A new homeowner's guide to maintenance (© Kim Steele/Digital Vision/Photolibrary)

Congratulations! You've made the leap from renter to homeowner. Now the fun begins: The place is yours to decorate as you wish and you've left behind late-night squabbles over the upstairs tenant's loud music.

But along with the fun, the new title comes with some important upkeep responsibilities. When you move into your new place, run down the list of tasks below as soon as you're able, then rotate through them on the suggested schedule. (You can buy home-maintenance software for keeping track, but a spreadsheet or a plain notebook will work fine, too.) Your most important jobs are those that keep moisture out of the house, prevent fires and keep your high-priced furnace running safely and efficiently.

Do you doubt these nagging little chores really matter? Have a chat with home inspector Kirk Juneau, of Bellingham, Wash. He'll tell you about the call he got in December from a homeowner who wondered if the cracks in a bedroom's drywall were anything serious. After discovering the wood foundation was wet, dark and full of mold just beneath the bedroom window, Juneau opened up the wall. Inside were 16 square feet of rot and mold. "Because it wasn't a large leak, water was allowed to get in there and sit and nobody noticed it," says Juneau. "It went on for years."

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A tube of caulk to maintain the seal around the window would have cost a couple of dollars. Replacing the rotted framing and the wall, siding, window and paint, on the other hand, ran about $10,000.

Now a believer? Here's a list of your most-important maintenance jobs and when to do them:

Yearly
1. Caulk windows and trim.
In the fall, before it rains (caulk won't stick to moist surfaces), look for cracks in the trim around the windows and siding of your house. Also inspect the corners where trim comes together. Fill cracks with caulk. Polyurethane caulk is best, say home maintenance experts James and Morris Carey, at their Web site, Onthehouse.com. Polyurethane is more expensive but it is easier to use; you can paint over it; and it lasts three or four times longer than latex caulk. Before caulking cracks that are wider than an eighth of an inch or deeper than a half-inch, stuff in flexible foam backer rod (available at hardware stores). Push the foam in with a putty knife, then caulk.

2. Inspect your crawl space for water. Do this every fall, about 30 days after the fall rain begins so that if water collects, you'll see it, Juneau says. Find the crawl-space opening by walking around the outside of your house. Look for a trapdoor or a boarded opening in the foundation. Wearing old clothes and carrying a flashlight, wriggle in there — or hire someone to do it if you're claustrophobic — and shine the light around to spot any accumulated water. If you find water, call a home inspector to figure out where it's coming from and why.

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3. Check wooden decks for moisture. Wooden decks should be continually protected from water with a deck treatment or wood stain. (Synthetic decking products needs no treatment and should not be stained.) "Not even redwood, cedar or pressure-treated wood will stand up forever," says the "Better Homes and Gardens Complete Guide to Home Repair, Maintenance & Improvement." In dry, warm weather, borrow a moisture meter from a paint store to test if water has penetrated your decking, signaling that treatment is needed. Paint-store personnel can show you how to use the simple meter. Depending on your weather and your deck's exposure, it may need to be refinished every two years or even yearly. Paint professionals can help you choose among the treatment options.

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4. Inspect and touch up exterior paint. "We all think of painting as a means to spruce up the appearance of one's home, but it's really a mechanism to prevent damage to exterior siding, overhangs, soffits, eaves and gutters," says James Carey who, with his brother, Morris, wrote "Home Maintenance for Dummies."

Paint prevents gutters from rusting and wood from deteriorating. In dry summer weather, inspect your home's exterior from top to bottom, including the trim. Look for paint that has blistered, bubbled, peeled or cracked. Scrape, sand and fill holes with high-quality exterior-grade patching compound. Brush primer on bare spots, then follow with paint. Feather new paint into old using a fairly dry brush and lightly flicking the edges of the new paint into the old. (Painted patches may look less obvious if you first wash the siding; use a garden hose and a long-handled truck brush with long nylon bristles.)

Carey also suggests aging your patch paint. Here's how: Bring a sample of the existing finish in the form of a few chips or piece of trim to a paint store and get paint tinted slightly to match its current shade (paints can lighten over time). An exterior paint job should last about seven years, Carey says. The lifespan "has everything to do with your climate and the quality of paint." Use premium-quality paints ($25-$30 a gallon) by major brands. Good paint has more titanium dioxide, which extends the life (and increases the price). Carey offers this test for paint quality: Ask paint-center personnel to shake, then open a can of the product you're considering. "Stick your thumb and index finger into the paint and gently rub them together. If it feels like pearls, that's titanium dioxide. If it feels gritty (from clay, a cheap filler), the quality is not as good." If the salesperson won't let you test the product, "move on," Carey says.

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5. Service and clean the furnace. Forced-air furnaces quietly cycle on and off and are easy to take for granted unless something goes wrong, the Carey brothers say. But these are complex pieces of equipment and they consume expensive fuel, so peak efficiency is crucial. And a breakdown can let deadly carbon monoxide escape. Call the company that installed your furnace to service it or to recommend a servicer. Or find a licensed heating, ventilation and air-conditioning specialist in the phone book or by searching online. Servicing involves cleaning the furnace parts and heat exchanger, lubricating bearings and testing for leaking gases.

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6. Get the chimney swept and inspected. Do this once a year or after you've burned a cord of wood, whichever happens first. Why? Because creosote — a flammable, resinous wood byproduct — builds up inside the chimney flue when you burn wood. (Wood stoves and fireplaces need sweeping; gas-burning appliances do not. They do need a yearly inspection from a licensed gas technician to remove accumulated dust or debris and check for proper operation, leaks and worn or defective parts. Ask your gas company to send a technician to your home or use the search option at the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association's site.)

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A clogged chimney can cause an explosive fire or carbon monoxide poisoning. "A chimney fire is like a couple of sticks of dynamite. It's huge," Carey says. This is not a do-it-yourself job. Hire a trained chimney sweep who uses brushes, vacuums, cameras and other tools to remove soot and creosote and inspect for damage. While he's up there, ask him also to inspect the flashings that seal the joints between the chimney and roof for rust or holes and to inspect the seal on the chimney's surface. Chimneys made of brick, stone or other masonry must, in cold areas, be sealed every three years or so. Sealing keeps moisture from soaking the mortar. Moist mortar freezes, thaws and crumbles, weakening the chimney and creating a fire hazard. Find a certified chimney sweep at the Chimney Safety Institute of America's technician locator page or through the National Chimney Sweep Guild. The guild suggests checking references and asking out how long a company has been in business and if it carries current liability insurance (to protect your home from damage). Check for complaints against a company with both the Better Business Bureau and your attorney general (see state-by-state listings here).