authority, strips back each one to no more than a handful of the most important elements you absolutely need to know to understand the basic function of whatever home system is being covered, from framing to faucets — no more, and no less.
"How Your House Works" is written on two foundational (pardon the pun) assumptions: (a) that most repairs your home will ever need are very, very simple; and (b) that understanding how to fix something requires that you understand how it will work. Wing is not seeking to inspire us each to channel our inner Bob Vila; rather, he’s trying to help us avoid stories like his friend’s, who had to pay a $150 site visit fee for the plumber to pluck a pistachio shell out of the dishwasher, instantly stopping the noise it was making.
Having even a basic understanding of how your home works empowers you to save potentially thousands of dollars during your time in the property on unnecessary repair visits and calls, positions you to speak knowledgeably about what needs to happen with contractors when you do truly need them, and minimizes downtime from supposedly "broken" appliances and systems that might not really require much more than a tightened screw, a replaced bolt or a new washer.
And "How Your House Works" does this, elegantly and manageably, for 10 categories of home elements: pluming, electrical, heating, cooling, air quality, appliances, windows and doors, foundation and frame, outdoors (think: lawnmowers, chainsaws, sprinklers and septic), and a more aspirational section on sustainable home elements, like timed thermostats and solar heating.
So, get this book. If you’re buying a home in an area where many sellers have prelisting inspection reports available, it’s not at all premature to buy the book before you even find "the one"; and it’s certainly not overkill to flip through it before you attend your own home’s inspections or while you’re reading the reports. And homeowners, consider yourself on notice: The knowledge in this book can save you money, drama and in the most dire of circumstances, immeasurably more.