No matter where you live, you are never completely safe from the ravages of winter.
Sure, snow comes to mind whenever people think of the North and Midwest, but ice is a perennial problem in the South, and heavy rain has devastated parts of the West Coast in the last two winters.
While the jury is still out, many scientists say that normal weather patterns may be changing, perhaps as a result of global warming, and that winter tornadoes in Florida or snow in central California may soon be the rule rather than the exception.
It's unlikely that Miami will ever host snow-boarding competitions or that palm trees will line the streets of St. Paul, Minn. But a couple of weekends' worth of regular home maintenance before the onset of whatever passes for winter in your area may avert disaster, or at least reduce damage.
Because the days are growing shorter and eventually will grow cooler, you should handle outdoor tasks first--repairing siding and sidewalks, scrubbing mildew off the porch columns, and cleaning and waterproofing the deck, among others.
Too many people wait until the trees are bare to begin raking, waiting for the municipality to collect them. Consider tackling the job earlier, composting the leaves to provide rich additives to the soil for next year's gardening. The leaves can also be used as a garden mulch over the winter.
That's just one way to prepare for winter. But other tasks are much more important to the safety and well-being of your family.
Right now is the time to take note of potentially serious problems that could require the services of experts, such as roof work, chimney pointing, gutter replacement or furnace repairs.
This is the busy season for repair people, and you'll need to be squeezed into their schedules. Compounding the problem is the real estate boom that has many remodelers and subcontractors booked for nine months to a year in advance.
But the typical homeowner can handle many routine maintenance tasks. To get started, make a list of potential problem spots, then inspect the house, note where repairs are necessary, establish priorities and get to it.
Most problems associated with winter result from the accumulation of ice and snow on roofs. If the snow is heavy enough and frigid air remains locked into the region, snow will melt while the sun is shining and freeze after sunset.
This creates ice dams, which often lead to leaks in drywall and plaster ceilings and walls, and require costly repair or replacement. If your roof has a tendency to develop these dams, you may need professional advice to prevent them.
However, many leaks are the result of faulty metal flashing around chimneys and plumbing vent stacks and at the seams of the roof. If these places are readily accessible, the solution is simply to apply roofing cement to the areas where the adhesive that holds the flashing to the surface of the roof has cracked. You'll need a wide putty or joint-taping knife to apply it. And don't skimp.
Give the roof a thorough inspection, if you can. If there are broken or curled shingles, replace them. Sometimes the roof may be in relatively good shape, able to handle another winter, but wind-driven rain will blow under a loose shingle and stain a ceiling. Make sure the shingles are secure.
Inspect the chimney. Make sure the mortar in the joints between the bricks is not loose or missing. When water gets into joints with loose mortar, the action of freezing and thawing can turn the mortar to powder.
If it's a matter of repairing a few joints, mix some mortar according to the directions on the bag and use a pointing tool--with a flat surface on one end and a point at the other--to repoint the joints.
If the chimney is unsafe, a professional may be required. That's also the case if you want to remove the creosote and soot buildup that can cause a fire. What you can do yourself is install a cap on the chimney to prevent squirrels and birds from wandering inside to nest.
Tree limbs that hang over the roof also can be a potential problem, especially in ice and wind. If you can reach the limbs safely, trim them away from the house, and make sure none is hanging over the electrical, telephone and cable lines coming in from the street to your house.
Trimming the limbs also will deny animals a bridge from the trees to your house. Evergreen branches can shade roofs during the winter, preventing sun from melting snow and contributing to mold and mildew that can rot shingles.
Check the gutters and downspouts. Sometimes they pull away from the edge of the house or get out of alignment. Clean leaves and other debris from the gutters and repair any holes that have developed in the trough.
If there are any broken gutter brackets, replace them, too.
To keep dirt and leaves from accumulating in the gutters, you may want to install screening or gutter guards.
Make sure that downspouts are secure and have no leaks along the way to the ground. After the gutters and downspouts are cleaned, fill the gutters with water and check the drainage. If the water drains toward the house, you should adjust the downspouts so water will drain away from the house, and use splash guards to ensure that it does.
Many downspouts feed directly into municipal storm drains and often get blocked by dirt and leaves. The downspouts require regular cleaning so that water won't back up into your basement.
While you are checking roof drainage, examine the foundation for cracks. Basements that are dry 98 percent of the time develop leaks when snow and ice have accumulated around the house and a rapid thaw and heavy rains send melt-water through hitherto innocent cracks, making them bigger.
You can seal cracks with masonry caulk, following the directions on the tube. You may have to dig below the site line to find the cracks.
If water tends to run back toward the house even during moderate rainfall, and even when the drainage system is properly aligned, you are dealing with gravity and the results of many years of erosion. To compensate, regrade the area along the foundation.
Next on the list: Check the siding, doors and windows. If there is flaking and peeling paint, the area must be scraped, sanded and primed before painting. You can paint only in temperatures above 50 degrees.
Try to prepare surfaces for painting while the weather is still hot. Better weather for painting comes toward the end of September.
Make sure the windows have no cracked or broken panes. To extract a broken pane, remove the putty and glazing points, then have a piece of glass cut to fit, replace the points, and reglaze. Also check the rubber seals around the glass of storm doors and windows. If they must be replaced, install weather-stripping rated for exterior use on doors and windows.
Caulk any cracks in wood siding, or where the doors and window frames meet the siding, whether it is wood, vinyl, brick or stone. If mortar needs to be repointed, follow the steps outlined for chimneys.
If small stress cracks have developed in the stone over windows and doors--often called keystones--fill them with masonry caulk, then mortar.
Inside the house, the attic and basement are the key areas of concern once windows and doors have been weather-stripped, fireboxes in wood-burning fireplaces have been cleaned and checked for creosote, and smoke alarms checked.
Each year, many people die or are overcome by toxins emitted from faulty furnaces or improperly vented gas fireplaces. Carbon-monoxide monitors can help take the worry out of being cooped up for long periods of time.
In the attic, ventilation and insulation should act in concert to prevent heat loss while allowing the melting and draining on the roof to go on unimpeded: This will prevent moisture buildup that causes rotting. You can tell whether remedial work is necessary by the condition of the wood sheathing. If it's rotting and the roof outside is sound, better ventilation is required.
Consult a repair manual to determine what measures to take, or call a professional.
Broken water pipes are another potential winter problem. Much of such damage is caused by prolonged loss of a heat source, as when a furnace becomes inoperable when electric power is cut off.
Most homeowners don't think to drain the water from pipes that run along the cold basement walls. The water expands as it freezes, breaking the pipes.
Insulate the basement pipes as much as you can, especially on the side that is in contact with cold walls. Even if you do have heat, pipes can freeze if the temperature is not kept fixed at least at 65 degrees, so insulating the pipes can cut down on energy use.
So have your furnace checked professionally each summer or autumn. Be sure built-up soot is removed, especially if you have oil heat, although new furnaces tend to burn more cleanly than older ones.
Remember: Heat sources such as furnaces and heaters are a major cause of death in the home in winter--not just from toxins but fires and explosions, too--so make sure your heating system is working properly and efficiently.
Flush the water heater to prolong its life. Draining a gallon of water every six months adds life to the equipment.
If you have a sump pump to drain water from your basement, test it and lubricate the parts according to the owner's manual.
If you own a snow thrower, make sure you start it well before the first snowfall to make sure it works properly. If you do it now, you'll have enough time to have it repaired before winter.
If you don't, make sure you have a couple of shovels on hand.