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Mailbag: Floor Squeaks, Foggy Windows, Value-Add Renos, Popcorn Ceilings, and Healthy Homes

Let's answer some questions from our readers:

Fixing floor squeaks

Can floor squeaks be fixed?

Anything can be fixed, depending on how much you want to spend and how invasive you're ok going. Floor squeaks are almost always caused by moving nails in the subfloor, not the floor or floor fasteners themselves. As you step on a floor with a loose nail in the subfloor, that subfloor will flex slightly, rubbing against the loose nail and causing a squeak. To fix this, you have to properly secure that subfloor and nail. That entails at least getting a screw through the subfloor into the floor framing at the site of the squeak (removing the old fastener and adding adhesive is an added bonus). Making this fix will depend on the type of floor you're dealing with:

Carpet - The easiest fix. Pick up one of these repair kits and don't bother pulling up the carpet! Find the floor joist and send a screw straight through the carpet. They're made to break off below the carpet so you don't feel them when you walk over them.

Hardwoods - You'll either need to pull the floor up to secure the subfloor, go through the hardwoods and live with a hole that's been repaired with stainable putty, or try to secure it from below if you have access (ie the 1st floor ceiling if the squeak is on the 2nd floor).

Tile/Vinyl/Everything Else - You're either going to have to pull up the floor and secure the subfloor, or fix it from below if you can.

Why are my windows always foggy?

Foggy window

Most likely because the seal on your window is broken. Modern windows have 2 or 3 panes of glass in them, often with a gas such as argon between those panes to increase energy efficiency. When the seal between those two panes is compromised, that's usually when you see fogging or even condensation. You can potentially reseal that window or replace the glass, but the safest long term fix is to replace the window. A lot of times you can replace just the window sash and leave the window frame itself in place.

What is the renovation that adds the most value?

I need to get on my soapbox before I answer.

  1. Don't upgrade your house in order to sell it, unless there's an actual defect you're trying to fix. You probably aren't getting all of your money back and you're pricing out the next owner from renovating it exactly how they want it.

  2. Don't renovate your house (that you plan on living in) for the next person who lives there! It's your money and your house, make it the way you want it. And don't forget to give it some personality! Boring, seemingly-low-risk styling is a great way to guarantee that no one will fall in love with your home.

  3. Houses are so inefficiently priced that quality and value are almost irrelevant. Choosing between upgrading your home's air quality and replacing the countertops should be a no-brainer for air quality, but that's almost never the case. You'll likely get a higher offer because someone likes the color of your new quartz vs. the out of style granite, but the air quality is the one that will actually affect your life.

  4. Stop viewing houses as an asset that you're trying to maximize your ROI. Whether it's through aesthetics, health, or quality of experience, there's so much return from a well loved home above and beyond money.

OK, off my soapbox. I would start with smaller projects like cleaning/reorganizing your space, then move up to some fresh paint. I prefer a wipeable paint but, again, you're probably only getting value in an offer from the color you put on the walls, not the fact that you used nicer paint (which is annoying). Then stick to simple cosmetic stuff that would involve preferably one trade (tile, countertops, light fixtures, etc). If you did a kitchen remodel, try to keep it to cosmetic changes only if your main concern is ROI (don't start moving walls, fixtures, adding windows, etc). Save the larger upgrades for a home you want to live in long term.

Can popcorn ceilings be fixed?

Yes. Popcorn ceilings are an inexpensive way to cover drywall (not bad necessarily, especially if you as the homeowner are trying to save money). Many different textured drywall coverings are commonly called "popcorn" but they are not all the same. The type of texture will determine the remedy. You'll need to either wet them and scrape them off (preferred) or use a disc sander attached to a vacuum and sand them off (an ok solution but dust will go everywhere, even with the vacuum). You'll then need to apply a smooth finish to the drywall followed by paint. A drywall finisher or possibly painter could do this for you.

home air quality

What can I do to keep a healthy home?

I guess we need to determine first if you're talking about healthier air/water or all the way to the other side of the spectrum of synchronizing circadian rhythms and creating a Feng Shui environment. While I geek out on lighting systems that change color with the light of the sun throughout the day, I'm going to assume the former for now.

Air - First, and most importantly, get yourself at least one air quality monitor. You can't know what you need to improve if you don't know what your problems are. If/when you do have an air issue, open your windows. You'll be shocked at how well fresh air from outside can clean the air in your home. Cooking on a stove top is a huge contributor to indoor air pollution. Run your hood vent before and after cooking to cycle in fresh air (electric cooktops also help a lot). Here's a list of what else you can do:

  • Change the air filters in your HVAC system regularly (every 3-6 months). This will also increase your system's lifespan.

  • Control the humidity as the seasons change (I think 45%-55% is ideal). Humidity plays a larger part in air quality than you might realize.

  • Don't burn candles or use air "fresheners". Other than essential oils, introduced smells in the home are just pollutants. The same goes for your soaps and cleaners. Try using no smell or essential oil scented products.

  • Buy used or organic furniture. Organic furniture probably sounds crazy, but furniture is one of the worst contributors of VOCs in your home and can off-gas for years. If you can't do that, at least let your new furniture off-gas away from your house for a month or two (but the longer, the better) before moving it in.

  • Add an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) which introduces, filters, and partially conditions outside fresh air into the house regularly.

Water - Unless your house is on a well system, your water comes from a water treatment facility that adds chemicals (most commonly chlorine or chloramine) to that water to kill harmful microorganisms. Unfortunately those chemicals are not filtered back out and can do their own damage. Chlorine is the worst and has been linked to cancer, amazingly even more so when exposed to your skin vs consumed (never install a chlorine pool). Chloramine is the more recent water disinfectant and, while safer than chlorine, should also be removed from your drinking water. I really like the Springwell CF system (CF1, CF4, or CF+ depending on your number of bathrooms) as a whole home water filtration system. It isn't cheap, but it lasts a long time and allows you to keep your water pressure up. I also installed an iSpring sediment filter in my house before the carbon filter to keep it and my plumbing fixtures clear of debris and lasting longer. To filter out trace metals like lead, fluoride, arsenic, etc., a reverse osmosis kit that feeds your kitchen sink and fridge water line is the way to go. You can see what's in your water with a home test kit for around $25.

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