4 winter-prep essentials you shouldn't skip (© Comstock Images/Getty Images)

As you're digging out those sweaters and coats to prepare for winter, don't forget that you also should get your home ready for colder weather.

Taking the time to complete a few simple tasks can save you money and make your home a more comfortable place this winter.

We've asked home-maintenance professionals which winter-preparation tasks are the most essential and why. Here are the four must-do things to complete before winter hits, as well as additional tasks you should do.

1. Gutters and roof
Must do:
Clear debris from your gutters or have a professional do it. Make sure your downspouts are directing water at least 3 feet away from your home's foundation, says David Lupberger, home-improvement expert for ServiceMagic and past president of the Master Builder Group Inc., a design/build remodeling company. (ServiceMagic is an MSN Real Estate partner.)

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Also make sure that your gutters and downspouts are securely fastened to your house and that there is no blockage in the downspout. If you're cleaning your gutters yourself, you can check for downspout blockages using your water hose. Insert the hose at the top of the downspout and turn on the water; have someone see if the water is running out the bottom. If there is a blockage, you can try to loosen it by packing rags around the hose at the top of the spout to seal it off, then running the hose at full blast. If that doesn't work, try a plumbing snake.

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Why are gutters and downspouts important? Winter weather typically means more rain or snow, which can seriously damage your home's foundation. Gutters and downspouts are there to take the water that runs off your roof and get it away from your home. Keeping them working properly will keep your foundation dry and stable and save you a lot of money and hassle.

Should do: Check your roof for peeling tiles and any potential roofing issues. If you really want to be diligent, inspect your attic for mold, water stains and other signs of moisture.

"The last thing you want to do is get into winter with a potential leak," Lupberger says.

2. Furnace
Must do:
If you do nothing else, replace the filter, Lupberger says.

Should do: Have a professional perform an annual furnace check. Lupberger says a good furnace pro will vacuum the unit, lubricate the parts, replace your filter and check the thermostat.

Read:  October home-maintenance checklist

"Many homeowners change their filters regularly, and that helps," says Donald Prather of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, which deals with heating and cooling. But he says most homeowners don't have the tools or expertise to perform the required maintenance.

"Furnaces are like cars," he says. "They are mechanical, and they need regular maintenance to operate efficiently and safely."

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He recommends inspections of the furnace and air-conditioning unit twice a year: at the start of the heating season and at the start of the cooling season.

Lupberger urges homeowners to get that furnace checked soon.

"Don't wait for a potential furnace problem," he says. "If it gets to be 10 degrees and your furnace doesn't work, you and 300 other people are calling."

Lupberger also recommends that homeowners who have an older thermostat upgrade to a setback thermostat so they can program when the furnace runs and save money on heating.