The blustery winter months are already here for some regions of the country, and for others the coldest part of the year is coming fast.

Whether you expect to cross-country ski to work in the first few months of the year or you live in a milder climate, recent years have shown that winter storms can happen almost anywhere, and the colder months can cause many problems at home.

Heading into winter, be sure your home has been appropriately maintained to function throughout the season – from your heating system to properly weather-stripped windows and doors. And keep a keen eye out for problems such as a damaged roof, slippery porch or potential fire hazard.

As you survey your house for potential issues, take precautions to avoid injury. When in doubt, call a professional to assess your home.

“The one thing I would never recommend is for a homeowner to put a ladder up in the middle of winter and try to go up on the roof,” says Peter Horch, owner of Horch Roofing in Warren, Maine.

Here are nine common home hazards to be wary of during the winter months.

[See: 12 Home Improvement Shortcuts That Are a Bad Idea.]

Slippery walkways. Ice and snow buildup can make walkways slippery, creating an obvious danger for you and others. Be diligent about keeping all walkways near your home clear so everyone is safe.

“Most people are liable for the sidewalks as well as the driveway,” says Paul Quinn, head of claims customer experience with Farmers Insurance.

It’s your job as the homeowner to clear all snow and ice from walkways in front of your home and make a safe path for mail carriers, neighbors and your family. The best way to stay ahead of this hazard is to be proactive and shovel as it’s snowing, says J.B. Sassano, president of Mr. Handyman, a national home improvement company based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“The key is to not let the buildup get there. So the No. 1 thing is to get out there and shovel,” Sassano says.

Freezing faucets. As you prepare for the season's heavier snows, remove hoses from exterior faucets to clear out remaining water. Since water expands as it freezes, any left inside a hose can easily burst it – not to mention the pipe it’s attached to.

“That’ll do significant damage and not just to the hose, but it’ll cause damage to the bib as well – the faucet, if you will,” Quinn says. You can lower the risk of the faucet freezing by activating the shutoff valve for the outdoor faucet, then letting any residual water in the faucet run out.

Clogged gutters and downspouts. This is a fall maintenance must, but it’s not too late to clear out your gutters if you haven’t done so already – or if leaves are still falling around your home.

Once snow and ice begin to pile up, any debris in gutters and downspouts will make it harder for water to properly drain from your roof.

“There’s going to be too much weight in those drains, and they’ll just pull away from the facade,” Sassano says.

Ice damming. Your roof is even more at risk if snow accumulates and allows for ice damming.

Horch describes the danger: “Snow melts and runs down underneath the snow until it hits the bottom of the roof, where it hits cold air, and that water actually freezes and starts to build up so that there’s a large dam of ice at the bottom of the roof line.” Water will then go under the shingles and inside the house, leading to leaks and water damage.

To prevent ice damming, Horch recommends purchasing a snow roof rake – often less than $50 – which allows you to safely clear snow from the end of the roof line at ground level.

[See: 10 Ways to Save Energy and Reduce Utility Bills at Home.]

Loose or missing shingles. Another potential cause of roof leaks are damaged shingles, which Horch says can often be spotted simply by surveying your roof before heavy snows. If any shingles appear broken or loose, call a roofing expert to take a closer look and make repairs.

If you let this potential problem go unfixed, it can manifest into a much pricier issue later in winter. “If we have a large wind storm with snow, shingles can become brittle and be more susceptible to blowing off in the wind,” Horch says.

Faulty heating system. Home improvement experts recommend testing your heater before the first cold day of the year. Even if that’s come and gone, it never hurts to call in a pro for routine servicing that may prevent a breakdown when you really need heat.

“There’s nothing worse than having your heater go out. Have that preventative maintenance done ahead of time,” Sassano says.

Problematic exhaust vents. A key part of an effective heating system is the exhaust vents that let harmful gases like carbon monoxide out while keeping cold air – and unwanted critters – from getting in.

Before winter storms or frigid temperatures make your heater work a little harder, Sassano recommends walking the exterior of your house to ensure those exhaust vents, often located a couple feet above the foundation on a side or back exterior wall, are doing their job.

“Make sure your exhaust ports are covered so that animals can’t get in, but not so tightly that air can’t get out,” Sassano says.

Freezing pipes. Just like your exterior faucet, your home's plumbing can cause major problems if pipes freeze. Never turn your heater down below 55 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, and consider insulating exposed pipes along exterior walls that may be at risk of freezing.

To avoid a burst pipe that causes flooding, Quinn suggests leaving a faucet slightly open on the main level – just enough for a slow drip. That way, in the event of freezing pipes, water has somewhere to go rather than building pressure and causing damage. "Leave the faucet slightly open … just to leave a little air going through there so the water can escape,” he says.

[See: 8 Easy Renovation Projects Every Homeowner Can Do Now.]

Unattended candles. It may seem like the simplest of these hazards to correct, but the National Candle Association reports careless use of candles causes as many as 10,000 residential fires in the U.S. each year.

While the warmth and coziness candles provide are perfect for winter, it’s important to never leave home or fall asleep with them burning.

“Leaving them unattended, even for 20 minutes to go to the store real quickly, if the candle it still going, you are opening yourselves up to a significant fire hazard,” Quinn says.

Tags: real estate, housing, home improvements, weather


Devon Thorsby is the Real Estate editor at U.S. News & World Report, where she writes consumer-focused articles about the homebuying and selling process, home improvement, tenant rights and the state of the housing market.

She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.

Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at dthorsby@usnews.com.

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