10 Holiday Gifts For Your Home

December 16th, 2013

By Marilyn Lewis of MSN Real Estate

Who's the unsung hero in your family? It's your house. Day in, day out, 365 days at a stretch, the systems in your little cave are working for you, keeping you warm and dry.

Show your home some appreciation this holiday season by picking at least one of the following labors of love. Each helps your home achieve optimal performance for a tiny cost and effort. You'll minimize off days and maximize happiness — for you and your home.


No. 1: Change faucet aerators

This little fix is easy, easy, easy. Yet, neglecting to clean or replace the aerators — little metal discs through which water passes on its way out of a nozzle — can lead to mineral buildup and low water pressure — “like having a clogged artery in your heart,” says Brian Peterson, who owns BHP Construction and teaches a class in home repairs in Orem, Utah.

Head for the hardware store. Buy a new aerator for each faucet and shower head in your home. In fact, do the environment a favor by getting a “low-flow” or “restricted-flow” type that reduces both water consumption and your water bill but doesn't affect water pressure. Plug the drain first, so parts don't fall in. Unscrew the tip of each faucet. If the old aerator doesn't drop right out, use your fingernail to pry it off. Wipe off any mineral deposits from the nozzle's opening, swap in the new aerator and you're in business. Clean deposits from shower heads, too. And, for a real treat, install a new shower head.

Cost: 50 cents for the aerator replacement; shower heads vary from $10 for a simple unit to hundreds for one with adjustable sprays.


No. 2: Add a humidifier

Just as your skin gets chapped and cracked in the winter, your house suffers, too. Cold, dry weather pulls moisture out of doors and other woodwork, says Mark Richardson, president of Case Handyman and Remodeling of Bethesda, Md., with offices in 65 cities. If the house is too dry, Richardson says, you'll notice cracks in drywall and trim and gaps between assembly points in a wood entry door.

Humidity will seal up these cracks by expanding the wood with moisture. A whole-house humidifier is like dry-skin lotion for the house. Use one in any climate that requires indoor heat. The appliance consists of a box with a fan, water supply and filter inside. Water passes over a filter and moistens the air. Set the controls at 40% humidity and turn off the humidifier in summer, once the outside humidity rises.

Find a humidifier that works with your heating and cooling system by contracting with the company that installed your current equipment. Whole-house humidifiers are attached to the main furnace duct so that air leaving the furnace passes through the unit and is moistened before traveling through the home. Ask the installer to return once a year to inspect the unit and change the filter as needed to keep it free from mineral deposits. This is not a do-it-yourself job. The project's not complex but the downside — water damage or an electric shock from faulty installation — can be awful.

Inexpensive portable humidifiers that moisten the air in a single room may be useful for human health but they're not effective for the health of the house, Richardson says. Their range is limited, unlike whole-house units that send penetrating moisture into every nook and cranny.

Cost: New whole-house humidifiers cost $300 to $500 installed and are cheap to operate.


No. 3: Tighten doors against weather

Old homes in particular can suck cold air in through gaps between outside doors and frames. Escaping heat makes the furnace run harder, shortening its life.

Shut doors tight by installing a door sweep, a piece of aluminum trim that attaches to the bottom of the door with a vinyl flap or nylon brush that meets the floor. Before going to the hardware store, measure your door's width — typical doors are 30 inches or 36 inches across. To install, leave the door in place. Just fit the sweep to the door's base and screw it on.

Also, pick up a roll of foam weatherstripping tape. Cut lengths to match your door frame and press it — it's self-adhering — against the frame for a tight seal. Peel it off in summer.

Cost: $10 to $25 for a door sweep; $2 to $5 for a 17-foot roll of weatherstripping.


No. 4: Clean refrigerator coils

If it's a little scary to peek under your refrigerator, no wonder. Home inspector Tore Knos, owner of Champia home inspection service in the Atlanta area, says the spot's a collection point for dust and  grime. Gunk on refrigerator coils can prevent the appliance from operating at peak efficiency and put it at risk for early failure.

Gather your courage and set aside 10 minutes for this little task. At the base of the fridge you'll find a little door or cover that pops off easily. Put your cheek on the floor and peer in. You'll probably see dust bunnies, dog hair, cat hair, Cheerios and various other domestic debris. “It's amazing how often you find spaghetti, noodles, bits of meat and all kinds of joyful things,” says Knos.

Clean out the area using an attachment on your vacuum or a rattailed brush made just for this purpose.

Cost: $6 to $10 for a 27-inch-long refrigerator coil brush.


No. 5: De-grease the kitchen exhaust-fan filter

To remove the washable filter from your stove's exhaust fan, start by disconnecting the power to the stove and fan at the fuse box. Some fans are built into the range, between burners. Others reside in a hood above the stove. If the fan can be pulled out, unplug it, remove it and extract the filter. Otherwise, pull just the filter out. While the filter goes through the dishwasher cycle or soaks in sudsy warm water, clean the fan itself by vacuuming the opening and wiping it down with a cloth sprayed with cleaner.

Neglect allows grease and dust to accumulate, impairing the fan's ability to scrub the air of fumes, smoke and grease. A dirty fan also is an inviting home for cockroaches. “Most people will tell you they have no roaches in the house,” says Knos. “Little do they know.”

Cost: A little elbow grease.


No. 6: Tackle the gutters

Water is one of your home's two worst enemies, says Knos. (Termites are the other.) One way to protect your home from water damage is to keep your roof gutters unobstructed. Knos says gutter cleaning is so often neglected that “it's not uncommon” to find foot-tall trees growing in them. More commonly, gutters are clogged with leaves, preventing runoff from flowing freely away from the house. Instead, water saturates wood siding, flows into the basement and instigates rot, mildew and mold, destroying wood and posing a health hazard to humans. The newer the house, the more vigilant to be: Newer houses rot more quickly than those built 30 years ago or more, which were made with harder woods that are considerably more resistant to rotting when wet.

Cost: An afternoon's work.

(SprinkmanRE side note: Admittedly, the Madison winter has put the brakes on this particular fix. If you didn't get around to gutter cleaning in the fall, get to it as soon as the spring thaw hits.)


No. 7: Steam clean the carpets

One easy, effective way to give back to your home is to clean carpets and area rugs every 12 to 18 months. Do it more frequently in areas that get a lot of traffic or where pets track in mud. Vacuuming twice weekly and occasional cleaning add years to carpet life and lighten the load on the furnace and furnace filters, says Peterson.

Treading on grit built up in the carpet breaks down fibers and weakens the carpet base. Dirt trapped under area rugs scratches and mars wood floors. Rent or buy a steam cleaner to thoroughly pull it from carpets, or hire a carpet-cleaning service to do the work for you.

Cost: From roughly $25 for a 24-hour rental at groceries or equipment rental companies. (Budget an additional $20 to $40 for shampoo, spotting solution and other products to remove stains and odors.) If you want to purchase a steamer, it'll cost you $300 to $1,000 for home units, and up to $2,000 or more for high-end or commercial models. Prices for carpet-cleaning service vary around the country. Coit in Seattle, for example, estimates the cost of a basic steam cleaning — including pretreatment but without a stain-resistance treatment or deodorizer — in three rooms plus a hall and stairway at $210 to $250.


No. 8: Change the furnace filter

Help your furnace keep you cozy all winter long by changing the filter in spring and fall. Even better, watch the filter regularly and change it whenever enough soot builds up to make it appear dirty.

On a gas- or oil-burning furnace you'll find the filter near the floor, accessible through a small door. The filter may be held in place by a tension rod that's easily released. Check the furnace manual for instructions. Take the old filter to the hardware store to eliminate guesswork when you buy the replacement. This is not the place to be frugal, says Peterson: Go for a midrange product, at least, since cheap filters let dirt particles through, shortening the life of the furnace.

Cost: $7-$20 for replacement filters.


No. 9: Service furnaces and boilers

Extend the life of oil-burning furnaces and hot-water boilers (which also heat homes) by having them professionally inspected and cleaned each year. Ask your fuel supplier or furnace-repair specialist to do the job or to recommend someone. Without regular cleaning, carbon soot accumulates, clogging orifices and degrading the efficiency, says Charles “Chuck” Mangio, owner of Jigsaw Home Inspections in Middleboro, Mass. A new boiler runs up to 86% efficiency, but that drops to 81% or 82% or less with soot buildup. “We want every gallon of oil that we spend all this money for to burn completely,” says Mangio.

Get oil-burning tankless water heaters cleaned on a regular basis, too, to keep carbon from collecting on the coils and requiring more fuel to do the job. Natural-gas and propane appliances need not be cleaned annually, but they should be serviced — calibrated and adjusted — every three years for peak efficiency, Mangio says.

Cost: $150 to $175.


No. 10: Free up air registers

While you're being nice to the furnace, check around the inside of the house to ensure all heat registers and cold-air returns are free from obstructions.

You'll find hot-air registers inside the house along the perimeter of rooms. They have dampers that open and close. Cold-air returns, on the other hand, are near the center of the house and have no dampers.

Mangio says furniture and rugs often block a home's air circulation, in effect choking the furnace. Obstacles reduce heat efficiency and can cause devastating damage to the heating system, burning out the fan motor and causing strain on the duct work.

Cost: Light sweat equity.


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