1. Roof and rain gutters
Check the roof for loose or missing shingles. Repair humped shingles where "nail pops" raise the shingle, exposing it to howling winter winds. Hand-seal loose shingles using a roofing cement. Check metal flashing material and caulk and seal areas that have cracks or are exposed to the weather.
Check skylights and satellite dish mounts on the roof. Check plumbing and roof vents and caulk or replace if necessary. Penetrations of the roof covering -- that is, plumbing vents, chimneys, roof vents, etc. -- are more likely to be sources of a leak. Use a good grade of clear silicone caulk to make the needed repairs.
Make sure the attic-to-roof vents are not blocked by insulation, bird nests or other debris. Check roof-vent fans and turbines to make sure they are in a good working condition. Do not cover any of the roof's vents. Moisture escapes through the vents in both winter and summer.
Clean the gutters and check for leaky seams, loose hangers and improper drainage of the downspouts. Make sure the downspouts direct runoff water away from the foundation for a minimum of 6 feet. This is very important for the structure's foundation. Use a good grade of silicone caulk to make needed repairs to the guttering. Always be aware of any high-voltage wiring near the roof and keep a safe distance from the wiring.
Check the chimney for loose mortar, and caulk or tuck-point (replace the mortar) as needed. Have the chimney cleaned, and any cracks to the top of the chimney should be sealed. Install a chimney cap to prevent rain, birds and small animals from entering the flue. Contact a certified chimney sweep to clean the flue.
2. Walls, windows and doors
Most homes have insulated walls, but air can bypass the insulation through cracks at the trim of windows and doors. Air infiltration will increase the costs of heating (and cooling) the home. Use a clear silicone caulk to seal all openings around windows and doors, including openings for utilities, dryer vents and bath fans. For large cracks, use a low, expanding spray-foam insulation. Check the weather seals at the door frames and window sills. Replace damaged or worn seals.
Add a sweep to the base of exterior doors to prevent drafts.
Check for blistered or peeling paint. Scrape, prime and repaint before it gets too cold. Touch up severely affected areas if you plan to wait until spring before repainting the entire house. Homes built before 1978 probably contain lead-based paint. Check with your local health department before doing any restoration work.
Check for loose siding. Use aluminum nails to fasten loose trim and seal open joints with a good grade of clear silicone caulking. Loose aluminum or vinyl siding can be snapped back together using a siding removal tool. Do a Web search for "siding tools."
Check for loose mortar, and tuck-point as needed. Smaller cracks can be filled with a good grade of silicone caulking.
Do not cover the outside units of the air conditioner or heat pump. However, you may want to spray the outside coils with a garden hose. Make sure your heat pump is elevated above normal snow depths. Clean around the base of the units to allow water to run off.
3. Crawl spaces
Checking your crawl space twice a year will prevent the need for expensive repairs. Do not enter a crawl space with electrical wiring hanging near the crawl space floor. If necessary, turn off the main circuit at the fuse or breaker panel before entering the space.
Check the space for evidence of standing water or flooding. This moisture will find its way to the living areas of the home and can damage the structure and feed mold spores. Pump out all standing water.
Check the sump pump to make sure it is operable. Also, make sure it is not connected to the home's sewer system.
Remove vegetation and any debris from the crawl space and cover the ground with a heavy plastic vapor barrier. This will help to keep additional moisture from entering your home.
Look up to check for rotting floor joists and rim boards, usually found on the northwest side of the home. These will have a blackish color on the ends of the boards. Decayed wood can be treated by a professional exterminator.
Check under bathrooms for signs of leaky fixtures.
Know where the main water shut-off valve is and how to use it. If the valve is stuck, it may start to leak when first used. Make sure you only try this on a weekday when plumbers are more readily available.
Locate the main gas or oil shut-off valve and learn how to use it.
Check the water lines under the home and insulate those that might be exposed to cold drafts. Do not use electric heat tapes in areas that are not readily accessible.
Check the water heater. Does it vent properly? While the heater is in operation, hold a lighted match next to the vent and then wave it out (do not blow it out) and check to see if the smoke is pulled up the chimney. If not, have the system professionally inspected. Make sure the flue pipe has a positive rise of 1/4-inch per foot. Replace pitted and rusted flue pipes.
Is there a 3/4-inch metal overflow line on the water heater's T&P (temperature pressure relief) valve? The end of this line should extend to within 6 inches of the floor or drain to the outside 6 inches above the grade level. The exit end cannot be threaded or in contact with the ground.
Replace worn faucet fittings and leaking washers. Clean clogged and slow-draining fixtures.
Now is the time to check the furnace to make sure it is operable. Just because it worked last winter is no guarantee it will start up on demand. Have the furnace cleaned and serviced before winter weather. Change the filter.
Check furnace ductwork for rusting pipes that may need to be replaced and loose pipes that need to be refastened. Open seams on the ductwork rob your home of expensive conditioned air. Seal all accessible joints and seams with a metallic tape or with a brush-on duct mastic.
Remove all combustible materials from the furnace and water heater areas.
Know the location of the main service panel and how to turn the system off. If you have a generator, the main panel must have a transfer switch that shuts off the main service panel when the generator is in use.
If there is not a list of what each fuse or breaker is for, make a list and attach it to the panel's door.
For fused services, keep a supply of 15- and 20-amp fuses handy. Never over-fuse a circuit by replacing a blown 15- or 20-amp fuse with a 30-amp fuse.
If you are fortunate enough to have ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs), these need to be tripped and reset once a month. Other breakers need to be tripped and reset every six months. GFCIs are safety devices for outlets that are located outdoors, in the bathroom, garage, unfinished basements, kitchens and near a laundry or bar sink.
Replace broken receptacles and covers, especially outside receptacles. All loose outlets and switches should be secured to the utility box. Replace outlets that are contaminated with paint.
Check the wiring in the attic and basement area for any spliced or exposed wires. Wiring splices and connections have to be made inside an approved junction box.
Check for frayed or broken extension cords and replace immediately. Never run an extension cord under a carpet, throw rug or through a hole in the wall or ceiling.
Check the outside wiring coming from the utility company for frayed insulation and check to see if any wires are covered by tree limbs. The wiring should be 10 feet above the ground at its lowest point. Contact your utility company if there is a problem.
Check smoke alarms and replace batteries as needed. If there are no smoke alarms, install them. You should have a smoke alarm inside each bedroom in addition and in the halls leading to the bedrooms. In basements, attach a smoke alarm to the metal ductwork. In the event that it goes off, the alarm will be carried to all rooms by the ducts.
If you heat with gas, oil or wood, install a carbon-monoxide detector near the heating appliance and in a bedroom hall.
7. Fireplaces and other wood burners
Check the location of the flue pipes. A wood-burning stove or fireplace cannot be vented into the same flue with a gas or oil burner or space heater.
Wood burners that are connected to the furnace ductwork require an 8-inch clearance between the ductwork and any combustible material.
A non-labeled wood stove requires a 36-inch clearance between the stove and combustibles. A listed wood stove will have a reduced clearance to combustible materials on a label attached to the stove. If in doubt, call a home inspector listed with the American Society of Home Inspectors.
Do not use space heaters in small confined areas. Use only in areas that are well-ventilated. Never leave a space heater on overnight.
Check the fireplace opening for loose or missing brick. Replace missing brick with firebricks and patch cracks with fire clay. Never use a normal field brick or mortar inside a fireplace.
Check the damper for ease of operation.
Check the flue liner for obstructions and for creosote buildup. Cleaning is recommended each year. Reinspect the liner after each cleaning.
Check glass doors, electric blowers and switches.
Check the firewood grate, clean out the ash dump and secure the outside clean-out opening.
If you have a gas log or a gas starter, make sure the damper is slightly open at all times. Make sure there is a gas shut-off valve in the same room with the gas log or starter.
Check the insulation. Strong summer winds can blow loose insulation into piles. Check with your local utility or building authority for R-values and types of insulation recommended for your area. Add insulation if needed.
Check the underside of the roof's decking for signs of past leaks and for mold.
Cover the whole-house fan and pull-down stair or access hatch opening, but do not cover the roof/attic vent fan.
Check for and uncover all bath and kitchen vent fans. These should vent all the way to the exterior and not to the attic.
Uncover recessed lighting fixtures. Covered fixtures can build up enough heat to cause a fire. Some modern recessed light fixtures are approved for insulation. There should be a rating label inside the light fixture next to the bulb.
Check for frayed wiring or spliced wiring connections. All electrical wiring connections must be made inside an approved junction box. Replace damaged wiring.
Remove garden hoses from outside spigots. Drain the hose, wipe it clean and store for next spring. Leaving a hose on the faucet can result in frozen and busted water pipes. Shut off outside faucets if they are not the antifreeze type.
Drain sprinklers, spas and pool equipment. Winterize as recommended. Pool water should be chemically treated for winter storage.