How to handle common home disasters

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As I lay in my bed on the morning of December 30th, I had been living in my (and first) dream apartment for three months. Basking in the golden light from my window, I felt so excited and relaxed to have a day off after an incredibly stressful move.

Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Entering: the smell of towels soaked for too long…or so I thought before I saw my entire apartment floor being inundated with stinking flood water and sewage.

Several thoughts and feelings – some of which I can’t politely share here – hit me: What the heck happened? What should I do? Who is responsible for cleaning up this mess?

It turned out that an overnight storm and sewage backlog accelerated the flooding, which ruined some of my belongings and forced me to look for a second apartment. The experience was mentally and financially draining.

When something goes wrong in your home, “it’s never fun and can be very discouraging and stressful,” said Daniel Wroclawski, a home and appliance writer for Consumer Reports, a nonprofit organization that helps consumers buy goods and services evaluate.

Wroclawski experienced his own flood nightmare at his first and current home.

“I came home from being away one weekend and there was a flood in my kitchen, no kidding, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage,” he added. “And my wife was about six or seven months pregnant.”

Flooding is just one of the most common things that can go wrong in a home.

If you’re a renter, Wroclawski strongly recommends getting renters insurance, as it can usually help you if something goes wrong. Renters Insurance is generally affordable coverage designed to protect your personal liability and property against circumstances such as theft, fire, storms and natural disasters, since your landlord or caretaker is not responsible for your property, according to US News & World Report.

Be aware of what certain policies do or don’t cover – if you live in an area that’s at high risk of flooding, your insurance should include flood protection. Home insurance is very similar to renters insurance, but in addition to your property, it also covers the structure and outbuildings of the home.

Regardless of what goes wrong, if you’re a renter and there’s a problem with something your landlord is responsible for – such as the unit itself or the equipment they provide – your first call should generally be the maintenance team or the Be a landlord, said Wroclawski. If you’re a homeowner and can’t solve a problem yourself, consult professional service personnel—like a plumber if your toilet won’t flush, or an HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) technician if you need a furnace repair .

Below, experts offer advice on how to calmly deal with common household headaches, whether you rent or own your home.

“If you have a burst pipe or a leak, the first thing you want to do is turn off the water,” Wroclawski said. “With your home, that’s usually accessible. But if you rent, this may not be the case. In this case, you must contact your landlord or caretaker as soon as possible.”

If you’re responsible for fixing the problem, call a plumber — or an emergency response plumber, if necessary and affordable for you, Wroclawski said.

The longer water stands, the greater the damage.

“Stagnant water is just no laughing matter. It can cause mold and mildew and eventual health problems,” Wroclawski said. “If they don’t respond within a few hours, you’ll want to start going to someone else.”

If you must take care of this yourself, remove as much excess water as possible. You could buy a water pump from a hardware store and pump it into a sink or bathtub and then dry everything off – speed up the process by using fans and opening windows.

If your garbage disposal isn’t working, unplug it before reaching in to find the culprit, Wroclawski said. If there’s no obvious object clogging it, you can try garbage disposal cleaning tabs, he recommended. Some disposals also have reset buttons.

If you notice your fridge isn’t as cold as it should be, check the condenser coils on the back of the fridge, Wroclawski said.

Condenser coils can get dirty, so pull your fridge away from the wall every six months to vacuum those coils, Wroclawski said. This build-up can cause your refrigerator to not cool as efficiently and has to work harder, which can lead to machine breakdowns if not addressed sooner.

If your smoke or carbon monoxide alarm isn’t working or beeping excessively, make sure it hasn’t expired, Wroclawski said. Smoke alarms generally need to be replaced every eight to 10 years, and carbon monoxide alarms every five years, he added.

If your detectors are battery powered, be sure to replace the batteries. If you are renting your residence, the replacement may need to be carried out by maintenance personnel.

All heating and cooling systems require routine maintenance at least once a year, said David Heiman, senior director of training at The Refrigeration School, Inc. in Phoenix.

In both apartments and homes, “most residents who have a problem will first notice a lack of cooling or heating,” Heiman said via email. “Residents may also notice that the units are running for long periods of time and/or there are fluctuations in indoor temperatures.”

Experts “usually see problems from dirty air filters, dirty or clogged condenser coils, refrigerant leaks, clogged condensate lines and failed electrical components (such as) motors, capacitors, relays and contractors,” added Heiman.

A dirty filter can be replaced by you or, if you rent, by maintenance staff or your landlord. Professionals may have to deal with some of the more complicated issues.

If you’re not getting hot water, your water heater could have a broken part or be replaced entirely, Wroclawski said. If you live in an apartment, call the landlord or caretaker. If you live in a house, call a plumber.

“Another thing to keep in mind is that with a gas water heater the pilot light could be out, in which case you would have a real gas leak problem. It’s very dangerous,” Wroclawski said. To be safe, if you see the lights are off, leave your home and call the fire department or gas company – they will check for gas leaks.

If you have little to no experience with home repairs, you may be wondering what a fair price for such services is.

With some of these issues, “time is of the essence, in which case you’re probably just going to want to bite the bullet and pay what they charge you,” Wroclawski said. “But if you have the time, it’s definitely worth looking around (and) getting estimates from multiple vendors.”

HomeAdvisor lists the national median price for many home repair services, he added.

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