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After my efforts to fix a clogged bathroom sink drain resulted in five intense hours of repair work, our plumber made my wife promise to call him whenever she saw me holding a wrench within five feet of any household plumbing fixture.

When it comes to plumbing problems, time is money. Too often, amateurs try to handle problems best left to professionals or ignore obvious signs of trouble. The results of such actions or inaction can be disastrous and more expensive than had the plumber been called in the first place.

That's not to say that homeowners should not be vigilant. Older houses tend to be riddled with plumbing disasters waiting to happen -- from toilets that run or don't flush properly to dripping faucets to soil pipes jammed by debris or strangled by tree roots.

Many of these problems manifest themselves within the first 12 months of a home purchase. They can happen no matter how well the home inspector checked everything out. Trouble with plumbing tends to hide behind walls and under floors, and often goes unnoticed until mold covers surfaces or puddle appear in the middle of the living room carpet.

Plumbing, as just about everything connected with a house, is a maintenance issue.

So here are some simple ways to keep your house in order, at least when it comes to the plumbing:

Toilets

Look at the base. If there are dark stains, it probably is mold, which is fast becoming a major issue in real estate today. If the stains are white, it likely is efflorescence -- the residue of water. Flooring around the base, especially linoleum or vinyl, will have curled because of constant moisture.

The floor around the toilet is likely to have softened because of a prolonged leak. To check for this, you should stand straddled over the toilet, then shift your weight from one foot to the other. If the floor feels like sponge, there is a lot of rot.

To see how fast the toilet flushes, my plumber rolls a loosely rolled ball of toilet paper into the bowl and then flushes. If it flushes slowly, it is likely calcium deposits have accumulated and need to be removed, or the toilet needs to be replaced.

Bathtubs

Loose or missing caulking can allow water into the walls behind tiles, loosening them and damaging the surface to which they are attached.

A buildup of calcium or mineral deposits can affect water pressure. If you run the water in the bathtub and open the faucet in the kitchen sink and the flow of the water in the tub drops, you may have to replace the water supply lines in the house.

Hot Water Heater

The first appliance that gave up the ghost in our first house was the hot water heater, although the home inspector had assured us that it would last forever.

Whether or not you have been given such a promise, you should check the date of the heater's manufacture. Find the serial number. The first four digits tell you the month and the year. Although some water heaters with proper care have been known to last 20 years or more, most survive eight to 10 years. If you need to replace the heater, make sure you obtain an energy efficient one that exceeds minimum federal standards. And make sure that the size of the heater -- how much hot water it provides -- is enough for you and your family.

Other Plumbing Concerns

Other potential sources of problems include the garbage disposal and dishwasher. Make sure the connections work properly when each of the appliances is in operation. Look at the inside of the cabinets to make sure that there is no water damage. The signs of such damage would include a warped cabinet bottom or stains.

Don't believe that because these appliances have warranties that there won't be any problems. Two weeks before I went to settlement this summer on a house I was selling, the dishwasher began to leak. The problem was a defective motor. It cost $250 in parts and labor to repair, even though the dishwasher was only a couple of years old.

Also, make sure that the drain traps and water supply tubes to the dishwasher and disposal are not leaking.

The same is true for hoses to the washing machine. If there is a way to shut off the hot and cold water valves to the washer when they aren't in use, do so. The pressure exerted on the valves over the years can cause them to rust and leak.

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