Touring your home with a purpose -- and with a handful of tools -- helps you cut household costs and maintain your home's value.
Homeowners fantasize about making fabulous changes to their homes: adding rooms, beautifying the grounds, and remodeling kitchens and baths. In reality, however, these dream projects may not be financially possible.
Don’t let that stop you, however, from taking good care of the home you have. By keeping up with small repairs you’ll not only save money by heading off the big expensive fixes, you’ll also maintain your home’s resale value.
Here are 17 small jobs you can do to hold down household costs:
1. Change HVAC filters
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Your furnace and air conditioner filters trap airborne allergens and dust so you breathe clean air. These filters need changing every few months while you’re using the furnace or air conditioning. The reason: Tiny particles of dirt pulled into the system from the air can hurt your furnace’s heating coil and fan. Changing filters regularly also can lower utility bills by as much as $100 a year, since dirty filters force HVAC systems to run harder and use more energy.
Changing filters is simple. Consumer Reports explains how to do it, step by step. Use your owner’s manual to find your system’s filter and remove it. Pay attention to the markings on the filter indicating which side must face the furnace so you will put the new one in correctly.
A tip from Consumer Reports:
A filter that has a plastic frame is a reusable model. That means you have clean it only periodically with a vacuum and water, ideally outdoors. Let it dry completely before reinserting.
Otherwise, take your old filter to a shop for a replacement. Inspecting the filter monthly will enable you to see when dirt has built up and it needs to be changed.
2. Fix leaky faucets
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A dripping faucet means money down the drain, literally. A faucet that drips just once a minute wastes 34 gallons of water a year, according to this fun drip calculator from the U.S. Geological Survey. This Old House shows how to fix or replace a leaky faucet.
3. Caulk the tub and shower
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A tube of caulk costs a few dollars. Replacing mold-infested bathroom tile and drywall can cost thousands of dollars. To prevent water from reaching walls and floors where it can cause mold and rot, keep the seams around fixtures, tubs and showers tightly sealed.
Latex caulk is easier to use, but silicone caulk lasts longer. Lowe’s buying guide explains the pros and cons of latex caulk versus silicone caulk.
Before you start to work on your bathroom, practice applying a nice bead of caulk. It doesn’t take long to learn to use a caulk gun and apply caulk neatly. Consider using a product with a fungicide in bathrooms to discourage mold. This Old House shows how to skillfully apply the various types of caulk.
4. Inspect the sump pump
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Sump pumps keep water out of your basement or crawl space. Check and replace your pump batteries regularly and replace a pump every 10 years or sooner if it has failed to start promptly.
HouseLogic reviews the pros, cons and costs of various types of pumps. “The best time to replace a broken sump pump is before the next big storm — not after it,” the article says. Your sump pump protects you from a basement flood that could cost thousands of dollars in lost possessions and cleanup.
5. Update light bulbs
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If you are annoyed by buzzing from CFL lights, you’ve got old bulbs. “Most CFLs today — and all Energy Star-qualified CFLs — use electronic ballasts, which do not buzz or hum,” Energy Star says.
Upgrade from incandescent bulbs to more energy-efficient bulbs as your budget allows. Put them first in lights you use most. “5 Simple Rules for Choosing the Right Money-Saving LED Bulbs” explains how to buy and where to use them. Here is Energy Star’s guide for bulbs.
6. Install a programmable thermostat
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You can save money on heating and cooling costs by avoiding acting on the impulse to turn your thermostat’s temperature up and down. A programmable thermostat helps save money by allowing you to set and automatically maintain a comfortable temperature for when you’re home and a less-comfortable temperature you’re away or asleep.
Programmable thermostats can save a home about $180 a year in energy costs, according to Consumer Reports’ thermostat buying guide. For the best savings, choose a simple device.
7. Inspect electrical outlets and cords
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Electrical wiring problems pose a fire hazard. Tour your home to inspect light switches, cords and outlets. Look for cracked insulation or discoloration. Signs of danger: exposed wire, spliced wire that’s connected with electrical tape and multiple extension cords or power strips overloading your electrical system. Cheap replacements made now head off all kinds of trouble.
Make sure electric appliances and equipment are plugged into grounded outlets. Install surge protectors (different from power strips) to protect electronic equipment. Did you know that surge protectors wear out? Neither did we. Some have LED lights or other warning devices. In its reviews of surge protectors, Wirecutter favors the Tripp Lite TLP1008TEL because it cuts off power if it can’t stop a power surge.
If you have problems with lights flickering, warm fixtures or switches, or outlets that sometimes don’t work, hire a licensed electrician to inspect for potentially hazardous wiring problems.
8. Replace smoke detector batteries
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Smoke detectors save lives. Detectors and batteries are cheap, so it’s just a matter of remembering to clean and test each detector monthly and install new batteries every six months, as the American Red Cross recommends.
“Your home needs a smoke detector outside each sleeping area and on every level of the home, even the basement,” the Red Cross says.
9. Fix running toilets
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A running toilet wastes water, adding to your water bill and squandering a precious resource. Fortunately, running toilets are easy to fix.
Several things can go wrong with the simple mechanism in the tank that regulates water flow. Calcium deposits may build up or old parts fail, preventing a valve from closing or the tank flap from closing tightly. You can easily diagnose the problem by taking the lid off the tank, flushing a few times and watching.
Snap a photo of your toilet’s internal assembly. Take the picture and the failed part along to the hardware store when shopping for replacements. Ask a store expert for help making sure you’re buying the correct replacement part and for tips on installation.
10. Wrap the water heater
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Energy.gov estimates you’ll save $20 to $45 a year, or 4 to 9 percent of your water-heating costs, by wrapping the hot water heater in an insulating blanket. The project costs about $30 and takes about an hour and a half.
Newer tanks may already be insulated, but nevertheless check whether the insulation is sufficient. An R-value of at least 24 is best. You’ll find ready-made insulating water heater jackets in hardware stores.
11. Seal leaky doors and windows
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The biggest sources of leaking air from your home are small cracks around windows and doors. These leaks suck your pricey heated or cooled air into the great outdoors.
Take an inspection tour of your home’s interior to check for leaks. Bring along a pencil and paper (to note areas you’ll need to return to), a tube of caulk for filling cracks, a can of spray insulating foam sealer for filling larger leaks, and a digital thermometer or a candle.
Use the thermometer to check for temperature differences that signal a leak. Or hold the lighted candle up and down and around the front of windows and doors. The flame’s flicker will point you to air leaks. Also check for leaks where appliance vents, hoses, plumbing fixtures and furnace ducts meet outside walls.
12. Flush the hot water heater
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Sediment and rust accumulate at the bottom of a hot water heater. Keep it running smoothly by giving it an annual cleaning or hiring someone to do it. Use a garden hose and follow the instructions in this video, at HouseLogic.
13. Beef up attic insulation
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“If you’ve got an unfinished attic, giving it proper insulation is one of the simplest ways to keep a lid on your heating bill this season,” This Old House says. It’s a “moderately difficult” job for DIY’ers.
You should enjoy a great payback for this job, both from fuel bills and from increased comfort. Attic insulation “usually has the most potential for energy savings and is typically accessible,” according to Energy.gov. Tip: Be sure to seal any and all air leaks before you start insulating.
Here’s how to tell if you need to add attic insulation: If you can see any part of the floor joists, you need more. Also, make sure the insulation is evenly distributed, without mounds and low spaces. This Old House tells which types of insulation to use where and how to apply it. Did you know you can mix loose and flexible insulation that comes in rolls? You can.
Download the Department of Energy’s insulating guide to learn more and the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency for rebates and other local, state, federal and utility company programs that might help pay for the job. Get it done by Dec. 31, 2016, and you can enjoy an IRS tax credit of up to 10 percent of the cost of materials (not labor), up to $500. Use IRS Tax Form 5695.
One possible wrinkle: Because insulation needs to fluff up above the joists, you’ll have to give up using the attic for storage. Or, if you also want to use the attic for a climate-controlled storage or living space, apply insulation between rafters and wall joists but not on the floor.
14. Install weatherstripping
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Seal air leaks around doors with weatherstripping. It comes in a variety of forms. Use felt and foam strips to fill gaps around doors. Attach metal door sweeps to the lower edge of a door. Energy.gov’s weatherstripping guide tells which products to use for the job and how to apply them. If you have weatherstripping already, check it for cracks and brittleness as it occasionally needs replacing.
15. String a clothesline
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Putting a clothesline up in your backyard is another way to reduce your fuel consumption — good for your budget and for the environment. If you can’t run a clothesline outdoors, a basement clothesline is a good alternative, as is an inexpensive collapsible drying rack that can be used indoors or out.
16. Tour your home’s perimeter, twice
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Take one more look around your home, this time on the outside. In fact, do this twice. On the first round, look for plants touching or brushing against the house or foundation. Trim them back and pull back soil or mulch that touches the siding. It could carry moisture or insects into the house.
For your next tour, wait until immediately after a heavy rain. Inspect this time and fix any areas that are channeling water toward your home or that trap it at the foundation. Fixing these areas may be as easy as grabbing a shovel and reshaping the ground a bit. Or, you may need to invest in landscaping repairs or new drainage.
Also, make certain gutters and downspouts direct water away from structures.
17. TLC for your siding
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Brighten your home’s siding and protect it from wear with an annual cleaning. To remove dirt, moss, leaves and debris, HouseLogic recommends scrubbing the outside of the house with …
… buckets of warm, soapy water (1/2 cup of trisodium phosphate — $4.95 for a one pound box — dissolved in one gallon of water) and a soft-bristled brush attached to a long handle. Or, use a homemade green cleaner from 1/2 cup baking soda dissolved in one gallon warm water.
Cleaning also gives you the chance to see any siding problems that need repair, including stucco holes, crumbling mortar, mildew, cracks and rot. Touch up peeling or chipped paint, make small fixes and include in your budget a fund for home maintenance so you can call in the pros for jobs that take expertise.
What household repairs and maintenance jobs help save you money? Tell us by posting a comment below or on Money Talks News’ Facebook page.