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Protect Your House This Winter

Now is the perfect time to get your home ready for winter. Whether you live in icy Minnesota or sunny Florida, we have six cost-effective to-do's to put at the top of your priority list.

With winter approaching, fall is the perfect time to get your home ready for the months ahead. Whether you anticipate drifting snow, continuous rain or just cooler sunny days, you'll need to take steps to protect your house and your family. Put these half a dozen little jobs at the top of your to-do list this weekend -- they're the most cost-effective means of warding off catastrophe over the winter, no matter where you live.

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1. Have the furnace cleaned. This should be your top job, and you should do it every year. Faulty heating equipment is the leading cause of home fires from December through February, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). And a cracked heat exchanger or clogged flue can threaten your family with toxic carbon-monoxide gas. Expect to pay $75 to $125.

2. Call in a chimney sweep to check your fireplace or wood stove. If you use it infrequently, you probably won't need to have it cleaned each year, but it's still worth an inspection to make sure the flue is intact, unclogged and free of flammable creosote before you set a match to kindling at Thanksgiving for warmth or sheer ambiance. Expect to pay about $75 to $175.

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3. Check your smoke alarms. They need fresh batteries every fall and spring, of course, but also the detectors themselves have a life span of about ten years. Hard-wired alarms need to be replaced after a decade, too, and don't forget the backup battery. Alarms cost about $10 to $25 each.

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4. Install a carbon-monoxide detector. You need at least one if there's anything around the house that burns fossil fuel, including gas appliances. Houses with an attached garage should have detectors, too. Place an alarm outside every sleeping area in the house. These devices have a shorter life span than smoke alarms and should be replaced every five to seven years, says John Drengenberg, an electrical engineer with Underwriters Laboratories, in Northbrook, Ill.

A basic, battery-operated alarm costs about $30, but you're better off with a $55 model that offers a digital readout of the carbon-monoxide level. That will show you if the detector is reacting to a low level of poison -- which causes headache and flulike symptoms -- or higher levels that could be deadly.

5. Clean the clothes-dryer vent. It can clog with flammable lint. And pull your unit away from the wall to vacuum behind too. Dryers are one of the most common type of appliance to cause home fires, after stoves and heaters, according to the NFPA.

6. Clean the rain gutters. Clogged gutters may not be a life-or-death problem, but they can lead to expensive property damage. Clogs can force water from winter rains or melting ice to back up under the eaves of your roof, damaging your attic and walls. You'll want to check your gutters throughout the fall to keep them clear of falling leaves and other debris.

Editor's note: This story has been updated since it originally was published in October 2006.

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