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Illustration of a woman building an igloo over a frozen lake
Chris Gash for Money

Winter is the season for holiday festivities, ice skating and cozying up in front of a fireplace with a hot cup of cocoa. But if your house is not prepared for the elements, the winter cold can take a toll on your home — and your finances.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect your house from snow, ice and freezing temperatures and avoid costly repairs.

“By protecting your home, you’re also protecting your bank account,” says Mike Bidwell, the CEO of Neighborly, a network of home service professionals. “Winterizing certain elements of your home is more cost effective than replacing things in the long run.”

Winterizing can also reduce your heating bills. That’s no small thing considering home heating costs are projected to tick up about 17% this winter due to rising energy costs, a report by the National Energy Assistance Directors Association found.

One overarching rule of thumb: You should set aside 1% to 4% of your home’s value each year for routine maintenance and repairs, depending on the age and condition of your home. (Older homes that lack updates call for bigger maintenance budgets.)

Take these steps to get your house ready for winter.

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Inside the house

Get an HVAC system tune-up

Heating and cooling account for nearly half of a home’s energy consumption. So make sure your house’s heating system is running efficiently by hiring a certified HVAC technician to inspect it. The technician can also clean the wiring, which will help the system reach its full potential. HVAC inspections typically cost $150 to $500, depending on the system size, unit location (some systems are in difficult-to-access areas like attics) and type, according to HomeGuide.

Another reason to get an HVAC tune-up ahead of winter: “Faulty furnaces or dust buildup can lead to house fires,” warns Rebecca Edwards, a home maintenance and safety expert at SafeWise.

Moreover, regular tune-ups (twice a year, in the spring and fall) can prolong the life of your HVAC system. One way to save money: “A lot of HVAC service companies will give you a deal to sign up for an annual maintenance contract, which makes sure your system is good to go in the winter and the summer,” Edwards says.

Replace furnace filters

Replacing dirty furnace filters with clean ones throughout the year can trim your annual utility bills by 5% to 15%, according to the Department of Energy. Most filters need to be changed every 90 days, though households with pets may need new filters each month.

Furnace filters are budget friendly, with some as low as $10 apiece. They’re also simple to change, Clement says.

Seal air leaks

Keep the warm air that you pay for in — and the cold air out — by plugging air leaks, says Mark Clement, co-founder at MyFixitUpLife.com, a resource for DIY home renovation. Cracks in windows and exterior doors are common culprits.

A simple way to sleuth out drafts, Clement says, is to wave your hand in front of doors and windows to see if you feel cold air radiating through. Another method is to hold a lit stick of incense in front of windows and doors; if the smoke streams horizontally, there’s an air gap.

Weatherstripping can help and it’s affordable — vinyl weather-stripping for six doors costs as little as $50, according to Homewyse.

Test smoke and carbon monoxide detectors

House fires tick up during the winter, when more people use fireplaces, space heaters, candles, and flammable holiday decorations. So make sure your home’s smoke detectors are in good working order.

Dead batteries cause nearly a quarter of smoke alarm failures, the National Fire Protection Association reports. Your home should have a working smoke detector on every floor and in every bedroom.

It’s also important to test the batteries on carbon monoxide detectors — roughly 50,000 people in the U.S. go to the hospital each year because of carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the CDC.

Check expiration dates, too. Smoke alarms should be replaced every 10 years from the device’s date of manufacture and carbon monoxide detectors should be replaced every seven years, the U.S. Fire Administration says.

Maintain your water heater

The temperature and pressure relief valve on your water heater should be replaced every 5 years or as recommended by the manufacturer, says Jacy Elsesser, a home renovation expert and co-host of the podcast Fix It Home Improvement. In addition, draining your water heater once a year can increase the unit’s efficiency and extend its life, Elsesser says.

Moreover, lowering your water heater’s temperature can cut your annual energy costs by up to 22%. While manufacturers often set water heater thermostats at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, most households only require them to be set at 120 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Energy.gov.

Key tip: “If your water heater is in the garage, use an exterior watertight blanket to help keep the heat in,” says Neighborly’s Mike Bidwell.

Insulate the attic

Attic insulation isn’t cheap — the average cost, including labor and materials, is $1,500 to $3,500, according to HomeAdvisor. But it pays off over time: Proper insulation and air sealing can lead to energy savings of up to 20%, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy says, with even higher savings for older homes with little or no insulation.

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Outside your house

Clear out gutters and downspouts

Gutter cleaning can be a bit of a pain, but it’s important — leaf-clogged gutters can cause water to back up and leak inside your home, says Elsesser. So, take time now to clear out gutters and downspouts.

If you feel comfortable climbing a ladder, you can clean gutters and downspouts yourself. The most efficient way is to use a gutter scoop, a tool that helps remove tough debris. You can find one for under $5 at Home Depot, Lowe’s or your local hardware store.

Have your chimney inspected and cleaned

Planning to use a wood-burning fireplace this winter? Make sure it’s in good working condition by hiring a professional chimney inspector.

A professional inspection typically costs $340 to $390, according to Thumbtack. If you used your fireplace a lot last year, consider getting it professionally cleaned. A chimney sweeping costs, on average, about $250, according to HomeAdvisor. You can find a certified chimney sweep through the Chimney Safety Institute of America.

Drain outdoor faucets

“Hoses, sprinkler systems, fountains, and drip irrigation setups all need to be drained and dried out” before the weather drops below freezing, says SafeWise’s Rebecca Edwards. Draining these items will help prevent pipes from freezing and bursting inside your home.

For an extra layer of protection, Elsesser suggests installing outdoor faucet covers, which cost only a few bucks and provide strong freeze protection.

Trim trees

Heavy snowfall and ice can cause loose tree branches and limbs to snap off and potentially hit your home. Therefore, Edwards recommends pruning trees and shrubs near your house before winter.

Dead trees that are close to your house should be removed. A tree removal costs $750 on average, according to Angi, with prices varying based on the size and type of tree.

Check the grading

Poor grading — i.e., the slope of your yard — can cause your basement to flood, so inspect the grade around your house. “You want water to flow away from your home,” says Edwards. “If the ground slants toward your house, you need to build up the areas bordering your home. Keeping water away from your foundation, windows, and any window wells will help preserve your foundation and prevent flooding.”

Regrading a yard typically costs $1,500 to $2,600, depending on the size of your yard, the existing grading’s condition, and the type of soil on your property, according to Fixr. But it’s worth it — poor grading can cause your basement to flood, and just 1 inch of floodwater in your house can cause up to $25,000 in damage, according to FEMA.

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