Back when I was doing home inspections five days a week, my customers were mostly interested in knowing which of their house parts would fail, and when. Most of the hours in my work week were filled with questions like, "How long will the water heater last? How long before the roof leaks? How long before I'll need a new furnace?" It's human nature to wonder about such things, but the answers are hard to come by. I know how a lot of things break, but I surely don't know when they'll break. So when customers asked me to predict the dying day of their house parts, I'd give them a smart-ass answer: "If I could see the future," I'd say, " I'd move to Vegas live off my blackjack winnings."
That said, I'll go ahead and explain what I do know about how and when things break.
Every perishable part of your house will last about as long as a dog.
Most dogs last about 12 to 15 years, with exceptions on the short end for hard-luck, flawed and mistreated dogs. The lasts-as-long-as-a-dog rule applies to your roof, your water heater, your heat-and-air equipment, all of your appliances, and the paint on the outside of your house.
At this moment, I am riding the minute hand of a metaphorical clock, knowing that the bell is about to toll for all the house parts I bought and installed 15-20 years ago. My very own house needs a new roof, a more efficient water heater, a fresh paint job and upgraded heat-and-air equipment. It'll be a miracle if my downstairs A/C system makes it through the summer of 2010. Come June, I might be waving a church fan at my face, hoping to keep the sweat from drowning me.
Got time for one more analogy? Good, here comes one: Pretty much every house part that quits working dies the way a car battery dies. You turn the key, the battery cranks up the starter and you drive. Once you're ready to drive again, you turn the key and hear the clicking sound that means the battery's dead. Furnaces work the same way. They warm you up one minute, leave you cold the next. Heck, the no-warning rule even applies to milk. Last time you drank milk from the jug in the fridge, the milk was fine. Next time, it was sour.
I say don't fret. Just stay prepared. Keep some money in the bank and some tools in the garage. Sure, your furnace ought to last for a dog's age, but when it breaks down—whether it's a day old or 30 years old—you've got to be ready to replace it, fix it, or pay somebody else to fix it.
When you stop and think about it, there's not much advantage in knowing when something's going to break. Suppose I called you up and told you that your stove's going to stop cooking in two weeks. Surely you wouldn't go out and buy a new stove on my say-so. You'd just do what everybody does: wait for the thing to break, then go get a new one.
I've found that most folks like new things. They think new things are bright and shiny and work just fine. That's just not true. I used to work in a music store. I have unboxed many a new guitar, amplifier and audio gadget, only to pronounce it dead on arrival and send it right back to the factory. That's why the stuff-buying public thinks new things are good—because people like me sent most of the bad stuff back before they ever got hold of it.
Little known fact: there is nothing more likely to break than a thing that just got out of the shop. "Fixed" things are like people who just got out of prison or rehab. They clean up OK, and you hope they'll be fine, but give 'em just a little while and they might go right back to their errant ways.
Everything breaks sooner or later, usually suddenly and without warning. You'll never know for sure when something is going to break, and it wouldn't do you much good if you did know.
Finally, there's this: In your whole life, you'll buy relatively few roofs, furnaces, water heaters, appliances, paint jobs and such. More than likely, you'll have more dogs than you'll have roofs.
I say relax and enjoy the dogs.
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