10 great winter home projects
Feeling cooped up inside your house? Now’s the perfect time to tackle indoor projects that make your home more livable, from changing furnace filters to regrouting bathroom tile to dye-testing your toilet.
When it's cold and wet outside, it can be tempting to curl up in front of the fireplace with a good book and a cup of cocoa. But winter is a great time to complete some indoor home projects. Some of these tasks require only a few hours — even minutes — of your time; others will need a much larger investment of time and, in some cases, money.
For most of these projects, we'll give you a rough idea of what special skills, if any, you'll need to complete them, as well as an estimate of the cost and time involved. This is not a how-to, however. You'll want to do your research before you drag out the power tools and try to make "improvements."
Easy and cheap
Let's start with a few quick, simple projects that anyone can do. Yes, even you.
1. Change your furnace filter.
Ideally, you should have completed this task, along with a few other winter prep essentials, before the chilly weather arrived. Filters last about three months when you're using your furnace regularly, so you may need to do this more than once if it's an especially long and brutal winter.
- Skills: Any homeowner can do this. You'll just need to note the size and type of filter you're replacing before you go out and buy a new one, and make sure the new one is facing in the same direction as the old.
- Cost: You can find furnace filters for as little as $10. High-quality filters will catch dust mites and other allergens and are often worth the extra cost if you're prone to allergies, 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.)
- Time: This task should take just a few minutes once you have purchased a replacement filter.
2. Wash your windows.
Even if you're stuck indoors, that doesn't mean you can't improve your view of the winter wonderland outside. Winter's a great time to wash the inside of your home's windows. You can tackle the other side of the glass when it's bearable to step outdoors.
- Skills: All you need is some basic hand/eye coordination, and possibly a decent sense of balance if you'll be cleaning tall windows using a step stool.
- Cost: Most homeowners have window-cleaning supplies on hand. Use crumpled newspapers to polish your windows until they shine.
- Time: Lupberger estimates you'll spend 15 to 30 minutes for an average window. Break it up into several shorter sessions if you're short on time and/or have lots of windows.
3. Insulate your water pipes.
Adding insulation will save you money by reducing heat loss in the pipes that carry hot water. You also won't wait as long for hot water when you turn on your faucet.
- Skills: Any homeowner can do this.
- Cost: You can insulate pipes by wrapping them in several layers of newspaper and duct tape, or you can buy pipe insulation made of foam or other materials. The cost is minimal, typically around 30 cents per foot.
- Time: A few minutes to an hour or so, depending on how many pipes you have and the type of insulation you use.
4. Dye-test your toilet.
Monica Ryan, president of Village Plumbing in Houston, says most people whose toilets are wasting water don’t even know it.
"A toilet that is constantly running wastes a lot of water and could cost little to repair," she says.
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Put five drops of food coloring in your toilet’s tank, wait 10 minutes and see if the color comes into the bowl. If it does, you know you have a leak. The most common cause for a leak is a defective flapper, the rubber mechanism that allows water to exit the tank when you flush. That 10 minutes of your time could end up saving you a lot of money on your water bill.
- Skills: No special skills required.
- Cost: All you need is some food coloring, which many homeowners will likely have on hand.
- Time: Just 10 minutes.
These tasks will require a bit more of your time, and you may need to do a little research before you get started to be sure you understand all of the steps involved. Don't be afraid to hire a professional to consult on a do-it-yourself job or even to get you started.
If your project involves plumbing or electrical work, it's probably a good idea to get a permit.
"A permit means someone is inspecting your work and making sure it is being done to county codes," Lupberger says. "When they know a homeowner is doing it, the inspector will take more time and explain how to do things."
5. Regrout your bathroom tile.
This project is a little more labor intensive, but definitely doable, Lupberger says. You may want to regrout the tile because it's old and dirty, or because you've decided to go with a different color of grout. Either way, you'll first want to clean out the old grout.
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"My first stop would be a tile store," Lupberger says. 'Tell them what you're trying to do and they'll get you the right tools."
You'll be using some version of a grout scraper, which is designed to remove the loose and aging grout from between tiles. You'll also be using a lot of elbow grease.
"It's hard work," Lupberger says. "You're trying to manually remove all that old grout, because you do have to clean all of those gaps before you regrout. You're scraping up and down every grout line."
Be careful not to scratch the tile as you're cleaning out the grout. Once you've scraped out the old grout, remove it by vacuuming and wiping down the tiles. Then you'll usually use some kind of primer to prepare the surface before you go in with new grout.
Putting in the new grout will be much faster than removing the old. Once your grout is mixed, you'll trowel it onto the entire surface, working it into the joints between tiles. Let it sit for 20 or 30 minutes — read the instructions on the grout you purchased — then wipe down the tile surface, leaving the grout that is embedded in the joints. Once it sits for 24 hours or so, you can apply sealant.
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