Q. I am a widow faced with home maintenance responsibilities that I have not had before. I recall that my husband checked the gutters and downspouts around our home, and did some minor repairs. One of my neighbors said this should be done annually.

Is it important to do this that often? How serious would the consequences be if it was not done every year?

As I will have to hire someone for the job, I would like to know what I should expect to be included in this task. Is there a specific type of professional that needs to be hired? A. Clogged gutters and plugged downspouts can cause major structural damage to your house and should be checked at least once a year. Twice a year -- spring and fall -- is a good idea in many climates.

Rainwater not collected and channeled away from your house is destructive. Water wears away the paint on the siding, seeps into the walls and around the windows and starts wood to rotting.

On the ground, it erodes soil and plantings and causes foundation and basement dampness. Runoff that freezes in the soil near your house can destroy basement walls.

Standing water and debris make gutters sag and leak and eventually send sheets of water down along your walls to the foundation. An annual inspection should include the clearing away of all twigs, leaves and organic debris that have accumulated in the gutters and downspouts.

Any dirt caked to the bottom of the gutter should be scraped loose with a putty knife. To clean a clogged downspout, you can push a garden hose down into the first bend and flush out most small clogs with the pressure of water.

Seriously clogged downspouts should be taken apart in sections and cleaned on the ground. Sagging gutters should be corrected as they hinder water flow to the downspout.

Your gutters should also be inspected for small rust holes and other damage. Smaller holes can be repaired with roofing cement, spread over an area at least twice as large as the hole.

The surface should be thoroughly cleaned with a putty knife and wire brush, wiping away all dust and debris with a soft cloth.

Larger holes require patching with a piece of aluminum flashing, set in place with roofing cement and sealed around the edges.

A good, reliable handyman should be able to clean your gutters and downspouts and make these minor repairs. If the gutters are seriously damaged, they should be replaced.

Q. I have a 50-year-old home that has metal gutters. Most of these are rusty, rotting and seem to be beyond repair. In replacing these with new ones, I would like to know which of the products now on the market give the best durability for the money. A. Materials most commonly used in gutters today are galvanized steel, vinyl, copper and aluminum.

For years, galvanized steel was practically the only product available. It is still widely used and comes raw or enameled. Unfortunately, it's prone to rust and needs replacement in about 20 years, though it is the least expensive of today's materials.

Vinyl gutter systems are more expensive but will last 60 years or more. Initially these plastic products were susceptible to damage in strong sunlight, but much of that problem has been corrected.

The vinyl systems are easy to install, do not rust or rot, resist corrosive salt spray in coastal areas, resist dents and do not need painting. They can be painted to match roofing or siding (once painted however, they have to be repainted periodically).

Aluminum gutters come preformed and in the form of rolls of strip metal, pre-painted to match the house, which are formed into the correct gutter shape on the site.

Lighter than steel or copper, aluminum resists corrosion and is easy to install. It's not as strong as other materials, and some brands are easily dented during installation.

Most brands carry a 15- to 20-year warranty and can last even longer with proper maintenance. Pre-formed aluminum is moderately priced. If you are replacing an entire system, often area contractors who make gutters on site from seamless aluminum can give you a custom installation at less cost than the pre-formed components.

Copper is a strong, rust-resistant and durable material that weathers well unpainted. It's expensive, but it lasts 50 years or so. Installation by a professional is recommended because copper joints must be soldered together.

A word of caution. If you are only doing a partial replacement, you cannot mix different metals because they will corrode at points of contact. Metal-to-metal vinyl adapters can be used if you wish to join dissimilar materials such as connecting aluminum with galvanized steel.

Send inquiries to Here's How, Copley News Service, P.O. Box 190, San Diego, Calif. 92112-0190. Only questions of general interest can be answered in the column.