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Cover story: Winterizing helps wallet, even sales appeal
That nip in the air you felt this morning can signal it's time for a few projects — getting serious about unearthing the fall wardrobe, stocking up on comfort-food recipes, planning that game-day tailgate. Unfortunately, many homeowners do not add "winterizing my home" to fall's checklist.
They should, because a winterized home can save hundreds of dollars on winter energy costs. And for homeowners hoping to sell their homes during a season that, admittedly, isn't the best time to sell, being prepared for what winter might bring can mean the difference between selling and not selling.
"Your home should be warm, dry and without the smell of mildew or mold," said Susan Isaacs, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker's Friendship Heights office in the District. She noted that winter buyers tend to be seriously interested in finding a home, so the right house, presumably warm and well-kept, could sell quickly.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, most homeowners nationwide can expect a rise in costs associated with home heating this winter. Those whose homes are equipped with oil-burning furnaces will feel the hardest pinch in the pocketbook, with average costs expected to rise about 8 percent, thanks to a 10 percent increase in prices and a 1 percent decrease in consumption.
Heat with natural gas? Expect a 3 percent rise, on average. If you heat with electricity, you may find yourself saving a few pennies - about 1 percent, according to the USEIA report.
Homeowners also should check out their heating systems to ensure that everything is running up to par.
"Any type of gas appliance, you're concerned with carbon [monoxide] emissions," said Tadd Forrest, service manager of the residential department of Harvey W. Hottel, a Washington-area contractor that provides heating, plumbing, duct cleaning and geothermal services. "You want to check flues, piping, and for cracks and leaks."
Ms. Isaacs recommended that sellers consider having a home inspection done before putting the home on the market so everything is in order when those winter buyers come around. That includes going through your winterization checklist to make sure your home's systems are in working order and safe.
"Leave your inspection out for agents to see," she said. "Buyers tend to balk because they anticipate problems."
Do-it-yourself energy audits, available from numerous Internet sites, can help identify the areas of your home that squander the most energy. You also can hire an energy auditor, who will use professional equipment, such as blower doors and infrared cameras, to find leaks and other areas of concern.
The first order of business when winterizing? Have a professional check out the furnace. Many area businesses offer seasonal specials that can provide considerable peace of mind during the icy winter months.
But don't stop there. Clean the ducts and ductwork to ensure maximum airflow, change the furnace filters and clear out heating vents.
"I was out looking with a buyer recently, and he was so turned off by dirty air vents that he didn't want to go any further," Ms. Isaacs said. "Many buyers can look at details like that and see them as indications that the owner hasn't taken care of the home."
If you have money to spend, consider replacing an older furnace with something more energy-efficient. According to Chris Thompson, marketing manager with Michael & Son, a Washington area company that provides plumbing, heating, electrical and remodeling services, anything more than 10 to 15 years old is probably out of date.
"I would seriously consider looking at updating anything over 10 years old," he said.
If you live in an older home with radiators, be sure to bleed your radiator valves. Planning to use your fireplace this winter? Don't forget to have it inspected by a professional. Keep the damper closed when not in use, and consider replacing the mesh screen with glass doors to help keep out the cold air.
Also on the docket in the heating department: Keep costs down by lowering the thermostat - but not too low. Home sellers are likely to find that a welcoming temperature in the home also may mean warmer buyers.
"Buyers don't like it when everything is shut off," Ms. Isaacs said. "In terms of ambience, it's not the best thing to walk into an empty, cold space."
If you are still living in your home while it is on the market, Ms. Isaacs recommends leaving a basket of inexpensive boot coverings by your front door.
"It saves your floors and carpets, and it shows buyers that you care," she noted.
Next up: windows and doors. Remember that any leaks will lower the temperature of your home and drive up heating costs. Check for drafts, apply caulk if necessary, and remove summer screens and replace them with storm windows.
If you can afford it, replace single-paned windows with double-hung ones, which will offer greater energy savings. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, homeowners who upgrade old windows and appliances can save up to 30 percent on their annual heating bills.
Doors, too, offer a chance for the cold air to come creeping in, so you may want to consider adding weatherstripping, a very inexpensive fix.
Remember, too, that plumbing can be an issue during the colder months. Exposed pipes can freeze and burst, leading to disastrous conditions within, particularly for absentee home sellers or wintertime vacationers.
"The amount of damage that a burst pipe can cause is pretty unbelievable," Ms. Isaacs said. "I've had some real jaw-dropping moments."
So wrap those pipes with insulation or even newspaper — or hire a professional to do it.
"If the temperature gets below freezing, consider adding extra insulation," Mr. Thompson said. "A lot of older homes don't have insulation up to today's standards."
Outside, check the roof for missing or loose shingles. Cut away tree branches that might fall on the house during a heavy storm. Clean gutters and downspouts so melting snow has somewhere to go when the weather finally warms.
And don't neglect the foundation. Be sure to rake leaves and other debris away, look for cracks and other openings and seal as need be. Look for water damage and dry rot around windows and repair if necessary. In particular, examine areas where two different building materials meet, a source of potential trouble in the mortar.
This is also a good time to repair and seal your patio, not to mention your driveway and deck.
If your home is on the market, remember that first impressions count.
"People forget curb appeal in winter," Ms. Isaacs said. "You need to be sure to keep walkways shoveled and de-iced, if only from a safety standpoint. It tells the buyer that the house is cared for."
By John R. Bolton
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