Maintaining your house can save you money in the long run

Associated Press

NEW YORK — As the housing market keeps sputtering and it becomes clear you may need to stay in the same home for a long time to recover your equity, it is increasingly important to maintain it properly — at minimum cost.

Many homeowners have put off home improvements during the recession, but that’s not always wise. Here are some free or inexpensive projects that could save you hundreds of dollars or more in the long run.

Annual checks

Every home’s appliances, electrical panel and ventilation systems should be checked each year to make sure they’re functioning properly. Also replace or clean each system’s filter and vents at least as often as the manufacturer recommends.

“It’s always less expensive to maintain than it is to repair,” said Bob Mehl, a maintenance and repair expert and handyman on Sears’ ServiceLive marketplace. “Practicing good home maintenance management will save people money in the long run. That might cost me business, but I still try to educate people.”

A check by an expert can also reveal if your furnace or air conditioner is leaking gas, gathering condensation or getting clogged, all of which can interfere with its effectiveness, Mehl said.

Bonus: By washing appliance filters and vacuuming the spaces where they sit, you will lower your energy costs and help your appliances last longer.

Follow the water

Similarly, it’s important to inspect your plumbing regularly for leaks. Look under cabinets to make sure connections aren’t dripping, and turn all valves off and on to ensure the system is operating properly. Repair or replace dripping faucets right away because addressing leaks and other plumbing problems when they start is much cheaper than repairing the damage leaks can cause over time.

Bonus: Major savings on your water bill. A single faucet dripping six times a minute can waste 29 gallons of water per month, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Turn down the heat

One of the simplest ways homeowners can save money is to improve a home’s efficiency by installing a programmable thermostat, said Ron Jarvis, vice president of environmental innovation at Home Depot Inc. A programmable thermostat can also prolong the life of your heating and ventilation system by letting it work only when needed. They cost around $50 but can save you $180 a year by more closely regulating home temperature.

Bonus: You can set the system to warm up the house in winter (or cool it down in summer) just in time for your return in the evening.

Clean the gutters

Regularly scooping accumulated leaves and other material from gutters is the best way to avoid water and weather damage to your home’s roof and walls. It also makes the gutters last longer. And by doing it yourself, you can save the $200 or so you would spend hiring a service. Just make sure you have a tall enough ladder and tools to clean the gutters safely, such as gloves, a garden trowel or plumber’s snake and a hose.

Bonus: No unpredictable downpours from the spots where overflowing gutters are leaking.

Bright idea

Install dimmers in the rooms you use most, suggests Lowe’s spokeswoman Abby Buford. Beyond the dining room, each dimmer in a bedroom, kitchen or living room can save about $30 per year compared with a standard switch because dimming lights 25 percent cuts electricity costs about 20 percent.

Bonus: The option of setting a calming (or romantic) mood in almost any room.

Get insulated

Add insulation to your attic and walls, and recaulk doors and windows this spring when you want to have them open for a while anyway. In addition to saving most homeowners big money on energy, insulation also can reduce wear on heating and cooling systems because it keeps the home at a more constant temperature.

Bonus: Constant temperatures throughout the house — no drafts.

Buy energy savers

Whenever you need to replace an appliance, make sure to choose from the most energy-efficient options. For instance, in a large household, a high-efficiency clothes washer can pay for itself in a year or two.

And replacing a single toilet installed in the 1980s or earlier with high-efficiency low-flow model ($300 and up, including labor) can cut your water bill by hundreds of dollars over several years. (In new construction, they’ve been mandatory nationwide since 1995.)

Bonus: Federally funded rebates on many energy-efficient household appliances are part of the economic stimulus program. For details, check http://tinyurl.com/yec8mgg.

“It’s a good year look into appliances and furnaces,” because of the rebates, Mehl said. “If your furnace is more than 15 years old, it is a good time to inspect it and take advantage of a new higher-efficiency one.”

Help online

For tips on performing an energy audit of your home to figure out which improvements would pay off first, check the federal Department of Energy Web site at http://tinyurl.com/mg98pb.