The Fix-It List

The Fix-It List

With the onset of cooler weather, many homeowners take careful steps to hibernate the summer grill, put away the patio furniture and head indoors to dwell in comfortable warmth before Old Man Winter descends upon their homes.

But too often, they don't take the necessary precautions to maintain and safeguard their residences from the cruel elements that can wreak havoc on a home between now and springtime, say experts.

"When homeowners fail to prepare for the colder fall and winter months, they're putting their homes at risk for energy loss and severe damage like burst pipes, roof and basement leaks and house fires," says Matt Kaulig, owner of LeafFilter, a Hudson, Ohio-based gutter protection provider. "Over time, this sort of neglect will compound into bigger problems. You could be looking at thousands of dollars in damage, a large homeowners insurance claim and ruined, irreplaceable possessions as a result."

A recent national survey from Erie Insurance, conducted by Harris Poll, indicates that many Americans are negligent and inattentive when it comes to fall and winter home upkeep. While 62 percent of homeowner respondents graded themselves an "A" or "B" for their personal home maintenance habits, the poll reveals that:

  • 23 percent never inspect their roof or have it inspected unless there's a problem
  • only 36 percent have their furnaces inspected and cleaned at least annually
  • 24 percent never maintain their gutters and downspouts
  • only 21 percent clean their clothes dryer ducts unless an issue arises
  • 60 percent don't have any money saved in a home maintenance fund, despite the recommendation that $2,000 to $6,000 should be reserved annually for these expenses for a $200,000 home.

Joe Vahey, vice president and product manager for Erie Insurance in Erie, Pennsylvania, is particularly concerned about the latter finding.

"While many experts encourage homeowners to set aside one to three percent of the purchase price of their homes each year for ongoing maintenance, a majority of homeowners aren't doing that. This leaves them at risk for major financial problems in the event of needed repairs," says Vahey.

Additionally, "nearly a third of homeowners either mistakenly believe their insurance will pay for damage that occurs to their roof over time," he says. "Homeowners insurance covers repairs needed if something causes sudden damage, such as a tree falling on it, but it doesn't provide coverage for regular maintenance projects and wear and tear."

For these reasons, it's crucial to get a head start on the changing seasons and bolster your property to withstand harsh weather, lower your utility bills and prolong the lifespan of your house's components.

"Your home is made of materials that can shift and move in cold temperatures," says Kevin Gaul, engineering manager with Iowa-based Pella Corporation, makers of windows and doors. "Preparing your home now can help reduce air leakage, increase your energy efficiency and potentially save you money on heating costs."

Ready to get your fall upkeep fix? Follow this checklist of suggested steps:

1. Carefully survey the grounds

Pruning your trees will prevent dead branches caked with snow and ice from collapsing onto your property or loved ones. Rake and remove all dead leaves and vegetation promptly to prevent slips and falls. Apply a fall fertilizer or winterizer to protect and nourish your lawn.

2. Inspect your home's exterior

Look for red flags like foundation cracks, holes or damage to the siding, damage to fascia boards and soffits and loose roof shingles. If you find an issue, get it resolved by a professional right away.

"Any exterior openings or cracks are particularly vulnerable to leaks over winter. They're also key targets for small animals like raccoons, squirrels and mice that can chew through ceilings, walls and wiring," says Michael Theriault, founder of The Crack Doctor, a waterproofing vendor in Mississauga, Ontario.

3. Clear debris from gutters

Failing to do so can result in dangerous icicle buildups and snow and ice piling up above your gutters, causing water damage to your roof and walls.

4. Aim for a tight seal around doors and windows

"Reattach or replace loose or worn weatherstripping, which can let cold air in, and reseal caulk around windows and doors that have been exposed to severe weather or extreme sunlight," recommends Gaul.

5. Install storm windows and doors

These add an extra layer of protection and help reduce air leakage. Consider replacing older doors and windows with energy-efficient double- or triple-pane glass windows and new durable fiberglass doors.

6. Protect your pipes

"When household pipes freeze, water doesn't flow and it's likely that a burst can happen, resulting in a flooded basement or serious water damage to your foundation," says Doyle James, brand president of Mr. Rooter Plumbing in Waco, Texas. Check crawl spaces, attics, basements, garages and nooks for exposed pipes, and cover them with pipe wrap insulation. Also disconnect, drain and store away any outdoor hoses.

7. Have your furnace and water heater professionally inspected and cleaned

The last thing you want during the long, cold winter months is to have your furnace or water heater go out. A professional will be able to identify and fix any problems before this happens.

8. Ensure that your fireplace is up to snuff

Hire a professional to clean your chimney and inspect and correct any leaks, cracks and chimney cap problems. Be sure to clean out the ash from your fireplace after every fire.

9. Improve your energy efficiency

Here are a few simple changes to make this season: change your furnace filter at recommended intervals, install a programmable thermostat, turn down your water heat to 120 degrees, install pre-cut foam gaskets (available at home improvement stores) behind electric wall plug plates and light switch plates to prevent air leaks, and run your ceiling fans in reverse.

"Many ceiling fans come with a handy switch that reverses the direction of the blades," notes J.B. Sassano, president of Mr. Handyman, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based home maintenance service provider. "Warm air pooled near the ceiling is circulated back into your living space, cutting heating costs by as much as 10 percent."

10. Be prepared for an emergency

You should have at least one of the following on every level of your home: a carbon monoxide detector, smoke detector and fire extinguisher. Install fresh batteries, test that the device works properly and replace any old or defective units.

Lastly, know your limits as a do-it-yourselfer. While a careful and experienced homeowner armed with the right tools can accomplish many of these tasks, it's often safer and smarter to enlist an expert.

"Things like cleaning your gutters, inspecting and cleaning your fireplace and removing dead branches from your trees pose significant safety hazards that professionals are trained to avoid," says Kaulig.


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