Neglect the chores entirely, though, and you could find yourself with a hefty repair bill or a furnace that peters out on a frigid January night — and probably in the middle of a three-day weekend, because isn’t that when things usually go awry? Forget to clean the gutters, and ice could build up, damaging your roof. Drafty windows and doors could send your heating bill soaring.
For first-time homeowners like Anthony and Melissa Campagna, who moved from an apartment in Long Island City, Queens, to a four-bedroom house in West Orange, N.J., in March, preparing for the first winter is a daunting task. What is a boiler, anyway? And what do you do with it other than crank up the thermostat?
Buying a house “was very exciting, but somewhat overwhelming,” said Mr. Campagna, 31, who works in finance. “Having lived in a condo association, I didn’t have to take care of stuff much.”
There are tools that can help. Mr. Campagna organizes projects on Google Drive spreadsheets that he shares with his wife. Smartphone apps like HomeZada and BrightNest can also help you keep tabs on a to-do list that never ends.
Still, you need to know what to do — from the roof down to the basement, and out to the backyard. Here is how to get started.
CHECK THE EXTERIOR
Start by giving the outside of your house a checkup. Walk around the perimeter and look for cracks in the siding or peeling paint. Are the windowsills in good condition? Check the roof for missing or broken tiles. Fix problems while the days are still relatively warm. After a rainstorm, walk around the house and look for any signs that water might not be draining properly, like pooling water or damaged gutters or downspouts.
“The objective is to get as much of the water away from your house as possible,” said Scott Johnson, the director of operations for WIN Home Inspection, a network of more than 190 home inspection firms in 33 states.
Of all the fall chores, cleaning the gutters and downspouts is among the most critical. Your gutters direct water away from your roof and siding, and down into the drainage system. Clogged gutters can cause your roof to leak and lead to ice dams in cold weather. So clean them or hire someone to do the job after the leaves fall. “When the gutters aren’t kept clean, the moisture just sits on the rooftop,” said Dina Dwyer-Owens, a co-chair of the board of directors of the Dwyer Group, a parent company of home-repair franchises including Mr. Handyman and Mr. Rooter.
Just don’t do the work too soon. Clean the gutters before the last of the leaves fall, and you could find yourself back up on that ladder a few weeks later. “I think I did it a little too early,” said Mr. Campagna of West Orange, N.J., who rushed to clean his gutters before Mrs. Campagna, 30, gave birth to their first child in October. “That was a rookie mistake.” And a wasted Saturday afternoon.
If you plan to do the work yourself, be careful on that ladder. Ladder mishaps sent nearly 176,000 people to the hospital in 2013, according to the National Safety Council. If your ladder has seen better days, consider an upgrade. (These fiberglass models are recommended by Wirecutter, the New York Times’s product review site.)
If you hire a professional, expect to spend around $150 for the job, according to HomeAdvisor.
THE WINDOWS AND DOORS
If you have window air-conditioning units, take them out and store them until next summer. But handle those unwieldy appliances with care to avoid injury.
Or you could leave them in place. Ms. Levy of Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, covers the outside of her window units with an insulated sheath and wedges towels between the sill and the unit to keep drafts out.
Next, swap out screens for storm doors and windows. “It’s something that we automatically do when it starts getting cold out,” Ms. Levy said. While you’re changing out the screens for glass, check your windows and doors for drafts. Add weather stripping or caulk wherever cold air seeps in.
Three out of five home-fire deaths happen in properties without working smoke alarms, according to the United States Fire Administration. So make sure yours work. Change the batteries in all your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors once a year; the day you set the clocks back is a good one to do it.
Check the manufacturing date, too, and replace any detectors that are more than 10 years old. Any reliable model will do, but if you’re interested in one that will alert you to problems when you’re away, a smart smoke alarm like the Nest Protect is sensitive to slow- and fast-burning fires, and has apps that will alert you anywhere in the world if something’s amiss.
Laundry dryers cause 2,900 home fires a year nationally and failing to clean them is the leading culprit, according to the United States Fire Administration. So call a professional once a year to service your dryer vent and help remove lint, debris and other hazards that could spark a fire.
Heat, smoke and dangerous gases from your fireplace and heating system travel up your chimney and out of your house, keeping the air inside breathable. A dirty chimney could affect air quality and also pose a fire hazard.
So keep your chimney clean. The Chimney Safety Institute of America recommends having it inspected annually and cleaned as needed. “In general, with chimneys and fireplaces, the more you use it, the more likely you need it to be swept,” said Mr. Johnson, of WIN Home Inspection. Expect to spend between $125 and $200 on a chimney sweep, according to Angie’s List.
THE HEATING SYSTEM
If you were going on a long road trip, you would get your car tuned up before you started your journey, not afterward. The same goes for your heating system. Call a plumber or a furnace repair company to prepare your boiler or furnace for winter before the cold weather arrives.
Your contractor should clean the equipment, make sure it is working properly and let you know if it needs any repairs. “The heating system ain’t going to break down when it’s 80 degrees out,” said Kerry O’Brien, the president of T.F. O’Brien Cooling and Heating in New Hyde Park, N.Y. “You don’t want to be stuck when it’s five degrees in the middle of the night” with a heating system that won’t turn on.
No one wants a frozen pipe, so keep an eye on yours. Drain the outside water faucets and shut them off before the first freeze. On very cold nights, open cabinets beneath the sink to let warm air in and, if you are especially worried about freezing pipes, let a slow drip of water run through them. Resist the urge to turn down the thermostat to save money – you want to keep the pipes warm. Extreme weather “is not a time to start trying to save on your energy bill,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Crank your heat up during those weeks.”
PUT THE GARDEN TO BED
By November, you may not be thinking much about your hydrangeas, but they still need you. Prune your shrubs and hedges now. Cut foliage away from the house so that ice or snow on the branches won’t damage your siding or let water into your home.
But use restraint, so as not to cut off next spring’s bloom. “Try to contain yourself. Cut back half of what you want to cut back,” said Jan Johnsen, a landscape designer in Mount Kisco, N.Y.
If you have trees on your property, the battle of the leaves may feel endless, but ignore the pile on your lawn and it could mold and suffocate your grass. But before you succumb to the mighty leaf blower and start blasting away, consider a more measured approach. Rake up most of the leaves and use them as mulch for your flower beds. Mow the rest in place with your lawn mower. By mowing over the leaves, you help break them down so they can decompose and feed the grass. All that foliage “is not garbage, it’s black gold,” Ms. Johnsen said. “There’s a reason the leaves fall to the earth.”
Empty ceramic pots of soil and store them in your garage or basement for the winter so they do not crack in freezing temperatures. Drain the hoses and store them, too. Shut down the sprinkler system and call the pool maintenance company to close up your pool, if you have one. But wait for a crisp sunny to day to cover patio furniture — you don’t want to trap any moisture under the tarp.
STOCK UP ON FIREWOOD
If you plan to build a fire this winter, order seasoned firewood in the fall. Stack it loosely on pallets to keep moisture at bay. Cover the pile with a plastic tarp. You can store wood in an unheated garage, but do not store more than a week’s supply in the house, as the wood could attract insects, according to Michigan State University Extension.
BRACE FOR WINTER WEATHER
If you have a snowblower, check it. You may need to have it serviced, and many local repair companies will pick up and drop off a blower as part of the service. “Start it up, run it for a couple of minutes and make sure it’s O.K.,” said Rich Janow, 74, who has lived in a six-bedroom house in South Orange, N.J., for 32 years with his wife, Nancy Chiller Janow, 64. “Do it now so that if you have a problem and you need the repair people to fix it, you have enough time before the really bad weather sets in.”
If you don’t have a snowblower, now is the best time to buy one, when it’s early in the season. (Wirecutter has some suggestions.)
If you have a portable generator, check that, too. If you don’t have one, now is a good time to consider investing in one. Update your emergency supply kit with flashlights, fresh batteries, a first-aid kit, food, water and a portable radio.
Stock up on Snow Melt and make sure your shovels are in good condition before the weatherman tells you snow is imminent. Make sure the supplies are accessible (and you remember where you put them) before the snow starts falling. Otherwise, you may find yourself digging your way to that shovel.
If the winter is a snowy one, use a roof rake to remove excess snow from your roof, and stay on the lookout for ice dams, accumulations of ice and snow along your eaves that could damage your gutters, roof and siding.
STAY ON TRACK
Learn how your house works and you may find that maintenance is something you actually – gasp — enjoy. “For me, it’s been such a great love affair,” said Judy E. Mendoza, 69, a saleswoman for Halstead who has lived in a three-bedroom house in East Hampton for 27 years and starts preparing for winter in July. “I’ve enjoyed taking care of the house, and the house has taken care of me.”
Soon enough, it’ll be time for spring cleanup.