I received a question by e-mail from a reader looking for a replacement spring for the mechanism that controls his pull-down attic stairs.
The pull-down stair unit was more than 30 years old, and the reader didn't know which company had manufactured it.
I suggested that rather than drive himself crazy trying to find something that might not exist anymore, he should buy a new set of pull-down stairs. After all, it seems to me that with the advances that have been made in just about everything related to the house, they probably make better attic stair units these days.
In addition, it was more than likely that space around the unit was not properly insulated, and with attic insulation and ventilation the key to energy savings and preventing situations such as ice dams on roofs during the winter, any money would be well spent.
I was chastised by a host of readers for my advice. Some said I was wasting the man's money by making him replace something that could be, in one suggestion, easily repaired by a bungee cord. Others said it didn't matter that the reader had problems closing the stairs "as long as they closed."
Still others complained that the ones being manufactured these days looked cheap, and they were being made of "flimsy" materials such as fiberglass.
I thought long and hard about the readers' responses to my original recommendation, by which I still stand. There are better reasons for my answer than trying to avoid wasting time, looking for something that no longer can be found.
The insulation issue is, of course, a valid reason, in light of the high price of oil and predictions of a colder-than-usual winter in many parts of the country. Any place you can prevent heat escaping or cold entering saves you money and conserves energy.
Another reason, and one that is without doubt a real estate issue, is resale.
If you live in a house for any length of time, and a problem of this kind arises, you tend to live with it. After all, even if the attic stairs are tough to pull down and close, it is your problem and you deal with it however it suits you.
If replacing a broken spring with a bungee cord solves the problem for you, then you pat yourself on the back and tell everyone how you cleverly avoided spending a couple of hundred dollars for a new set of pull-down attic stairs simply by using a $1 bungee cord.
So it works, at least as far as you are concerned. You never really know whether using something that wasn't designed for the attic stairs is causing more problems than it is solving. Is the bungee cord weakening the stairs, for instance? And since you solved your problem inexpensively, you aren't going to call in a stair person to check it out.
If this were the only problem solved in this manner, it might be easily overlooked. Very often, however, there are similar problems that crop up in a house. The tendency is that if we can't fix something easily, we start to live with it, and, eventually, forget about it.
We usually start to pay for deferred or poor maintenance when we put the house up for sale. If a real estate agent knows his or her stuff, problems arising from our neglect or frugality might be caught and corrected before the first prospective buyers begin showing up at the door.
Real estate agents don't know everything, however, no matter how long they've been in business. In this litigious society, most agents tend to defer to experts rather than take on liability and find themselves in court.
What typically happens is that the buyers' home inspector will pull down that set of attic stairs and see right away that the bungee cord has replaced a spring that may be critical to the safe operation of the unit. The inspector then lets the buyer and his or her agent know about it.
Once the inspector sees one thing, he or she assumes that there are others like it and begins looking for them. These problems may not be costly on their own, but add them all up, and you either reduce the sale price to compensate the buyer for the repairs he or she will have to make later or spend the money up front to take care of these issues as a condition of settlement.
It is definitely a lose-lose situation.
My advice is to tackle each problem as it arises and correct it. Take the long view. If you replace the attic stairs, you will be able to use them without worry. And it becomes one less issue to handle at sale time.