Real estate

Tips for winterizing your home

Winterizing is one of those home improvement projects a lot of people dread. It’s not like painting the dining room, where you’ll be rewarded with a fresh new look for your next dinner party, or planting a garden, where the spring and summer blooms make all the hard work worthwhile. It’s an improvement you can’t see — but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important. It makes your home warmer and more comfortable, reduces your carbon footprint, and, best of all, improves your bottom line by saving money on utility bills and keeping your house in good condition.

“A home that’s well attended to and well cared for shows when you go to sell,” said Christina Hoffmann, content manager for , a website of the National Association of Realtors . “If your house is poorly maintained, some appraisers estimate you could see your value fall off as much as 10 percent.”

A good first step is to get a home energy audit in which a professional technician comes to your home and examines the insulation, inspects the furnace and ductwork, and, in some cases, uses special tools — such as an infrared camera that “sees” inside walls and a “blower door” that reveals places where cold air can sneak in — to tell you what’s needed. Energy assessments are free through the state’s Mass Save program ( , 866-527-7283), which may also provide rebates of up to $2,000 toward approved insulation improvements, separate rebates on qualifying equipment and appliances, and no-interest financing to help you pay for the work you have done.


But whether you get an energy audit or not, there is lots to do to get ready for winter — much of it easy DIY.

Fall cleaning

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“A lot of attention is placed on spring cleaning,” Hoffmann said, “and spring cleaning is great. But we maintain that fall cleaning is even more important, because you’re looking at as much as six months when the house will be sealed up. So you want to have good air quality and a healthy environment.”

She recommends going beyond the usual deep clean to vacuum the undersides of furniture, which catch “all sorts of stuff,” and dusting sometimes neglected horizontal surfaces such as the tops of artwork, mirrors, kitchen cabinets, doors, and smoke and carbon monoxide detectors (and while you’re at it, change those batteries!). Dusting light bulbs, too, not only benefits air quality, but light quality, illuminating as much as 30 percent more, according to the US Department of Energy .

Air seal and insulate

According to the DOE, drafts can increase energy use by 5 to 30 percent annually. “The most important thing you can do is tighten up your home and insulate,” said Dave Boettcher, director of operations for Next Step Living , a provider of home energy solutions that also offers evaluations. “Fill in gaps and cracks with sealant, so air is not leaking out of your home and into your attic,” he said. “It creates a cap on your house,” keeping warm air in and cold air out.

There are two kinds of air leakage, he said. The first is conduction, in which heat transfers through drywall, and the second is convection, in which air leaks from inside the home — through baseboards, molding, window edges, outlets, plumbing, and electrical penetrations, even the holes in the wall caused by hanging pictures — up into the attic. “Insulation stops conductive heat loss,” he said, “and air sealing stops convective. Caulking baseboards and trim, insulating outlets, sealing the attic’s hidden air leaks . . . all these help make a tight seal between the living space and the attic.” You can do some of these things yourself, but for sealing the attic, you’ll probably want to call in a professional who doesn’t mind getting dirty and knows the proper techniques as well as how much circulation is needed for good air quality.


Correctly insulating the attic by air sealing well has the additional benefit of preventing ice dams, ridges that form at the roof’s edge and keep melting snow from draining properly, causing it to back up and leak into walls, ceilings, and insulation.

Insulating and air sealing the basement, too, is a “wise move,” Boettcher said. And while you’re down there, turn off exterior water spigots and insulate pipes to keep them from freezing and bursting. This fix, which costs just under 50 cents per linear foot of piping, can save you $5,000 or more in damage, according to the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety . Water damage and freezing, the institute said, are among the biggest risks to property when the temperature drops, accounting for nearly 22 percent of homeowner claims. More than a third of frozen pipe failures occur in the basement. If you have pipes in cabinets or in closets, open the doors during really cold weather to increase warm-air circulation.


Take a walk around your house. Check that shutters, siding, and all other exterior materials are secure. “High winds, ice, and moisture can strip off loose outside elements,” Hoffmann said. Trim trees or bushes that brush up against the house and may damage siding; gaps in your home’s protective skin can let moisture in. “The number-one enemy of the home is water. . . . It’s deadly to it over time,” she said. Once the structural elements get wet, rot, mold, and insect infestations can follow. Hoffmann also recommends using your fall checkup to make sure the soil around your house is graded properly and water’s not pooling anywhere near the foundation.

Jim Gustin, senior property specialist/risk control at Travelers Insurance, which is based in Hartford, said now is also a good time to tighten up loose handrails and check for uneven pavement on walkways and driveways, which can be more dangerous when covered with snow. Finally, if you have an older deck, look underneath for structural problems and check where it attaches to the rest of your home. “If there are any problems,” Gustin said, “especially with a lot of snow, you may have a deck collapse, and it could pull away from the house or pull siding off.”

The roof

According to the Insurance Information Institute , winter storms are the third largest cause of catastrophic losses to homeowners, behind only hurricanes and tornadoes, and between 1980 and 2013 the Northeast has been affected by nine of the 10 most costly US winter “events” ranked by insured losses. One of the most important steps you can take to avoid this is caring for your roof.


Check for trees that hang over any structures on your property and where you park your car. Dead branches can fall even in good weather; they’re especially vulnerable to wind and can cause severe damage to roofs. “Even check for smaller branches,” Gustin said. “Leaves falling on the roof and small branches can clog gutters.”

Taking some time to clean those gutters once most of the trees are bare, he pointed out, can save you headaches later. “The extra weight debris adds to gutters can pull them off the house or cause leakage inside.” Have a contractor or two — protect yourself from the unscrupulous by getting more than one opinion — get up on the roof to make sure the flashing around dormers and the chimney are in good condition, and look for missing shingles or tiles and damage and dents from hail or previous years’ ice dams. “Anything like that makes the roof more vulnerable,” Gustin said.

Be prepared

Change your heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning filters every 60 days, and make sure your energy-audit technician or another specialist checks your furnace, oil tank, or boiler before the season starts. “You don’t want to be left on a 5-below day with no heating system,” Boettcher said, “because then you make a quick decision and are left with a suboptimal system that you’re stuck with for the next 20 years.”

Service any other cold-weather equipment, such as the snowblower and generator, well before you need it, too. If you don’t already have them, go out and buy a roof rake (about $40), shovels (starting at just under $10), and a few containers of paw-safe ice melt (about $17 for eight pounds); don’t wait until there’s a rush on the Sunday afternoon before a nor’easter.

And don’t forget the numerous little things that can really add up: Change the direction of ceiling fans so the warm air near the top of the room circulates downward. Make sure storm windows fit correctly and are caulked around their frames. Install a programmable thermostat that remembers to turn itself down so you don’t have to. Cover older windows with an additional layer of thin, clear plastic — available at hardware stores (about $5 to cover two 3-by-5-foot windows) and easily applied — to create an extra buffer from cold winds. Drain your air-conditioner hoses and remove window units. Seal joints in basement heating ducts with metallic tape (about $8) and consider wrapping ductwork with fiberglass insulation (just under $37 for 60 square feet). Have the chimney cleaned or your gas fireplace checked for leaks.

Finally, when those delicate first flakes start to fall, light a crackling fire, make yourself a hot toddy, put your feet up, and enjoy. You’ve earned it.

Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent Globe contributor. Send comments to [email protected]