Expert advice on getting your home cold-weather ready

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Autumnís mostly warm days make it a perfect time to take on some home maintenance tasks and prepare your abode for fall.

Gutter cleaning should be at the top of the fall to-do list, say home-care experts. Dropping leaves, twigs and other debris can clog gutters and downspouts. That can lead to ice dams when winterís snows and freezing temperatures arrive, causing roof damage and water flowing into the house, said Mike Clear, vice president of American Home Shield, a home-warranty company.

Angie Hicks, chief marketing officer of Angieís List, which crowd-sources reviews of local businesses nationwide, added that clogged gutters can also lead to water problems in the basement because water overflows the gutters and goes down the side of the house.

Be sure to wait until all the leaves have fallen since if itís done too early, itís possible gutters will get clogged again, said J.B. Sassano, president of Mr. Handyman, a nationwide commercial and residential repair firm.

While gutter cleaning feels like a project homeowners can tackle, Hicks cautioned that without the right ladder, this task can be very dangerous. Itís a job that may be best left to professionals, but make sure the company has insurance and workers-compensation insurance for their employees, she added.

Power-wash and seal decks at this time, and make sure there are no leaves stuck on them to prevent mold and algae buildup. "Deck people recommend sealing in the fall and not the spring to give a fresh seal to it to get the deck through the winter," Hicks said.

Fall is good time to trim trees that are touching the home to avoid potential damage from thunderstorms and keep pests away. Tree branches "make a great entryway for squirrels into your attic. You want them trimmed away so youíre not the winter hotel," Hicks said.

Speaking of outdoor creatures, walk the perimeter of the house inspecting for cracks that may offer entry into the home. Insects like ants and box elder bugs, along with rodents will seek the warmth of a house in late fall.

Judy Black, vice president for North America technical services at Rentokil Steritech, a pest-control company, said itís best to seal exterior cracks early in the season. Rats can enter through openings only a half-inch wide, roughly the size of a quarter, and mice through a quarter-inch hole, roughly the size of a dime, she says.

"Remember to look up. In areas with roof rats, they often enter around fascia or other eave/roof openings," she said.

Most insects seeking entry are harmless, but annoying, Black said. Thereís a reason to seal up a home in early fall at the latest. "If you seal up your house after they are already inside you can create a situation where they are even more annoying," she said.

Keep an eye on fall decorations. "Hay bales can introduce mice to your property and some decorations like maize (corn) may provide a food source for rodents and stored-products insects," Black said.

Inside the home, tune up the furnace and clean chimneys so theyíre ready before the colder weather hits, said Sassano, Clear and Hicks.

"Not only will a furnace run more efficiently all year long, but just by keeping it maintained it reduces the odds that it will go out with a mechanical break. Inevitably they always go out on the coldest day of the year," she said.

Other energy-saving activities for the fall are to add attic insulation or check for air leaks around windows and doors.

Sassano said a one-eighth inch gap under the door can lead to the same heat loss as a 3-inch hole drilled into the side of the home. To find potential leaks, hold a burning candle or incense stick around door and window frames during a windy day. If the flame or smoke diverts, weatherstripping is necessary, he said.

Big household chores that require time and detail like washing the windows, removing scratches from furniture, removing stains from carpets and rugs and cleaning mattresses are also traditionally tackled in the fall, said Meg Roberts, president of Molly Maid, a residential cleaning firm.

A lot of these fall jobs are ones that homeowners put off, but Hicks said many handymen will run specials for homecare around this time, especially for the outside as they try and book work until the end of the season.

Finally, Hicks said, homeowners in snowy areas should use this time to line up snow-removal companies or get their snow blower tuned up.

"They get very busy when the snow first falls. If you wait until winter you wonít get anyone," she said.

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