Five Things to Know About Maintaining A Hill Home

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G.L. Barnhart rebuilt this historic brick staircase and entryway to match the original appearance. Photo: G.L. Barnhart, Courtesy: CHRS

One of the great things about buying a home on the Hill is that most of them are more than 100 years old. Each one is built to last. To continue that kind of longevity, you need to inspect and maintain your home. That’s true of any home, of course, but many Hill homes have particular quirks. We asked local experts to talk about five key things Hill homeowners should note.

Historic and Permits
Many Capitol Hill homes are located in the Capitol Hil Historic District, a large area stretching from the U.S. Capitol grounds east to 14th Street and from Navy Yard north to F Street, NE. The best way to see if you are in a historical district is to enter your address at www.propertyquest.dc.gov.

If you are, the important original features of the property have to be retained, and any changes have to be “compatible in character’ with the neighborhood. That means any alterations to the parts of your house that can be seen from public space are subject to review by the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) —that includes door and window replacement as well as fencing and approval of additions.

If you have an easement, or an agreement with a party to use your property for specific reasons, the other party will need to sign off on some changes as well.

Whether you’re in the historic district or not, all structural and some nonstructural work, such as plumbing, wiring or air conditioning, requires permits from the DCRA. If you have a contractor, they will usually help with this. If you will use public space for construction, such as for a dumpster, crane or material storage, you’ll need a permit for that too. You can find a list outlining when you need permits at https://tinyurl.com/ctarshez

Public Space
According to DC Code, our front yards are actually city property, says former HPRB member and long-time Hill resident Nancy Metzger. For most people that’s from the sidewalk to the front facade. You’re not taxed on it, but you are required to maintain it in a reasonable fashion. If you wish to make permanent changes to front yards, such as pavers or fences, get a permit or you’re likely to get a fine and a stop work order.

Similarly, homeowners are responsible for maintaining the tree boxes or grassy strips between the sidewalk and street in front of their houses. They are also responsible for snow removal on all sidewalks adjacent to their property. The District does not perform these functions, except adjacent to facilities like schools.

Roofs
There is a wide variety of roof shapes and roofing materials on the Hill. Some, such as slate-covered turrets, may require custom work for replacement. But the most Hill residential roofs are flat. Two common problems are linked to the shared ownership of parapet walls, the raised barriers at the edge of the roof. Get permission from your neighbor so the roofer can finish the roof properly to avoid leaks. Many hill homes have AC units on the roof, or, in increasing number, solar panels. Replacement of the air conditioner on many Hill roofs can require a crane.

Homeowners should also check to see if nature is encroaching on their roofs. Tom Daniel of R. Thomas Roofing (rthomasdanielroofing.com) recommends homeowners trim any branches within six feet of your roof. Branches create shade, preventing moisture from evaporating quickly, accelerating the decay of your roof and causing leaks. They also drop leaves into your eavestroughs! See more in his article here.

Water
DC has two rivers and a lot of rain. Water is everywhere in the District, including inside of your home in sinks, toilets and plumbing. Capitol Hill contractor Gary Barnhart (glbarnhart.com) advises homeowners to make sure the grade of the ground around the foundation slopes away from the house. It is a good idea to have a drainage system in the yard that moves water away from your house (and your neighbor’s homes!).

The above notes on roofing will help you avoid problems inside; look for signs of water in your attic or crawlspace as well, if you have one. You should also have your plumbing inspected once a year to check for leaking pipes and running toilets. Check especially the drainage near doglegs (which don’t get much sunlight) to avoid damage to your brick walls.

Brick and Mortar
What is tuckpointing? That’s when the mortar or cement in between bricks is repaired, either in specific areas or on the whole house. It involves removing paint and old mortar and reapplying the proper mix to replace it. The process must be done during spring or fall to avoid the effect of extreme temperatures on the cement. If you are repointing your entire home, the whole structure will need to be scaffolded.

But don’t worry. According to Tom Michaliga, of Michaliga Masonry (michaligamasonry.com), a well-done and maintained brick pointing job might only be necessary once every 50-70 years. Identify problems early on by inspecting your home annually, and make it easy on yourself: don’t paint your home unless recommended by a masonry professional.

But if your home is already painted, don’t strip it just yet. While exposed brick is attractive, experts recommend you don’t strip exterior paint to repoint unless there are signs it is required, like loose or cracked bricks, damp plaster or interior water damage.

“If the paint on your house has been well maintained, you have no structural concerns and you have no water damage, it is better not to strip and repoint,” preservation planner Marie Fennell wrote in a CHRS case study. That’s because softer brick can be weakened by methods used to remove paint.

But paint isn’t all bad: sometimes paint is used to give protection to soft or damaged brick. You don’t want to risk removing protection and doing damage unless you’ve been advised by a professional.

An Annual Checklist To Home Maintenance

Use this home inspection checklist as a guide as you look around for problems that can develop over the year.

Monthly:

  • Clear floor and outdoor drains
  • Change HVAC filter
  • Clean kitchen sink garbage disposal
  • Clean range hood
  • Inspect fire extinguishers
  • Test smoke and CO alarms

SPRING:

  • Clean gutters
  • Turn outdoor water on, test water pressure
  • Check water heater
  • Inspect exterior of home (siding, brick) for wear, cracks, bulges or stains.
  • Check if trees touch or pull on electric lines, or touch the home exterior
  • Check roof for deterioration, tears or holes. Look for leaning in the chimney. Check that the flashing (material where roof meets other surfaces, like walls or chimney) is in good condition, and not peeling up or missing.
  • Put on window screens
  • Inspect and test A/C system
  • Test water heater pressure relief valve
  • Inspect trees for signs of disease or to remove dead wood
  • Power wash deck or patio
  • Deep clean house

FALL:

  • Clean gutters
  • Sweep and inspect chimney
  • Inspect fireplace for damage/hazards
  • Turn off outdoor water and drain faucets
  • Put on storm windows
  • Vacuum refrigerator coil
  • Ensure home exhaust is not blocked (HVAC, dryer vents)
  • Inspect Heating/HVAC system. Check around radiators for leaks, damaged floors or deterioration.
  • Winterize AC unit
  • Test water heater pressure relief valve

ANNUALLY:

  • Check door and window locks; check seals for cracks
  • Check and repair caulking around showers, bathtubs, toilets
  • Decalcify shower heads
  • Inspect plumbing; check for corrosion, green stains or signs of leaks in exposed pipes and taps
  • Flush hot water heater to remove sediment
  • Open electrical panel and look for scorch marks around breakers or fuses
  • Examine retaining walls and foundation for cracks or bulges

LIFE SPAN ESTIMATES:

We’ve consulted with local experts and asked them how long you can expect common household appliances to last. Note that these are averages only for planning purposes. Great variation is possible according to individual circumstances.

  • Furnace: 15-20 years
  • Water heater: 8-10 years
  • HVAC: 10-15 years
  • Boiler: 15-30 years
  • Oven: 15-20 years
  • Dishwasher: 10-25 years
  • Refrigerator: 7-10 years
  • Washer: 10-15 years
  • Dryer: 15-20 years
  • Roof: 15-20 years, except slate
  • Interior paint: 3-5 years
  • Brick repointing: 25-50 years
  • Ironwork: 50-100 years
  • Pressure-treated wood: 8-12 years

Find tips and resources on maintaining your historic home on the CHRS website at chrs.org.