Common home problems and how to solve them

Shannon Lee | Improvement Center Columnist | October 27, 2014

Fall and winter can be absolutely gorgeous, but these delightful seasons can bring about some not-so-delightful problems. When freezing temperatures and snow descend upon your home, they often bring ice dams, leaks, frozen pipes, drafts, and more. Here are the most common problems you can expect from the fall and winter months, and how to make sure they don't happen next year.

There's a huge water spot on the ceiling

Seeing a spreading stain on the ceiling or wall immediately makes you think of dollar signs: How much will a new roof cost? But sometimes the problem is easier than a total replacement. During the winter, ice dams can create a backup of water that then floods underneath the shingles to cause water damage. Sometimes severe winter storms can rip away shingles, and even knock down tree branches that then lead to a spot of damage on the roof.

If you have an ice dam, clear the snow and ice from the roof immediately. If the problem is the result of severe weather, you might be able to see the damage, but sometimes it is tough to spot. Even if you find the place in the attic where water appears to be dripping, remember that water loves angles -- it will roll down the rafters and supports until it finds a place to drip. The best you can do in a case like this is tarp the roof as best you can, and call out a roofer as soon as possible.

Next year, prevent ice dams by ensuring three things: that your attic has enough insulation, the ventilation is up to snuff, and you have sealed all attic air leaks. For further protection against winter roof woes, don't forget to clean out the gutters. Water needs a place to flow away from the roof, and leaves and debris in the gutters definitely don't help.

My furnace won't put out any heat

It is a moment that makes your heart sink: You step into your home after a long day of work and it's so frigid you can see your breath. Or you flip on the furnace and listen for the sound of it starting up, but you're met with an eerie silence. Problems with the furnace always tend to happen on the coldest days of the year, and furnace technicians are typically backlogged with work.

If your furnace simply stops, there are a few things you can try before you call out the professionals. Start by looking at the fuses or circuit breakers to ensure that power is flowing to the furnace. Check the thermostat too, as a faulty one can keep the furnace from firing up. Still doesn't work? Make sure the emergency shut-off on the furnace wasn't somehow tripped. Check all vents to make sure that none of them are clogged, and change the filter if necessary.

If none of these fix the problem, it is time to call out a furnace technician. To prevent the problem in the future, make sure to have annual maintenance performed on the furnace in the fall, so it is more likely to keep pumping out heat just when you need it most.

Why is it so cold around my windows?

Frigid windows usually mean one thing: Old, worn-out seals. The sun beats down on them in the summer, and during the winter, the cold wind takes a toll. Eventually, those seals begin to crack and wither.

A quick fix for the problem is weatherstripping. Inexpensive weather stripping along the bottom of the window can help alleviate a great deal of the drafty air. Other solutions include plastic sheeting over the windows. This can be done with simple sheeting, but it isn't all that attractive and usually blocks the view. Shrink-wrap style plastic can work wonders to seal the windows while still allowing you to see out.

To keep it from happening again, address the window problems in the spring. Your windows might be old enough that replacement is warranted. When the weather warms up, give a contractor a call and discuss your options.

The water has completely stopped!

The most common culprit for this issue is a frozen pipe. Sometimes pipes can freeze very quickly, and that leaves you with no water -- or worse, it leaves you with too much water everywhere when the pipe breaks!

Start by checking the pipes around the exterior walls of the house; these are the ones most likely to freeze. Once you find the culprit, warm it safely with the use of an electric heating pad, hair dryer, a portable space heater, or even towels that have been soaked in hot water. Leave the faucet open so you will know when the water begins to flow again. If you can't thaw the pipe, it's time to call a plumber.

To avoid this problem in the future, insulate all pipes as best you can. Heat tape is also a good option. If you can't insulate the pipes, consider relocating them to a more interior position. Keep cabinet doors open to allow warmer air to circulate underneath sinks.

And remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Paying attention to these home problems long before they have a chance to begin can lead to a much more peaceful and affordable winter.

About the Author

Shannon Lee is a journalist and occasional novelist with a serious weakness for real estate. When she’s not writing, she and her husband are taking road trips to explore covered bridges, little wineries and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns in their beloved Pennsylvania.