A Seasonal Guide To Home Maintenance

You know that your house needs regular upkeep in order to stay in good condition. Not only can little maintenance issues become expensive and turn into major repairs, but nowadays problems that boom-time buyers might have overlooked can be huge liabilities when it comes time to sell, says James Carey, author of "Home Maintenance for Dummies." Good thing that most crucial maintenance tasks can be done just once a year at a certain time. Read on for the right dates to mark in your calendar.

Winter
Clean the vents behind your dryer in the beginning of winter; you're drying heavier clothes now, and they generate more lint. Clean vents will help your machine dry clothes more quickly, last longer, and you'll lower the risk of fires. Hardware stores carry kits that can help.

Cost: $15 to $45.

Check your furnace filter once a month during the heating season for excess dust; you'll want to change it once or twice a year so the unit operates more efficiently.

Cost: $8 to $20 each.

Make sure your sump pump is clean and operating properly before spring rains arrive. Lift the lever on the sump to make the float go up and wait for the motor to click on. If you have a battery backup, unplug the unit and test the pump again.

House seems cold? Remove and reinstall storm windows to make sure they fit properly.

Vacuum the refrigerator condenser coils -- usually located on the bottom or on the back of the fridge. (Unplug it first, then use your vacuum's brush attachment.)

Use your stuck-indoors time to knock off some annual fire prevention tasks. First, make sure your fire extinguishers haven't passed their expiration date. Next, replace ground fault outlet circuit interrupters that aren't working properly (when you hit the "Test" button the "Reset" should pop out; if it doesn't, you can buy a new one at a hardware store).

Cost: less than $20 for a fire extinguisher and $10 to $12 for a circuit interrupter.

You need to change batteries ($6 for two nine-volt ones) in smoke detectors and carbon-monoxide alarms twice a year. An easy way to remember: Make the first switch on the same day you reset clocks to daylight saving time (March 14 this year), and again in mid-October. At the same time, test your smoke detectors; use a smoke-in-a-can product ($9) or blow out a candle underneath them.

Spring
Schedule an inspection and cleaning of your chimney once the heating season ends; that's when many sweeps offer a discount. Also make sure to remove fireplace ashes to prevent moisture buildup, which can damage masonry.

Cost: $100 to $300, depending on the layout of your chimney.

Inspect your home's exterior for loose siding or trim, cracks, and crumbling mortar caused by harsh winter weather, and examine your attic for any signs of leaks. If you've got siding, give it a wash using a garden hose and a solution of a third of a cup of laundry detergent per gallon of hot water. Work from the bottom up with a soft nylon brush (top down can cause stains).

Now that you can see your lawn again, cut down the thatch, or the layer of dead grass. If the thatch is more than half an inch thick, it can hurt your soil and encourage pests. You can hire a professional to de-thatch for about $30 to $100; if you want to do it yourself, rent a power thatcher and see instructions at garden.org.

Cost: $65 a day for a power thatcher.

Wash and treat (or paint) wood decks to prevent cracking before barbecue season arrives.

Cost: about $50 to $75 for five gallons of sealer.

Make an appointment to get your air-conditioning system professionally inspected and adjusted before the temperature hits 80°.

Cost: $75 to $175 per year for an HVAC service contract.

Before watering season, check pop-up sprinkler systems for leaks or clogs and be sure the spray isn't going where it shouldn't.

Termites and ants enjoy getting out in the spring weather too. Get your home professionally checked for pests before they have a chance to create structural damage.

Cost: about $75 to $100 for an average-size home.

Summer
Rainy spring? Look for signs of leaks and moisture in your basement, which can cause mold, fungus, and rust. Water on the wall probably indicates a bad downspout or grading that's sloping toward the house. Standing water may require professional help to remove, so try to determine the cause of the leak so you'll know which pro can help you fix it. Can't figure out where the leak is coming from? Most home inspectors will offer advice.

Cost: $75 to $100.

Inspect your roof. Grab some binoculars and look for loose shingles, mold, mildew, or cracked chimney mortar. Catch problems early and you may avoid spending $2,000 to $12,000 (and up) for a roof replacement. See extensive damage? Get estimates for roof-replacement costs in your area at myremodelingproject.com.

Faulty garage doors cause tens of thousands of injuries every year. If something is in the path of the electronic beam sensor, the door shouldn't close. To test, wave a broom across the beam while the door is in motion.

Check the caulking around tubs, showers, toilets, and sinks to make sure moisture can't penetrate. If the caulking is black, that means mildew has gotten below it -- replace it right away or risk water damage to the floor beneath.

Dog days of summer? Your heating system can take a break in the off-season, so drain and refill your hot-water heater to remove sediment. While you're at it, test the heater's pressure valve (designed to let out steam and prevent overheating during times of heavy use) according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Replace the filter on your central air-conditioning system twice a year to make it more efficient.

Cost: $4 to $15 each; buy a bunch so you always have extras on hand.

Fall
Check your attic for holes or thin spots in the insulation, and make sure the caulking around doors and windows doesn't leak. Keep in mind that your attic should be only 5° to 10° warmer than the outside air; any hotter and you could develop ice dams on your roof, which can cause water leaks (find out how much insulation is recommended for your area at energy.gov/insulationairsealing). Bonus: A well-insulated attic, ceilings, and walls can lower your energy bills by 30%.

If you're in an area that freezes, have your sprinkler system professionally blown out -- water in the pipes can freeze and cause damage. Take down garden hoses, drain and store, and put insulation around spouts.

Cost for the average home: about $100 to $200. (Cost for repairs: $250 to $800.)

Check and clean gutters to keep them free of debris. If you have a lot of trees on your property, install a product like the Gutter-Brush guard (gutterbrush.com) to keep leaves and flotsam from accumulating.

Cost: $200 to $400 for a 2,000-square-foot home.

Want healthy spring grass? Aerate your lawn by removing little plugs in the soil.

Cost: $75 to $150 a day to rent an aerating machine, so go in with a neighbor (or two).

Prune and cut back trees once they've dropped their leaves, so the branches don't scratch your home's siding.

SOURCES: Chimney Safety Institute of America; Consumer Product Safety Commission; James Carey; Home Care Maintenance Services, Lansdale, Pa.; National Association of Home Builders; National Association of Home Inspectors; National Center for Healthy Housing; National Gardening Association; National Pest Management Association; Northern Illinois Irrigation Inc.; Paul Hayman, author of The Idiot's Guide to Common Household Disasters; Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association; U.S. Energy Department