Snow falling near house

Get your house ready for the harsh winter weather. (Getty Images)

Extreme winter weather can leave neighborhoods and communities without power or other public services for long periods of time, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warns.

It's a smart idea to prepare your home for such winter weather emergencies as well as cold weather throughout the season that can cause minor issues to evolve into larger problems – with potential damage to your property or risk of personal injury.

Whether it’s for your primary residence or a second home you plan to leave vacant until spring, here are tips for winterizing your house:

  • Clean out gutters and clear the roof.
  • Insulate the attic.
  • Have your heating system serviced.
  • Prepare your plumbing.
  • Call a chimney sweep.
  • Check for drafts.
  • Have a friend on call.

[Read: Can't Handle the Cold? 6 Steps to Move to a Warmer Climate]

Clean Out Gutters and Clear the Roof

Leaves, sticks and other bits of nature make their way onto your roof and into your gutters during the fall. But before the first heavy snowfall, be sure to clear debris from your roof and gutters to prevent a buildup of ice and snow that can get under shingles and cause leaks and water damage inside your house.

“If they don’t have their roof cleared off, that’s typically where stoppage and backup issues happen,” says Mike Gulla, senior director of underwriting and customer support for Hippo Insurance, based in Palo Alto, California.

If the house is vacant: Clear as much debris as you can before you close up the house for the winter, but you may need to have a local friend or contractor finish the job when you’re away.

Insulate the Attic

Another way to reduce the chances that an ice dam will form is to insulate your attic floor. This helps keep the living areas of your house warmer, explains Anne Cope, chief engineer at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety in Richburg, South Carolina.

Cope recommends going up to your attic before the winter weather sets in to examine attic vents, check for leaks and get a look at the insulation. “If your insulation looks terrible, now is a great time of year to get that taken care of,” she says.

If the house is vacant: Insulation will help you avoid hefty heating bills during the months that you’re not staying in the house. Good insulation that leads to lower heating and cooling bills can also be a plus when you sell the house.

[See: The Best Time of Year for Every Home Improvement Project]

Have Your Heating System Serviced


Have your heating and ventilation system checked for problems and cleaned before the weather gets too cold. If you wait until the first cold snap or snowstorm of the season, many service professionals will be overbooked.

Beyond keeping you warm, a functioning HVAC during the coldest days of the year is key to avoiding frozen pipes, which can burst inside your walls and cause significant damage.

If the house is vacant: It’s important to keep a vacant house at a temperature well above freezing; the standard is between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Having your HVAC system serviced before you leave for the season is also important so cold temperatures don’t cause a bigger issue like a burst pipe. “That’s typically the reason that someone has a frozen pipe – it’s not usually a faulty pipe but because the HVAC stops working. … If it’s 20 degrees outside and you have no heat in the house for a few days, you can expect the pipes to freeze,” Gulla says.



Prepare Your Plumbing

Ensure your plumbing is set up to withstand the cold, and consider utilizing sensors to let you know when there’s a problem.

In Northern states where freezing temperatures are expected for a portion of the year, housing codes require insulation and for pipes to be properly protected from the cold. Places that don't see regular frost, however, won't always have a basement for plumbing to stay warmer or effective insulation to keep heat from escaping. As a result, a day or week of freezing temperatures in parts of North Carolina, Georgia and even Texas can cause a lot of damage, Cope says.

If your plumbing runs through a crawl space, consider insulating the pipes or the crawl space itself. “It can be a do-it-yourself project, or it can be a hire-a-handyman project,” Cope says.

Gulla recommends getting both water-leak and pipe-temperature sensors. The former will let you know if pressure inside the pipe suddenly decreases, indicating a burst pipe, while the latter will notify you of dangerously cold pipes so you can prevent a burst pipe.

Additionally, automatic water shutoff valves are becoming more popular in homes. They stop the flow of water should a pipe freeze and burst to reduce the amount of damage to the home.

If the house is vacant: Gulla stresses the importance of having sensors and a remote water shutoff valve option to prevent damage in the house before you can get there.

Call a Chimney Sweep

Whether you have a wood-burning or gas fireplace, make an appointment for your chimney to be inspected annually to see if cleaning or repairs are necessary, according to the Chimney Safety Institute of America. In wood-burning fireplaces, a professional will clean out creosote buildup, which comes from burning wood and can cause a fire hazard inside the chimney if it’s not cleaned. In any fireplace, it's important to clear animal nests that might be blocking the chimney and to check for issues in the masonry.

Gulla warns that a blocked chimney “can also cause carbon monoxide to back up into the house, which can obviously be life-threatening to anyone in the house.”

If the house is vacant: Be sure to close the chimney flue as well as any hearth doors. That way you’ll keep cold drafts from making your furnace work harder and prevent animals from entering through the chimney and getting into other parts of the house.

[See: 7 Ways to Cut the Dry Air in Your Home This Winter]

Check for Drafts

As the weather cools, walk around the house and check for drafts or air leakage, particularly around windows and doors. Use caulk to seal cracks and weatherstripping to help insulate around door and window frames.

If the house is vacant: Checking for drafts and leakage will help cut down on the work your furnace has to do by keeping cold air from coming in.

Have a Friend on Call


If you go away for vacation or on a business trip, it's good to have a friend, relative or neighbor on call for your temporarily vacant house. Especially if a winter storm occurs while you're gone, you want someone to make sure your power stays on and even shovel the sidewalk to prevent slipping hazards.

If the house is vacant: Your HVAC may be in perfect condition with everything insulated, but you still shouldn’t leave the house unchecked for the entire winter.

“I wouldn’t want someone to think that a property can sit vacant for months at a time without someone coming to check on it. You wouldn’t do that with your car,” Cope says.

If you have friends or relatives nearby who can check on the house every few weeks, ask them to do so. Otherwise, hiring a local handyman to regularly check in can help ensure the heat continues to work, the power stays on and no critters manage to break their way into the living space. Even if you have security cameras and sensors, you need someone who can come by on short notice if an issue occurs.


7 Winter Home Prep Tasks You Haven't Done Yet

Time to really get ready for winter.

Mother tidying the clothes rack, domestic life.

(Getty Images)

You already know the basics of getting your home ready for winter: cleaning your gutters, making sure windows and doors have weatherstripping to block drafts and tackling various tasks to keep your house warm and cozy throughout those chilly months. But incorporating a few additional tricks of the trade will make your winter life much easier if you're proactive. From organizing your gear to prepping for the worst kind of winter storm, here are seven winter prep tasks to jump on now.

Assess your outlet situation.

Assess your outlet situation.

Outlet On Wall with Peeling White Paint

(Getty Images)

Electrical outlets aren’t always where you need them, and if your house is older, you may find that you don’t have enough in every room. Sheldon Yellen, CEO of BELFOR, a Birmingham, Michigan-based disaster recovery and property restoration company, warns against overloading outlets. To protect against electrical fires, don't attach power strips to other outlet splitters, and be sure to use a surge protector if you're plugging in large appliances. And as you pull out holiday decorations, it's important to examine cords, wires and plugs for damage and throw out anything that’s not in good condition.

Invest in an emergency water shutoff system.

Invest in an emergency water shutoff system.

An old pipe breaks in freezing weather in Baku, Azerbaijan

(Getty Images)

Frozen pipes can burst and cause significant damage to your home. “When temperatures get so cold over a lengthy period of time is when you see the most claims go up,” says Jason Metzger, senior vice president and head of risk management at PURE Insurance. To protect your home from damage in the event of a burst pipe, Metzger recommends getting a leak detection and emergency water shutoff system, ranging in price between $400 and $3,000, which he says can mean the difference between a smaller claim and as much as millions of dollars in damage.

Prepare your car for winter.

Prepare your car for winter.

Close-up of winter car tires in a winter scenario with snow and trees in a mountain road

(Getty Images)

Your winter home preparation should include being ready to travel safely in inclement weather conditions. Organizing expert Rachel Rosenthal advises stocking your car with everything you may need should you find yourself in a heavy snowstorm. Her list of items include an ice scraper, ice-melt pellets in case your car gets stuck (cat litter is a common substitute in parts of the Midwest), batteries, a spare blanket and anything else you might need if you have to wait in cold weather for a tow truck, snowplow or friend to pick you up.

Get your snow removal gear ready.

Get your snow removal gear ready.

(Getty Images)

While you’re tackling the snow preparation for your vehicle, gather all your snow removal tools to have at the ready for the first snowstorm. If you follow other sets of instructions, you’ve likely already prepared your snowplow with gas or a fresh battery, but you also want to be able to easily take care of ice dams that may form on your roof. To clear ice dams, Yellen recommends keeping one of your leaf rakes on hand all winter to clear snow from the edge of your roof. “After the storm, and only once it’s safe to go outside, use a long rake to clear snow from the roof and make sure downspouts and gutters are clear to prevent flooding,” he wrote in an email.

Have a pro assess trees near your house.

Have a pro assess trees near your house.

Researcher in the forest examines trees.

(Getty Images)

The snow that lands directly on your house isn’t the only potential problem in a storm. Metzger explains that another source of concern for many homeowners insurance companies is unhealthy or dead trees located close to a structure, especially when branches may break or the entire tree could fall under the heavy weight of snow. Take a look at the trees on your property – particularly those that have the potential to fall on your house or a power line. In particular, check for bark loss or deep cracks. “If trees that are close to the home don’t appear healthy to the untrained eye, we would want an arborist to go out there,” Metzger says.

Declutter your winter wardrobe.

Declutter your winter wardrobe.

Caucasian woman hanging clothes in closet

(Getty Images)

The start of the winter season is the perfect time to take a critical look at your winter wardrobe. “You need to pull out your winter gear and weed through it,” Rosenthal says. Toss or donate any sweaters that pill, jackets that don’t keep you warm like they used to and boots that just don’t go with anything you have. She stresses being honest with yourself about what winter items you wore last year – if you didn’t wear it last winter, the chances are slim you’ll learn to love it again. Make room early in the season and cut down on clutter.

Train your eye for water damage.

Train your eye for water damage.

Damaged ceiling from rain water leak

(Getty Images)

Keep an eye out for water damage – especially in parts of your house that may be vulnerable during a winter storm. Yellen stresses that mold can grow inside a house at any time of year, and it can start growing on a moist area within 12 hours. Keep water damage from causing an air quality problem by remaining vigilant about your roof, ice dams and any surfaces where water can get inside, including around door and window frames. “The simplest way to prevent mold is to remove water and moisture rapidly – but because that’s not always possible to know, it’s important to have a professional come in and remediate at the first sign of mold growth,” he says.

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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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