Ask Hannah Holmes

Hannah Holmes

Home Rx

Realtor/science writer/self-proclaimed “house geek” Hannah Holmes on when to test a house for radon, the question that brought out the animal in her builder-husband, and more.

Illustrations by Christine Mitchell Adams

Have a question for Hannah?

Send your Maine home or garden conundrum to [email protected] and we may feature it in an upcoming column.

Should you have a house radon tested before or after buying?

Maine Radon test

One of the best reasons to test after you buy is that you may be more diligent about keeping windows closed during the test period than a seller would be. Open windows may produce a deceptively low radon reading. Either way, I wouldn’t let a little radon stand between you and the home of your dreams. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention says one in four homes in Maine has a radon problem, so that hazard is just part of the landscape. Literally.

Maine bedrock produces generous quantities of the radioactive gas, which percolates into basements. And if your well taps into radon-infused groundwater, the gas will fly free of the water when it exits your showerhead and faucets. In both cases, radon gets trapped in your house. And it’s a significant cause of lung cancer.

Because radon is so common, solutions are too. To control ground-source radon, technicians bore a hole through the basement floor and install a vent pipe containing a small fan — a $1,000 to $1,400 job. Homes with a dirt or ledge basement can be more complicated and expensive to address. The cost of treating well water is similar. But treating unusually high levels of radon in water may cost around $4,500 — which is the best argument for testing prior to buying.

We just bought a 100-plus-year-old house with doors that are hard to open and latch. Who can fix them?

old stuck door

If you’re lucky, you can! There are three common causes of door dysfunction. The luckiest is loose hinges. Open the door to expose the hinges, then watch them as you lift the door by its knob. If a hinge jiggles at all, tighten the screws and write yourself a check for 50 bucks. If the hinges are fine, observe the latch in action. The striker and the striker plate may be misaligned. Mending that relationship probably requires a professional handyman/woman.

But often doors stick because the whole house has settled a bit. The doorframe has become a parallelogram, while the door remains a rectangle. Tugging gently on the closed door will reveal where it’s hanging up. Once you locate the sticky spot, a few minutes with some sandpaper might take off enough wood to restore harmony. More likely, the sanding will cause the door to settle and stick in a new spot. Allow two hours for this ten-minute project.

Warning: most of us have tainted karma and painted doors. Paint made prior to 1978 contains lead. Sanding that old paint produces toxic dust. So while many folks would take that door outside and bear down with an electric sander, a person intent on making her own good luck would call someone on’s list of certified lead-abatement pros.

We are thinking about using local white-cedar shingle siding on our cottage. Will it turn silver or black if untreated?

cedar shingles

Eastern-white-cedar shingles are nature’s perfect siding. The wood contains natural bug repellant and preservatives, and even adds substantial insulation to a wall. Over time, it ages into a skin of silvery scales that would do a striped bass proud.

“If you drive the coast of Maine, you’ll see 100-year-old houses with their original cedar siding,” says Hammond Lumber’s Jon LaBrie. But look closely and you may notice shingles on the south side that are more shrunken and cupping. Those on the northern façade might be blackened from mildew in the shady corners.

LaBrie appreciates the purity of this raw cedar. But too often, he hears from customers who are disappointed with the uneven and unpredictable way it wears. The majority of homeowners are happier with pre-stained shingles that are gray from day one. Even these will age differently, as they’re pummeled by sun, wind, and water. But if you wanted immortal siding, you’d have chosen vinyl.

What’s the best way to repair rotted eaves?

repair rotted eaves

When I put this question to my builder-husband, he tilted his head like a dog listening to far away barking. “Which part of the eaves?”

I take his point. On most houses, the eave will contain three basic elements: a roof to keep rain out; a fascia board across the ends of the rafters to keep critters out; and a soffit on the underside (ventilated, ideally, to allow air to flow through the attic). Gutters and fancy eave brackets are optional.

Lots of things can go wrong, the most common result of which is that water seeps into the eave. Fungi follow water, and then you’ve got rot. The rule in repairing rotting eaves is to dig until you hit solid wood. The rot may lead you deep into the dark recesses of the roof or walls. Persist. When you hit sound, dry wood, you start rebuilding from there. It’s laborious.

In theory, rotting eaves are preventable. Keep gutters clean so that water can’t use the gutter-clutter as a bridge to the eaves. Check the metal “drip edge” at the base of the roof for damage that may allow water to wick toward wood. And evict all varmints: Even small holes can sabotage the system.

Hannah Holmes is a real estate broker at Keller Williams Realty Greater Portland and the author of four science titles, including The Secret Life of Dust and Suburban Safari. A veteran renovator of old houses, she blogs about humans and their territorial issues at