While you can’t stop winter’s imminent arrival, there are preventative steps you can take to avoid an unexpected freeze to your cash flow. Mint sought out the experts for tips on how to protect your budget this winter.
If you’re a homeowner, prevention is key to keeping maintenance costs low throughout the year—but especially in the winter. The best part is, you don’t have to have a knack for home improvement in order to stay vigilant about keeping home repair costs to a minimum.
Check your roof. If you are weary about climbing a ladder, you can get a feel for your roof’s condition from the ground with a pair of binoculars. Alyssa Hall of GAF, North America’s largest roofing manufacturer, recommends visually scanning your roof for any signs of sagging or uneven areas, which can indicate roof damage beneath the shingles. On the shingles, look for curling edges, those that are missing entirely, and any signs of damage caused by animals. If you have asphalt shingles or a slate roof, look for black areas, which indicate that a shingle is cracked or missing. If you spot problem areas, call a roofer to assess the situation before snowfall strikes. If problems are left to worsen, you could have a sagging or caving roof, water leaks, and water damage on your hands.
Clean gutter systems. Hall also advises clearing gutters of any leaves, branches and roots, so that melting snow and ice has a way to get off the roof. Water or snow left standing on the roof increases the odds of leaks and ice dams—which can quickly lead to major repair costs.
Seal windows. Richard Apfel, president of Skyline Windows says, “the average home uses 10 to 15 percent of its energy costs through improperly sealed windows.” Check for leaks by placing piece of paper in the window frame and then closing the window. If you can pull the piece of paper out without tearing it, you’ve got an air leak. You can try to seal the leak yourself with silicon-based caulking materials (available at your hardware store). If you still feel a draft after caulking, buy a clear plastic window film kit (also sold at hardware stores). They’re inexpensive, easy to install with the help of a hair dryer, and can save you major bucks on your heating bills. Apfel also says, “the plastic creates an insulating air pocket that can cut heat loss by 25 to 40 percent.”
Maintain water pipes. Roto-Rooter Plumbing and Drain Service‘s Larry Rothman advises homeowners to disconnect outside water hoses and repair dripping outside faucets before temperatures drop to freezing.
If you have interior shut-off valves that lead to outside faucets, drain the water from the pipes and close them for winter. Wrap heat tape (available at hardware stores) around pipes that are in unheated areas to minimize the potential for frozen pipes. If you leave for the winter months, set the furnace to no lower than 55 degrees.
Maintenance and safety. Experts at PEAK Automotive Performance advise replacing wiper blades, and filling wiper and brake fluid, motor oil, and antifreeze before the winter. Check tire pressure regularly as temperatures get lower; you’ll lose a pound of pressure for every ten degrees that drops. (Your driver side doorjamb will tell you the advised pressure—also called “pounds per square inch” (PSI). Check your battery life, too—they can lose up to one-third of their starting power in the cold. (PEAK experts say that many auto service shops will check this for little to no cost).
If you live in an area that gets snow and ice, keep a bag of sand in your trunk. If you get stuck, spread the sand underneath your wheels to gain traction.
Fire prevention. Heating is a leading cause of residential fires during the winter. When compared to central heating, using space heaters increases the risk of fire by three to four times, according to Brett Brenner, President of the Electric Safety Foundation International (EFSI). Plug space heaters directly into a wall outlet and allow at least three feet of space between the heater and anything that can catch fire. Never place the heater on cabinets, tables, or furniture.
If you use a space heater in a bathroom, make sure that it is specifically designed for use in a damp area. When you leave a room or go to sleep, unplug the space heater.
Insurance. Review your homeowner’s, renter’s, and auto insurance policies to confirm that you have adequate levels of coverage before an accident happens. If you carry minimal amounts of coverage with a high deductible to save money on premiums, make sure that you have enough savings readily available to cover the deductible amount. Otherwise, you won’t be able to tap into your insurance coverage when you need it most. This is particularly true in the case of auto insurance. Remember that liability-only policies will help pay for damage you cause to other drivers—but won’t cover your auto repair costs.
Pets also face potential dangers in winter months and veterinary care can quickly erode your budget. Dr. Jules Benson of Petplan Pet Insurance reminds pet owners to remove snow, ice and salt from paws and the coat as soon as pets return indoors to prevent potential cuts and abrasions. (According to 2010 Petplan claims data, the average cost to tend to an injured paw is $200!)
Older pets and those with medical conditions can also experience exacerbated symptoms and joint pain in the winter months, so pay close attention to temperament changes. When applying rock salt to sidewalks and driveways, try to use a pet-friendly version and make sure animals do not ingest it. Besides the stress of a poisoned pet, Petplan data shows the average cost to treat it is around $500.
Stephanie Taylor Christensen is a former financial services marketer based in Columbus, OH. The founder of Wellness On Less, she also writes on small business, consumer interest, wellness, career and personal finance topics.
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