Think we humans have it tough in winter? It’s even harder to be a house. There’s no escaping the driving sleet and biting winds that beat at your windows and siding. Bitter cold spells push your furnace to its breaking point and threaten to freeze and rupture your pipes. And heavy snow, if it doesn’t send a tree limb crashing down on you, will melt and refreeze, forcing its icy tendrils into cracks and wreaking seam-splitting havoc on your rooftop and gutters.
While you’ll never hold off Mother Nature entirely, you can at least get your home and yard better prepared to withstand her winter wrath. And now’s the time to do it: Some small investments in fall can save a lot of money and misery during a February nor’easter.
“It pays to take a walk around the property in the fall with fresh eyes,’’ said Gerry Bouvier, building maintenance specialist at the nonprofit Trustees of Reservations, which maintains more than 300 structures and 25,000 acres of conservation land across Massachusetts. “Doing this routine-type maintenance, for every dollar we spend, we save $8, as a general rule.’’
Your first line of defense is to secure what pros call the building envelope, to keep water and bad weather out and warm air in. Whether it’s rain, sleet, or melting snow, “Water is the real killer,’’ Bouvier said. “You want to be sure you have good drainage. Clean your gutters, make sure there’s no debris in there and [that] the downspouts are operational.’’ If your basement has had issues with moisture, he said, add extenders to your downspouts so they empty 4 feet or more from the foundation.
While you’re outside, take a look at the roof. “If you see the shingles curling, or a lot of grit in the bottom of your downspouts, that’s a good sign your roof is wearing out,’’ Bouvier said. You don’t want to be entering a New England winter with a compromised roof. Take a glance at the metal flashing around your chimney, too. “It should be flat against the brick. If it isn’t, if it bows out, driving rain can get water in there and potentially create problems down the road.’’
Speaking of chimneys, have yours swept if you burn wood. “That should be done annually,’’ said Douglas Markel, a certified property manager in Vermont. “You’re removing creosote, the stuff that causes chimney fires.’’ Let the transition between seasons serve as a reminder to do other fire safety basics as well: Check and change batteries in your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and clean your dryer vent.
This is also your last chance to get any crucial masonry work done. “Anything with mortar requires warmer temperatures,’’ Markel said, so if you need repairs to the chimney used by your heat source, now is the time to take care of them. It’s also a good time to replace any exterior light bulbs — before daylight dwindles and you’re forced to climb a step ladder on ice.
Bouvier and Markel recommend having professionals service your furnace or boiler before each winter, ideally well before they get booked up. “They’re replacing the equipment that’s most likely to fail, that way you can rest assured you’ll make it through the heating season without issues,’’ Markel said. And in newer homes, service or replace the filters in air exchange units.
If you have a sump pump, Bouvier said to make sure the pump and backflow valves are operational and that the discharge pipe is unobstructed. And if you’re due to have your septic system pumped soon, he said, “do it before you have three feet of snow on the ground. It can be difficult to find it, or if it’s frozen, it’ll be a real grind.’’
Prime and paint any exposed wood, and in your driveway, patch and seal cracks or loose areas before the cold hits. “Water will get in there and it’ll create more problems,’’ Bouvier said. “By sealing those holes and cracks, you’ll save the life of your driveway.’’
There’s plenty to do around the yard, too. “Fall’s a great time to resurrect the lawn after a hot summer,’’ said Bob Murray, the Trustees’ project director for structures and landscapes. And if you fertilize only once a year, both Markel and Murray say it’s more important to do it in fall, which will promote lawn-thickening root growth and provide nourishment next spring. “When the snow melts, it’ll carry that fertilizer deep into the root structure of the plant,’’ Markel said.
“The fall is a very good time to trim trees and plants as well, once the energy of the plant goes into the root ball,’’ Markel added. And you definitely want to trim back encroaching branches and shrubs. “You don’t want anything touching the house, no bushes or branches,’’ he said. “The house needs to be able to dry out — no snow trapped or sitting against the home.’’
Deer are more likely to come browsing for food in winter, so protect any prized plants with netting or repellent. And winter’s harsh winds can dry out and desiccate the leaves of boxwoods and other evergreens. “Wrapping those in burlap can help protect them from the wind and also provide some structural support so they don’t split open from the snow,’’ Murray said.
In the garden, cut back perennials right down to the base of the plant, Markel said. It’s also a good time to divide any overzealous growers, Murray added. “Over time, some plants get more aggressive,’’ he said, so this is your chance to restore balance to the garden, lifting out crowded plants and replanting them elsewhere or sharing them with a neighbor.
Once you’ve watered those last transplants, blow out irrigation lines, disconnect hoses, and shut off the water supply to outside spigots. “Close the valve in the basement and then open the valve on the outside of the house to let the water drain out,’’ Markel said. Drain any water from hoses and bring them inside, and cover or move patio cushions indoors, too.
Moving indoors, “replace the screens in storm doors with their storm panels and make sure they’re tight and snug,’’ Bouvier said, and lower your storm windows. At the same time, check that the weep holes in your storm windows are free and clear. “If you’ve done some painting, that will end up being a problem; the weep holes will get clogged and moisture won’t drain out.’’
Markel said to check windows for cracks or fogged glass, where the insulating thermal seal has failed, and to make sure they’re all operable. “Clearly you don’t want your window stuck open in the winter,’’ he said, so open and close windows and latches to make sure they’re in good working order. He suggests cleaning your windows while you’re at it, to maximize the amount of light coming in on those dim winter days. You might consider taking down your screens for the season, too. “A lot of people take their screens off because during the winter it allows more natural light into the home,’’ Markel said. “It makes a huge difference.’’
You also want to inspect the weatherstripping around your front and back doors. “Sometimes this can get torn, flattened, crushed. It should be kind of pliable,’’ Bouvier said, and it’s an easy fix if not. And if there’s a gap between the door and the floor — which is common in older homes, Bouvier said — install a door sweep. A 1/4-inch gap under a 36-inch exterior door may not seem like much, he said, but basic geometry tells us otherwise: It’s like having a wide-open 3-inch-by-3-inch hole in the wall just letting out hot air.
Be mindful of other gaps, too. If you live in a rural area, mice will try to move indoors this time of year — and they’ll often succeed, since a white-footed field mouse can squeeze through a gap just 1/4 inch wide. “Your goal is to prevent them from nesting inside the home,’’ Markel said, “so plug any gaps with steel wool — not spray foam, because they’ll chew through spray foam,’’ though you can combine the two to create a mouse- and weatherproof seal.
Finally, put away summer yard equipment in good shape so it’s ready to go next spring, and get your winter gear ready for the inevitable blizzard. Bouvier suggests draining the gas out of your mower or running it dry before storing it for the winter. Move ice melt and shovels to an accessible area, and as for your snowblower, “If it’s been sitting idle for the last six months, getting it started and running in advance of any snow event is obviously a good thing,’’ Bouvier said. “You really want to have that prepared and in good condition, because when you need it you really need it, and you don’t want to be stuck trying to troubleshoot why it’s not starting for you in the snow.’’
Nope — that sounds like a job for a crisp fall weekend.
Jon Gorey blogs about homes at HouseandHammer.com. Send comments to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp.