December home-maintenance checklist (© Kelly Redinger/Design Pics/Corbis)

© Kelly Redinger/Design Pics/Corbis

Congratulations on completing a year of home maintenance. For many of us, December is a month for celebrations, family gatherings and vacations. But if you find yourself prowling the house, feeling the need to do something useful, we have a holiday wish list for your home.

When the first major snowfall of the year hits — and it's likely to be this month if you live in North America — take advantage of the event to learn things about your house that only snow can show. Is the snow melting from your roof rapidly? That means heat is escaping from your home through the roof and you should consider adding some attic insulation. Rapid formation of icicles without a thaw is another indication that you're losing heat through the roof. (Bing: Winterize external plumbing)

If you find that you are losing a lot of heat through your roof, take a look at the insulation on your attic floor. It should be uniformly thick and distributed evenly with no gaps. The vapor barrier side should be facing downward — toward the living space you are trying to keep warm. Also, the insulation should be dry. (Bing: Is your home properly insulated?)

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There are many chores that need doing after a big snow; consider the tasks as your excuse to get outside and enjoy winter.

  • Clear walkways with a snow shovel and sprinkle sand or salt on them for traction. (Be careful with the salt, though — it can leach into flower beds and is hard on pets' feet.)
  • Check your roof for ice dams and break them up to release water if necessary. Frozen dams along the eaves cause melted snow to puddle above and possibly leak through the roof.
  • Knock snow from tree branches to keep them from breaking under the weight.
  • Consider sweeping snow from roofs that have shallow angles or little support (sheds, carports, lean-tos) if it can be done safely.

As a temporary measure to get through a cold winter with pipes intact, block north-facing crawl-space vents with a piece of plywood.

If an unusual cold snap is predicted and you live in an older, not-so-well-insulated house, leave the sink and bathtub faucets on at a slow trickle to keep pipes from freezing. This is especially important if the heat is turned off in the house for any period; for example, during the day when the house is empty.

If you have oil heat, you can save fuel and repair costs by cleaning some parts of the oil burner yourself. Turn off power to the system, lift the blower cover and then dust the blades of the blower. Lubricate the motor by pouring oil in the oil cups. If you're ambitious, you can even clean the oil strainer and replace the filter. Check the owner's manual to get details on do-it-yourself maintenance for your oil burner.

If you have forced-air heating ducts, check ducts once a year for leaks and seal with (yes) duct tape. Routinely vacuum dust from duct grilles, and have the entire system professionally cleaned annually, or as recommended by your heating system's maintenance manual.

If mice or rats have invaded your home despite efforts to keep them out, don't be softhearted. They can do damage that ranges from leaving a mess of droppings to chewing your home's wires, which can burn your house down. First, discern whether you have rats or mice: Rats make a lot of noise and leave half-inch droppings. Next, buy a dozen appropriately sized traps, bait half of them (peanut butter works well and is cheap) and place them without setting them. After the rodents have taken the first bait, rebait and set all the traps in one fell swoop. Wear gloves to dispose of the rodents, trap and all. (Do not try to reuse traps or you'll have a harder time going through with the chore.) Mice and rats breed like ... well, rabbits, so keep repeating this cycle until you see no new evidence of these unwelcome, hazardous houseguests.

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Take time to evaluate your home's emergency kit. A battery-powered radio, a first-aid kit, blankets, several gallons of fresh water, tools for shutting off gas and water lines, candles and matches, flashlights and batteries should all be included. Check the batteries — they can drain with time, even if not used. If you live in an area with extremely cold winters, make sure you have a backup heat supply, whether it's a wood stove and a well-stocked woodshed, or a backup generator. If you live in hurricane country, keep a supply of plywood for protecting windows. Residents of earthquake-vulnerable areas should have water and food to last several days. If you are a camper, consider keeping your camping supplies near your emergency stash — camp stoves, waterproof matches and tarps are all items that could come in handy should disaster strike.

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Winter is the perfect time of year to itemize what changes you'd like to make in your house … because you're cooped up in it!

Take a day to sit and make a list of what you'd like changed, from new throw rugs to a complete remodel. If a remodeling job is on your list and you want to begin as soon as the weather warms, start talking to contractors this month. If you just bought a home, live in it for a full year before you undertake a major remodel. Become intimate with your house; watch how it interacts with its environment through spring, summer, fall and winter. This will help you decide what you truly need — and keep you from putting a sunroom in a spot that gets sun only two months out of the year.