35 Things Every Homeowner Must Know to Save Money and Prevent Big Screw-Ups

Protect your biggest investment, make smarter decisions, and avoid costly mistakes.

april cover homeowners houseAdam Voorhes for Reader's DigestSave Hundreds Simply  

Technicians report that up to 30 percent of their service calls require only the push of a button or the flip of a switch. Those small actions can cost you a minimum service charge (typically $50 to $100)—plus embarrassment. Try these tactics first.

1. Check a Warm Fridge’s Temperature Dial  Make sure it hasn’t been turned way down. Kids may have messed with it, or someone might have bumped the knob. Also, make sure that food containers don’t block the fridge and freezer compartments’ vents—they supply the flow of frigid air.

2. Press the Reset Button on GFCIs  Sometimes all the bathroom outlets or several exterior lights are powered through a single GFCI (the red button in the middle of some outlets) located in one bathroom or elsewhere, such as in a basement. If there’s an outage, push the reset button on the GFCI, and you could be back in business.

3. Test the Outlet  If any electronic item suddenly won’t turn on, don’t immediately assume it’s broken. Plug in a clock or lamp to make sure the outlet works.

4. Inspect the Breaker  When a light goes out or a switch doesn’t work, check the main electrical panel for a tripped circuit breaker. Look for a switch that’s not in line with the others. Flip it to the off position if it’s not fully to the side and then back on.

Cut Your Utility Bills

5. Get a Low-Flow Showerhead
Showerheads are the second-heaviest water users—and also major energy eaters, since 70 percent of the water used is heated. By reducing hot-water consumption, a low-flow unit can pay for itself in just one month. And you don’t have to settle for subpar water pressure. Many of today’s water-efficient showerheads use new technology to provide a high-flow feel.

sink gapsEllaphant in the Room for Reader's Digest6. Fill Gaps Under Sinks Pull back the escutcheons (metal plates) where pipes enter exterior walls, and you may see gaps around the pipes. Use expanding foam to seal those gaps. Shake the can vigorously, then squirt the foam around the pipes inside the wall. Don’t completely fill the gaps—the foam will expand.

7. Stop Leaks Under Doors
If you can feel a breeze or see daylight under your exterior doors, that’s bad news. The good news is that most thresholds adjust up or down with just a few twists of a screw. Turn all the screws until the door opens and closes without much drag and any draft is eliminated.

electrical boxesEllaphant in the Room for Reader's Digest8. Seal Electrical Boxes
These can be major sources of heat loss; foam gaskets can help. They’re quick to install: Simply take off the box’s cover plate, stick the gasket over the box, and then screw the plate back on.

9. Install a Ceiling Fan
Moving air increases evaporation from your skin and helps keep you comfortable at higher thermostat settings. Each degree above 78 degrees can save you 5 to 10 percent on air-conditioning.

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Save Hassle—Use These Tricks

cleaning guttersEllaphant in the Room for Reader's Digest10. Easily inspect your gutters
You don’t need a ladder to find out if they need cleaning. Attach a hand mirror to the end of a long PVC pipe (available at home-improvement and hardware stores) that you’ve cut at a 60-degree angle so the mirror will reflect the inside of the gutter.

11. Dab a light-switch cover with glow paint
No more groping blindly at night. You can find glow-in-the-dark paint at hardware stores and home centers.

remote under tableEllaphant in the Room for Reader's Digest12. Stash TV remotes under an end table
Adhesive-backed hook-and-loop strips (like Velcro) let you stick remote controls under a coffee or end table. They’ll be handy when you need them but won’t clutter tabletops.

13. Use a washcloth for wall paint touch-ups
No need to mess up a brush. Just dip an old washcloth in the paint, dab the spot, and throw away the cloth when you’re done. A washcloth leaves the same texture as a paint roller, so your repair will blend nicely.

Try Some Crafty, Brilliant Storage Solutions

measuring cupsEllaphant in the Room for Reader's Digest14. Measuring cup hang-up
Screw a couple of mounts inside a cabinet door and add some hooks, and you’ve got a perfect roost for measuring cups. Just make sure your cups won’t bump into the shelves.

15. Junk drawer in a bag
Instead of wasting precious kitchen drawer space, use heavy-duty zip-top bags for miscellaneous junk (then stash them in a closet or the garage instead). The bags let you instantly find just the thing you’re looking for.

storage unitEllaphant in the Room for Reader's Digest16. Joist storage space
Mount a section of wire shelving to the
undersides of beams for a row of neat storage nooks. Unlike solid shelving, wire lets you see what’s up there.

17. Under-sink archives
Don’t file away the manuals and spare parts that came with your kitchen and bath fixtures. Instead, put them right where you’ll need them by sealing in ziplock bags and hanging them on hooks on the back walls of cabinets.

18. S-hook cleaning rack
Pick up a pack of S-hooks at a home center, and turn wire shelving into a rack for cleaning gear.cleaning rackEllaphant in the Room for Reader's Digest

19. Store on a door
One that opens into a closet or a utility room provides a handy surface for hang-up storage. The trouble is that some doors don’t offer a flat, solid surface for fastening hooks or racks. The solution is to screw ¾-inch-thick plywood to the door. (On a hollow-core door, use screws and construction adhesive.) Then mount as many hooks or racks as you’d like.

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Spot Subtle Signs of Serious Trouble 

april cover homeowners houseAdam Voorhes for Reader's Digest20. Mold could mean a leak
If you see this fungus near water pipes, waste lines, ice-maker lines, or plumbing fixtures, chances are it’s feeding off a nearby leak. Let the water run while you check the pipes and surrounding area for damp spots. If you see mold on or near ceilings, suspect roof leaks. Water can travel in any direction—down, sideways, even up, if it wicks into absorbent material like drywall—so the source of the leak may be some distance from the mold.

21. A puddle near the water heater could become a lake
Water heaters sometimes leak from the drain or relief valves, which are easy to replace. But if a leak is coming from the tank, watch out. The tank is lined with a thin coat of glass. Over the years, that glass could crack, causing the steel to rust away and a puddle to appear. Left alone, a damaged tank will eventually rupture, causing an instant flood. It might take months or only days for a leak to become a flood—but it will happen. Don’t gamble; replace that time bomb now.

22. A circuit breaker that keeps tripping could indicate a short-circuited wire
Take load off the circuit by plugging appliances into outlets on other circuits. Items that draw a lot of power are usually the overload culprits (space heaters, window-unit air conditioners, etc.). If you can’t prevent breaker trips this way, you may have a more serious problem. Call an electrician.

23. Soft wood could spell termites
The critters can feed on a house for years undetected because they often eat wood from the inside and leave the outside intact. Check accessible wood in a crawl space or an unfinished basement for damage. Stab it firmly with a screwdriver every six inches to check for a spongy texture.

april cover homeowners houseAdam Voorhes for Reader's DigestKnow When It Pays

24. Should you fix or replace a water heater?
A water heater’s life expectancy is ten to 15 years. A small repair will cost at least 10 percent of the cost of replacement; 20 to 30 percent is more likely. If yours is ten years old, replacement is usually smarter. Even if it’s just eight years old, consider a new one.

25. Should you file a claim with your insurance company?
Don’t file if it’s worth less than $1,000 over your deductible. Paying for a smaller loss yourself will almost always cost less than the premium increases you’ll face later.

26. Will new windows help cut heating costs?
Replacing your old leakers will lower your heating bills. But in most homes, the energy savings alone won’t justify the high up-front costs. Other factors—draft stopping, appearance, easy operation—are usually better reasons to swap windows.

27. Is new insulation a good investment?
It can be—or it can be an expensive mistake. First contact your utility company about an energy audit. It can recommend an auditor and may pay part of the cost. (Audits take two to three hours and cost $250 to $400.) The auditor will visit your home, perform some tests, and give advice on saving energy, including replacing insulation if needed.

Prep For Vacation Wisely

28. To prevent flooding, turn off the main water valveapril cover homeowners houseAdam Voorhes for Reader's Digest
Every insurance adjuster has a hundred stories like this: The homeowners left town Friday and returned Sunday evening to find thousands of dollars in water damage. The moral is simple: Before going on vacation, turn off that main valve. In less than a minute, you can eliminate the most common cause of home damage.

29. For better security, lock the garage door
Some people “lock” the garage door by unplugging the opener. But physically locking the door is even better. An unplugged opener won’t stop, say, a burglar who has entered through the house from opening the garage door from the inside, backing in a van, and using the garage as a loading dock for his plunder. Make a burglar’s job more difficult by locking the garage door itself. If your door doesn’t have a lockable latch, drill a hole in the track just above one of the rollers and slip in a padlock.

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Fix Your Own Plumbing

running toiletEllaphant in the Room for Reader's Digest30. Stop a Running Toilet
The most common cause is a worn flapper that no longer seals properly, allowing water to constantly seep into the bowl. Press lightly on the flapper with a yardstick. If the sound of running water stops, you know that the problem is related to the flapper. Before you replace it, run your finger around the opening that the flapper rests on. Mineral deposits on the rim could be preventing the flapper from sealing. In that case, scrubbing the deposits with an abrasive sponge may solve the problem. If it doesn’t, replace the flapper.


31. Unclog a Sink  In kitchen sinks, there’s a baffle just above the trap that directs water down the drain. But that baffle is also a notorious clog causer, especially if you frequently use the garbage disposal. Bend a coat hanger or other stiff wire, and slip it down the drain. When you feel the wire hook onto the baffle, jiggle it to dislodge the clog. This also works in bathroom sinks, tubs, and showers.

Prevent Big Problems

dryer ventEllaphant in the Room for Reader's Digest32. Don’t Neglect The Dryer Vent
You already know about cleaning the lint trap after every use. But once a year, you should also clean lint from inside the dryer cabinet and vent duct. (Lint buildup is one of the most common causes of home fires.) Unplug the dryer, turn off the gas valve if your model has one, and pry off the access panel. Vacuum inside the cabinet, especially around the motor and gas burner or electric heating element. You can disassemble the vent duct and clean it by hand or simply disconnect the vent from the dryer and feed a vent brush into it from the outside of your home.

33. Check Your Shutoff Valves
A cracked pipe or burst hose can do thousands of dollars of damage in minutes. Shutoff valves can stop the flow of water instantly. They’re typically located under sinks and toilets, behind the washing machine, and above the water heater. Shutoffs for tubs and showers are often hidden behind a wood or plastic access panel (often on the wall behind the faucet in an adjoining closet or hallway). Your main valve—which shuts off water to your entire house—may be indoors or out. Shutoff valves can go unused for years, and mineral deposits can make them impossible to close. So it’s a good idea to make sure yours work. If you have standard valves, turn the handle clockwise. If you have ball-type valves, crank the lever one-quarter turn. Ball valves rarely fail, but it’s good to check anyway.

door hingeEllaphant in the Room for Reader's Digest34. Reinforce Doors
Burglars don’t usually pick door locks—it takes them too long. Instead, they kick or pry the door open. The dead bolt usually survives that brute force, but the door or strike plate gives way. Prevent your door from splitting with an edge guard (available at home centers). Remove the dead bolt, slip the guard over the door, screw it on, and reinstall the dead bolt. Larger models back up both the dead bolt and the doorknob.

35. Secure Windows The latches on most double-hungs are no match for a burglar with a pry bar. Cheap pin locks are much tougher. To install one, all you have to do is drill a hole. Most crank-open casement windows are a little harder to pry open, but it’s a good idea to add locks to them too. Find special casement locks and latches online.

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