A house may last for generations, but its parts and systems won't last a lifetime without regular attention. A roof can spring a leak, or a furnace can fail on a frigid winter night.
Don't wait until the first squall to winterize your home.
The few hours spent checking your home's major systems and surfaces and making any needed repairs could save you a bundle on expensive and inconvenient emergency repairs later.
Here's how to winterize your home. Let's start at the top.
Start with a visual inspection of your home's exterior, starting at the top.
Make sure that roof gutters are clear of debris and that all roofing materials and flashing (those metal seams along the edges) are intact.
A roof that is clear of debris and intact is essential to the well-being of your home and everything in it.
If your roof is flat enough to walk on safely and is not clad in a fragile material (such as tile or thin cedar shingles) you can perform simple tasks yourself with little more than a broom and a few basic tools.
Have someone help you haul the tools you'll need up the ladder and onto your roof as you winterize your home.
Using a broom, a lightweight leaf blower, or a hose with a spray attachment, remove leaves and dirt from the rooftop.
Next, use your (gloved) hands and a small brush to remove debris from gutters and downspouts.
When all the visible debris is removed, pour water through the gutters and spouts to make sure they drain freely.
If you prefer, you can clean gutters more safely (albeit more slowly) from a ladder held securely in place by an assistant.
Next, check the flashing around any chimneys, vents, skylights, or parapet walls. Look for gaps, cracks, and missing shingles.
If you discover problems, be sure to call and make a service appointment now - before problems become emergencies.
Next, check for fireplace or chimney problems. Newer fireplaces and stoves are better than traditional open hearths at controlling airflow and thus providing heat efficiently.
But whatever the age of your fireplace or stove, professional chimney inspection and cleaning each year is a must to keep soot and creosote from building up and leading to a chimney fire.
Avoid burning resinous woods such as pine (which leave creosote in the flue) as well as evergreen boughs and large quantities of paper, which can flare up and quickly flare out of control.
While you'll want to leave chimney cleaning to the pros, undertake minor maintenance yourself: If you burn wood, clean the stove or firebox between fires.
Scoop up cold ashes and place them in a metal container. Close the flue or air intake after each use to keep indoor heat from escaping up the chimney.
Winterize your home heating system. On a cold night, your heating system is the last thing you want to have break down. Not only could such a mishap be uncomfortable and expensive, but it could also be dangerous: A faulty gas or oil furnace may emit deadly carbon monoxide gas.
A fall tune-up for your furnace will prolong its life and keep your family safer while your home is closed up against the chill outdoors.
Older forced-air furnaces should be serviced annually (every two years at the very least) to adjust the belts, lubricate the motor, check safety controls, adjust the air-fuel mixture, and inspect the combustion chamber.
Furnaces that are less than 10 years old should be serviced every 3 to 5 years. You'll need a professional to check for leaks and to test the safety controls.
Depending on the type of heating system you have, there are things you can do yourself to keep it running smoothly and safely.
If you have any electric baseboard heaters, the only maintenance required is regular vacuuming of dust.
For forced-air heating systems, clean or change the air filter once every heating season (more frequently if you have pets) and keep the surrounding area clean. Move all combustible materials well away from the furnace.
Even well-maintained furnaces and appliances can emit toxic carbon monoxide (which is both odorless and colorless), making carbon-monoxide detectors essential. Test detectors monthly and replace the batteries once a year.
To winterize your home, spot check your home's exterior and interior. If you see any cracks in masonry or stucco, between siding and window or door frames, or in corners, seal them with caulk to keep air and water out of your walls.
You'll want to check seldom-used places such as the attic, basement, and farthest corners of your garage for any sign of leaks.
If you discover evidence of a water leak inside - such as wall or floor stains, streaks, or standing water - make appointments for needed repairs.
A long-standing basement leak could be a symptom of poor grading or impeded drainage around the outside foundation - a serious problem that mere caulking can't solve.
At least twice a year, use a bleach solution to scrub clean any mildewed areas of your home's exterior. If unattended to, mildew will eat away at your exterior paint, resulting in an expensive "fix-up" later.
As needed, sweep up and remove any debris from outdoor walkways and steps. If you notice any algae or other growths, scrub them off with a hard-bristled brush and bleach.
Pedestrian surfaces covered with algae, moss, or other substances can be slippery and dangerous when wet.
Indoors, regularly peek beneath your dishwasher and washing machine and at the pipes that serve them. Many of the larger appliances have removable panels along the floor, which allow you to peer underneath. Such sleuthing will reveal small leaks that can sometimes go undetected for months.
Also, check for leaks under the sink, especially where the dishwasher drain hooks up to the main drain.
If you spot a leak, you may be able to fix it yourself. Tighten the nuts on the pipe joints that service the dishwasher and the sink. If you can't stop the flow of water yourself, call a plumber.
In many homes during cold weather, warm indoor air escapes outside through numerous little holes and gaps surrounding pipes and vents, along seams between walls and floors, and between masonry and siding materials.
Wind gusts can also force cold air through these openings and into your house, raising your heating bill.
As your house ages and settles, or expands and contracts from changes in temperature or humidity, these gaps can open and admit moisture into your walls.
If you see light around your doors and windows from inside or feel a draft, it' time to winterize your home. Seal with weather stripping or caulk.
Installation of most weather stripping simple, involving either stick-on materials or the more durable metal stripping that is put on with small tacks.
Experts recommend weather stripping the entire perimeter of exterior doors: Affix one continuous strip along the top and sides and attach a floor "sweep" to the inside bottom of the door.
Most weather-stripping kits and door sweeps come with detailed instructions.
If you find gaps on outsides of window or door frames, they'll need to be caulked. You can do this easily with a caulking gun and an inexpensive, exterior-rated caulk.
Latex caulk is simplest to use: The excess can be cleaned up with water. It can also be painted.
Begin by cleaning the area thoroughly to give the caulk a good surface to adhere to. Simply squeeze the gun trigger and apply the caulk. Smooth the caulk line and clean the excess with a wet sponge before the caulk dries.
OK, so get out your winterization checklist and get started. As an incentive, picture this lovely holiday scene: The guests are arriving, the heater is on the blink, the roof is leaking, and the chimney catches fire.
This is no time to be a Scrooge.