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Building Strong Bones at the Concord Cape Project

TOH General Contractor Tom Silva installs an LVL beam.
Anthony Tieuli

As work progresses on the Concord Country Cape project house, Tom and Kevin spend a day putting together a beefy ridge beam and a sturdy structural window wall.

Lincoln and Megan Pasquina took a bold path when they decided to add on to their antique Cape in Concord, MA. Working with architect Andrew Sidford, they settled on a design for their addition that merges modern style with the house’s traditional form.

At the heart of the new plan is a high-ceilinged, open family room with a view onto the backyard. “As you step through from the kitchen into the new family room, you’ll have vaulted ceilings and a wall of glass,” says TOH host Kevin O’Connor. “That is the transition between old and new.” That wall of glass is more than a visual treat, however. It also does important structural work. “It’s trying to hold all that glass, but it also has to hold up the roofline above it,” says Kevin. TOH general contractor Tom Silva adds, “You have to think about the weight, obviously, but you also have to think about the lateral force of the wind against it. So it has to be really stiff.”

The dramatic modern addition also means giving the old house a new ridge beam. “We’re changing the pitch of the original roof, and extending its length to grab that new addition.

So we’re putting a new spine into the old house,” says Kevin. Key to both structural elements is the use of engineered lumber: manufactured beams and posts that offer strength and stiffness that’s harder to get from regular sawn wood.

Up ahead: See how the high-capacity new structures come together.

Making the Most of the View

Engineered posts and beams create a strong wall to support big window openings. To meet the window wall’s structural requirements, Tom and Kevin used laminated veneer lumber (LVL) for the top beam and headers, and parallel strand lumber (PSL) for the posts.

They fastened the posts to the beam with hardened structural steel screws, and hung the lower window headers from the posts using blind-nailed steel connectors. Sheathing the wall with structural panels ensured the necessary shear strength.

Marrying Old Structure with New

In place of the house’s original 2X10 ridge beam, Tom and Kevin installed a built-up beam using three LVLs. Building the beam on the ground would have been easier, but the hefty assembly would have been too much for the telehandler to lift at the end of its boom extension.

So Tom and Kevin pieced the beam together in place. To account for the roof pitch, they offset the center piece above the others. “If you follow the pitch of the rafters, the center LVL pushes up to stay in the plane of the roof,” Tom explains. “So when you lay the sheathing on the roof, you have nailing at the top, and your sheathing isn’t floating in the air.”

Your Complete Fireplace Maintenance Checklist

A person cleaning the glass cover of a fireplace.
iStock

Many homeowners see the fireplace as the heart of their home, especially in the fall and winter, when it’s hard to resist gathering around the warmth and glow emanating from a cozy fire. Read this guide to understand the steps for maintaining your fireplace to keep it functioning safely and properly for years to come.

Whether you have a wood-burning or gas fireplace, it’s important to maintain it by completing some basic tasks year-round and annually getting it checked by a professional. You’ll be extending the life of your fireplace—and more importantly, you’ll be keeping yourself and your family safe.

How to Maintain Your Fireplace

How you maintain your fireplace will largely depend on the type you have: wood-burning or gas. It takes more effort to maintain a wood-burning fireplace. Still, homeowners will put up with the extra work for an authentic fireplace experience—nothing beats seeing a pile of logs catch on fire, listening to the sound of crackling wood, and smelling the smoky scent of a real fire! After that real fire dies down. However, there’s ash, soot, and burnt wood scraps left to clean up.

In contrast, a gas fireplace offers the heat and hominess of an indoor fire with the flick of a switch. And after you’ve had enough, you just flick the switch again and go to bed. Lighting up a gas fireplace is really as easy as that, but regular maintenance is still necessary to keep your unit clean and safe.

Let’s take a look at the upkeep that’s involved with both types of fireplaces.

Wood-burning Fireplace Maintenance

If you own a wood-burning fireplace, much of the maintenance involves keeping the firebox (the area where you build a fire) clean. After each use, the remaining ash should be removed and disposed of—but wait at least twelve hours after the fire has died to make sure the ash is cold.

Pro tip: Ash is full of nutrients and can be added to soil, potted plants, or compost as a fortifying element.

Clean around your fireplace

Burning wood will produce soot and creosote, which is the dark residue that you see coating the interior walls of the firebox and reaching up into the lining of the chimney. This buildup should be removed once a season or whenever the residue thickness reaches 1/8 inch, as creosote can release toxic gases and is highly flammable. Creosote buildup is a major cause of chimney fires.

Hire professional cleaners when necessary

Hiring a professional chimney sweep to remove the creosote once a year is probably the safest option for homeowners, but if the buildup isn’t too extreme, it’s possible to clean it off yourself. Commercial cleaning liquids and powders designed for removing creosote are readily available. You can also prevent creosote buildup by burning a chimney cleaning log after every forty fires or so. The chemicals in these logs cause soot and creosote to dry up and fall off the walls.

Even if you’re keeping your fireplace clean from season to season, you must hire a certified chimney sweep to inspect the whole setup once a year. Only a professional will have the right tools and knowledge to ensure everything is functioning correctly. They’ll be able to head off significant issues such as cracks in the chimney lining or a damaged chimney cap.

Clean before the summer months

If you’re cleaning your fireplace yourself, do it before the summer begins so that the warm humidity doesn’t interact with the creosote to create unpleasant-smelling acids. Place a drop cloth in front of the fireplace to keep the hearth clean, and make sure you’re wearing eye protection and a dust mask to keep yourself from inhaling the carcinogenic dust.

Gas Fireplace Maintenance

Maintaining a gas fireplace requires considerably less work, but it’s still necessary to clean the area of dust and debris at least once a year and follow all safety precautions while doing so. Before you start to clean, the most important step is to turn off the gas and pilot light and give the unit some time to cool down.

How to clean a gas fireplace

  • To remove the grime build-up, start by removing the glass front of your fireplace and wipe it down with a special fireplace glass cleaner (not a regular glass cleaner, which may contain chemicals that won’t interact well with the fire’s heat).
  • Next, carefully run a handheld vacuum over the lava rocks and decorative logs. If you discover that either the rocks or logs are starting to fall apart, they should be replaced.
  • Finally, use a microfiber cloth to wipe the dust from the fireplace trim and louvers.
  • While you’re cleaning, check the wall surrounding the unit for damp spots, bubbling paint, or peeling wallpaper. Also, inspect the chimney outside for white stains or eroding bricks. These signs indicate that something may be wrong and will require a professional assessment.

Even if everything appears to be okay, it’s essential to have your gas fireplace inspected once a year by a licensed gas provider for issues that you may not be able to spot yourself. For example, the connectors and valves found in gas fireplaces can malfunction or wear down without your knowing it. Remember: When dealing with gas and fire, it’s always better to be safe than sorry!

How to Remove Sticker Residue

Sticker residue
iStock

Got some nasty, fuzzy residue stubbornly sticking around from an old label, price tag, or sticker? Removing it can be a hassle, especially if you don’t want to damage the surface it’s adhered to. For the quickest and most effective ways to remove sticker residue, check out these tips. 

Stickers are great, but if you don’t know how to remove sticker residue, they can be a mess. The adhesive left behind picks up dirt and lint—unattractive, to say the least. Plus, unexpectedly touching something sticky can give you the creeps. If you’re sick of encountering tacky gunk on your glass, wood, metal, or plastic surfaces, keep reading to learn how to remove sticker residue.

Adhesive Removers

There are lots of products available that will do a great job of removing glues and sticky residues from a variety of surfaces, but they’re often harsh and can damage or discolor a surface.

Goof Off and Goo Gone are specifically designed to remove adhesive, and both products work well. Just be sure to read the directions carefully.

How to Get Sticker Residue off Glass Surfaces

If you’re removing sticker residue from glass, including mirrors, the good news is that the job shouldn’t be too difficult. Here’s the easiest way to get sticker residue off glass:

  1. Fill a sink with hot water and dishwashing soap
  2. Soak the glass in the hot, soapy water for an hour
  3. Use a dish sponge to scrub the residue off the surface

The rough side of the sponge is the most effective for scrubbing. If there’s still a bit of adhesive left behind, repeat the steps to remove it.

If the glass surface is too large to fit in a sink you can repeat the same process in a bathtub. You can also soak a towel in the soapy solution and place it on the residue, resoaking and reapplying every 15 minutes or so. Then use the rough side of the sponge to remove the rest of the residue.

How to Remove Sticker Residue from Metal

Metal is the second easiest material to remove adhesive from. However, excessive scrubbing can cause paint discoloration or accidental buffing on bare metal. Here are the easiest ways to remove sticker residue from a metal surface without damaging it:

Removing sticker residue from bare metal:

  1. Apply a small amount of baby oil to the sticker residue and let it sit for 20 minutes
  2. Soak a cotton ball or rag with baby oil and use it to gently rub the surface until the residue is gone
  3. Wipe the surface with a clean cloth or paper towel

If the glue is particularly stubborn, you can also use a bit of WD-40 in place of the baby oil.

Removing sticker residue from painted metal:

  1. Create a 1:1 mixture of coconut oil and baking soda (note: you may need to warm the oil slightly for it to mix thoroughly with the baking soda)
  2. Dip a clean microfiber cloth into the solution
  3. Using your finger, lightly rub the solution soaked cloth over the residue to remove it
  4. Wipe the surface with a clean microfiber towel

This is a less aggressive method aimed to minimize paint damage. The baking soda acts as an aggregate to break up the residue while the oil prevents scratching the paint. You can repeat the process if necessary. If you’re short on coconut oil, other cooking oils such as vegetable or olive oil will work as well.

How to Get Sticker Residue off Plastic

Plastic is very easily scratched if an aggressive residue removal method is used. If you’d prefer to keep your plastic smooth and crystal clear, here is a technique to try:

  1. Fill a sink or small tub with hot water
  2. Add a cup of white vinegar
  3. Add a tablespoon of dishwashing liquid
  4. Stir to combine the mixture
  5. Place the plastic item in the sink or tub, ensuring the residue stays submerged
  6. Let it soak for 20 minutes
  7. With the residue still underwater, rub it with your fingers until it’s removed

This method helps avoid the scratches that a sponge can cause in soft plastic, while still being mild enough to touch with your bare hands. Again, if any residue remains, repeat the process.

How to Get Sticker Residue Off Wood

Because wood is so porous, sticker residue can bury itself in the grain, making it very difficult to remove entirely. Instead of sanding the wood, you can try a less aggressive method:

  1. Gently heat the residue with a hairdryer or heat gun adjusted to its lowest setting
  2. Using a bit of hand cleaner with pumice, such as Gojo or Fast Orange, rub the residue with your hand, going back and forth with the grain
  3. Continue until the surface feels clean
  4. Wipe clean with a microfiber cloth

If there is any hand cleaner left on the wood, dampen the microfiber or use a wet paper towel to remove the rest of it.

By following these tips, you should be able to remove sticker residue off most surfaces. Because they’re gentle methods, you’re less likely to damage your surfaces, and more assured to end up with a smooth, clean, residue-free finish.

How to Unclog Any Drain

Plunger used to unclog a sink drain.
iStock

Armed with the right tools and techniques, you can easily unplug stopped-up drains without having to call in a pro.

All plumbing systems develop clogs—there’s no way to avoid it. We’ll show you how to clear stubborn clogs in a kitchen sink, bathtub, toilet and floor drain.

These proven techniques will dislodge virtually any clog. If you can’t clear a clog after a few attempts, make sure you admit defeat and turn the job over to a drain-cleaning service or licensed plumber. Exerting too much force can permanently damage a pipe or fixture.

That said, specialized plumbing tools used to combat clogs are affordable, and they’re available at any hardware store or home center; you can even rent some.

Tools You’ll Need to Unclog a Drain

  1. The first tool to reach for when trouble arises is a plunger. This plumber’s friend clears clogs from most fixtures, including sinks, tubs and toilets. Every homeowner should keep one handy.
  2. To dislodge clogs located farther down the drainpipe, use a cable auger, or plumber’s snake, a long, flexible steel cable wound around a spool that’s fitted with a hand crank. Cable augers are available in lengths up to 100 feet, though a 25-foot model will suffice for most any household clog.
  3. A closet auger is specifically made for snaking out toilets. It, too, is equipped with a hand crank, but instead of a spool, the cable is encased in a rigid shaft. The auger end is bent at a precise angle to fit through the tight curves of a toilet trap.
  4. For a very large clog or one that’s far from the fixture, rent an electric power auger. This machine—basically a large cable auger powered by an electric motor—is very effective at cutting through virtually any clog, even tangled tree roots. Before bringing home a power auger, be sure the rental agent shows you how to safely dispense and retrieve the cable.

How to Unclog a Sink

Remove Trap and Drain Pipe

Person demonstrating how to unclog a sink by removing the trap and drain pipe. Photo by Merle Henkenius

Most minor sink clogs can be cleared with a plunger.

  1. Partially fill the sink with water, then start plunging.
  2. Vigorously work the plunger up and down several times before quickly pulling it off the drain opening. If it’s a double-bowl kitchen sink, stuff a wet rag into one drain opening while you plunge the other one. If it’s a bath sink, stuff the rag into the overflow hole. In both cases, the rag helps deliver the pressure directly to the clog.
  3. If plunging doesn’t work, grab the cable auger and go to work under the sink.
  4. Remove the sink trap with a pipe wrench. The large, threaded coupling on PVC plastic traps can often be unscrewed by hand.
  5. Empty the water from the trap into a bucket, then make sure the trap isn’t clogged.

Cut Through the Clog

Person cutting through a clog in the sink using a thin cable. Photo by Merle Henkenius
  1. Remove the horizontal trap arm that protrudes from the stubout in the wall.
  2. Feed the cable into the stubout until you feel resistance.
  3. Pull out 18 inches of cable, then tighten the lock screw.
  4. Crank the handle in a clockwise direction and push forward at the same time to drive the cable farther into the pipe .
  5. Pull out another 18 inches of cable and repeat the process until you break through the blockage.
  6. If the cable bogs down or catches on something, turn the crank counterclockwise and pull back on the auger.
  7. Once the cable is clear, crank and push forward again.
  8. Retrieve the cable and replace the trap arm and trap. Turn on the hot-water faucet to see if the sink drains properly. If it doesn’t, don’t worry. Debris from the busted-up clog sometimes settles into a loose blockage.
  9. Partially fill the sink with hot water and use the plunger to clear the debris.
  10. Follow up with more hot water.

How to Snake a Tub Drain

Block Overflow Plate

Person using a plunger on a clogged bathtub drain. Photo by Merle Henkenius

It’s rare for a bathtub to suddenly become stopped up. A clog in the tub usually builds up over a period of several weeks, with the tub draining more and more slowly each day. We’ve all seen this happen.

As with a sink clog, start with the plunger.

  1. First, unscrew the screen from the tub drain and use a bent wire to fish out any hair and soap scum.
  2. If there’s a pop-up drain on the tub, raise the lever to the open position, then grab the stopper and pull it from the drain hole.
  3. Clean it of all hair and soap. This will often take care of things.
  4. If not, cover the holes on the underside of the overflow plate with a wet rag and start plunging.
  5. If that doesn’t clear the clog, use the cable auger.

Access Clog via Overflow Plate

Person cutting through a clog in a bathtub with a cable also known as plumber’s snake. Photo by Merle Henkenius
  1. Remove the overflow plate from the end of the tub; the stopper linkage will come out with it.
  2. Feed about 30 inches of cable down the overflow tube.
  3. Push forward while turning the hand crank. You’ll feel resistance almost immediately, but keep cranking on the auger until the cable passes all the way through the P-trap that lies underneath the tub.
  4. Retrieve the cable, then run several gallons of hot water down the drain.
  5. Finally, replace the overflow plate and screen or pop-up drain.

How to Unclog a Toilet

Use a Closet Auger

Person using a closet auger in a toilet bowl to clear a clog. Photo by Merle Henkenius

Toilet clogs almost always occur at the top of the tight, up-curving trap that’s part of the fixture. In some cases, a plunger can provide enough power to clear the way, but more often than not, you’ll have to use a closet auger.

Place the auger end into the bowl with its bent tip aiming up.

Crank and Repeat

Person using a crank in the toilet bowl to clear a clog. Photo by Merle Henkenius
  1. Hold the tool shaft steady as you crank and push down on the handle. You’ll feel the cable snake its way up and through the trap.
  2. Continue cranking until you’ve dispensed the entire cable—about 3 feet. Retrieve the cable by simultaneously cranking and pulling up.
  3. Flush the toilet to clear out the drainpipe. If it’s still a little sluggish, run the auger through the trap twice more: once up the left side of the trap, then again up the right side. This three-pronged attack will clear any matter clinging to the sides of the trap.

How to Clear a Floor Drain

Loosen Brass Plugs

Person removing plug with a wrench. Photo by Merle Henkenius

In many basements, garages and laundry rooms there are floor drains that carry away wastewater from central air conditioners, washing machines, water heaters and snow-covered cars.

Over time, these drains collect large quantities of soap scum, laundry lint, sand and slimy bacteria that crystallize inside the long drainpipe. To break through these tough blockages, you’ll need the extra clog-clearing muscle of an electric power auger.

  1. Rent a power auger with at least 50 feet of cable. Start by removing the strainer that covers the drain hole.
  2. Then, look for a clean-out plug on the side of the drain basin.
  3. Remove the plug with a wrench. That allows you to bypass the trap and feed the cable directly down the pipe.
  4. If the drain doesn’t have a clean-out plug, you’ll have to snake the cable through the trap; this is a somewhat more difficult approach.

Using a Power Auger

Person using a power auger to clear a floor drain. Photo by Merle Henkenius
  1. Plug in the power auger and position it near the drain. Most models are fitted with a foot-pedal switch, leaving both of your hands free to guide the cable.
  2. Feed several feet of cable down the drainpipe. Set the motor for clockwise rotation, then step on the switch to start the cable turning.
  3. Push the cable into the pipe until you feel resistance or hear the motor start to bog down.
  4. Stop the motor, reverse the rotation and back out a few feet of cable.
  5. Switch back to clockwise rotation and feed the cable farther down the pipe. Repeat this back-and-forth procedure until the clog has been cleared away.
  6. Retrieve the cable and flush out the drainpipe by pouring several buckets of hot water down it. If the water still drains sluggishly, run about 2 feet of cable directly down the trap.
  7. Before replacing the clean-out plug, wrap Teflon tape around its threads; this will make it easier to unscrew the plug in the future. Caution: Failure to replace the clean-out plug will allow dangerous sewer gases to seep into the house.

Improve Your Attic Ventilation with Soffit Vents

False-front Gable Roof
Nancy Andrews

Here’s how to install soffit vents step by step to improve the airflow in your attic.

If you're looking to install new ventilation in your house, you might want to consider a soffit vent.

Should I Add Soffit Vents?

If your home is fitted solely with small gable-end vents or a ventilator high in the roof, you might want to consider adding soffit vents to increase airflow. These vents allow outside air to enter the attic at the lowest point of the roof—along the underside of the eave. They're most effective when used in conjunction with a continuous ridge vent.

Soffit vents come in several sizes and styles, including small round discs and rectangular grilles. We opted for aluminum strip vents that measure 3 in. wide x 8 ft. long. This style vent provides a quick way to ventilate every rafter bay. Strips vents come in white, brown, and silver; you'll pay less than $3 for an 8-ft. length.

How to Install Soffit Vents

Step 1: Make Two Parallel Lines

Person marking ceiling to prepare for soffit vent installation.

Start by using a chalk reel to snap two parallel lines down the center of the soffit. Space the lines 2 in. apart, allowing the vent to overlap the cutout by ½ in. on each edge.

Step 2: Cut Parallel Lines

Person cutting a soffit vent with a circular saw. Photo by Merle Henkenius

Next, bore a 3⁄4- or 1-in.-dia. hole through the soffit right between the lines and measure the thickness of the soffit panel (probably 1⁄4 or 3⁄8 in.). Then set your circular saw to that depth and cut along the chalk lines.

Cut the two parallel lines with a portable circular saw. Set the blade depth to cut through the thin soffit material barely.

Step 3: Connect the Two Cuts

Person using a hammer and chisel on the ceiling. Photo by Merle Henkenius

When you near the end of the soffit, stop short and connect the two cuts with a sharp chisel or sabre saw. Once all cuts are made, use a thin pry bar to remove the 2-in. plywood strip. Pull any nails that remain in the soffit framing with a cat's paw.

Then inspect the length of the vent cutout. If there's any insulation clogging the slot, pull it out or shove it back up.

Step 4: Raise the Vent up to the Soffit

Person raising a vent to improve attic ventilation. Photo by Merle Henkenius

Next, lay the strip vent down on a flat wood surface, such as a plywood sheet or long 2 x 4, and drill 1⁄8-in.-dia. screw holes through both flanges. Space the holes 12 to 14 in. apart. With the help of an assistant, raise the vent up to the soffit and center it over the cutout slot.

Step 5: Attach the Vent to the Soffit

Person using a drill to install a soffit vent. Photo by Merle Henkenius

Use a cordless drill/driver to secure the vent to the soffit with ½-in.-long No. 4 sheet-metal screws. Continue installing additional strip vents until you reach the far end. Trim the last vent to length using aviation snips.

Step 6: Remove Any Insulation From the New Vent

Person checking attic insulation. Photo by Merle Henkenius

The soffit vents are now installed, but you still need to make sure there's no insulation blocking the new vents. If the attic is insulated with fiberglass batts, just pull back any that are blocking the flow of air. If there's blown-in insulation, like ours, rake back the fluffy stuff with a 3- or 4-ft.-long 1 x 6, or use a garden rake or hoe.

Step 7: Install the Ventilation Baffle

Person stapling a ventilation baffle to wall. Photo by Merle Henkenius

Finally, to ensure that the airway to the vent remains open, staple a ventilation baffle to the plywood sheathing in each rafter bay. The molded polystyrene baffles, available at home centers and lumberyards for about $1 each, form channels that hold insulation at bay and direct incoming air upward.

Can You Have Too Much Ventilation in Your Attic?

For most of us, the attic is a place to store clothes, luggage, and old family photos, but for energy researchers, it's a hot topic of discussion. Building codes have called for increased attic insulation in the last several decades.

Most experts contend that a well-ventilated attic keeps the house more comfortable in summer and guards against moist, heated air building up in winter. There are also dissenting voices who say that the benefits of ventilation are overrated.

Who's right? More research is needed, but here's what we do know:

  • Don't avoid ventilating your attic for fear you're letting cold air into the house. Your actual living space is sealed and insulated at the attic floor—the attic is outside this envelope.
  • If there are asphalt shingles on your roof, the attic must be ventilated to comply with the terms of the manufacturer's warranty.
  • One reason for the lack of agreement over attic ventilation is the tremendous variation in climate across North America. Rarely will you find a building practice that works everywhere.

For instance, attic ventilation is used widely in cold climates to evacuate the warm, moist air that escapes from the living space below. If this air lingers, it can condense on the underside of the roof sheathing and rot it. A healthy airflow also helps with ice dams, which begin to form when warm air in the attic melts the snow from beneath and creates runoff that refreezes on the colder eave. Great, but neither of these problems is experienced in warmer climates.

Upgrades That Can Reduce Home Insurance Costs

Making small upgrades to your home can help you save on home insurance costs.
Peter and Maria Hoey

Read these home improvements that reduce risk and yield lower home insurance costs.

Making small upgrades to your home can help you save on home insurance costs. Peter and Maria Hoey

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2021 Issue of This Old House Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe.

An older house can be expensive to insure. If you want to be able to replace distinctive building materials and architectural features in the event of a loss, you may need to increase your policy limits for the structure or add optional coverages.

“There definitely are concerns for older homes that often lead to higher costs,” says Karen Collins, assistant vice president of personal lines at the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, a trade group. “Being able to access the materials or the craftsmanship needed to re-create your home can drive up costs.”

That’s not the only challenge to finding affordable insurance. Even if your home is just 30 or 40 years old, an outdated roof, plumbing, or electrical system can raise the cost of insurance, or even make qualifying for a policy difficult.

Simple Upgrades That Will Save You Money on Home Insurance

Making upgrades that leave your home safer from accidents, break-ins, and natural disasters can help.

Know Your Home’s History

If you haven’t owned your house for long, you may not know what problems the previous owners experienced—but your insurer does, and a spotty history could translate to a higher premium. Insurers look for problems that could be recurring, like burst pipes, kitchen fires, or break-ins in a high-crime area.

You can see what insurance claims have been filed in the past by requesting a free copy of your Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange (CLUE) report (order one at consumer.risk.lexisnexis.com). Treat that as a guide to what you may need to get fixed. “When insurers see that the house has had losses, they will ask if repairs have been made that would prevent similar ones in the future,” says the Insurance Information Institute’s Janet Ruiz.

Beef Up Safety and Security

Upgrades that will alert you to safety problems quickly can earn you a discount on your homeowners policy. For protection against break-ins, that can mean cameras and an alarm system, especially if it’s connected to local authorities. A home security system may qualify you for a discount of up to 5 percent on your premiums, says Ruiz.

Insurers like to see hardwired smoke detectors throughout and a fire extinguisher in the kitchen. A sprinkler system can also earn you a better rate.

Watch for Water Leaks

Old pipes and valves in your home raise the risk of leaks and water damage. “People underestimate how frequently water damage occurs and how significant it can be,” says Sarah Jacobs, vice president of personal lines product development at Nationwide. Nearly a third of home insurance claims are from water damage, Jacobs adds, with the average running around $10,000.

Many insurers will offer a discount for installing water-leak detectors near the kitchen sink, washing machine, water heater, and other flood-prone spots—even as much as 10 percent. By alerting you to a minor drip early, these monitors can limit the damage; some even shut off the water. As smart home technology becomes more widespread, some insurers are also starting to offer discounts for monitoring systems that connect to an app on your phone.

Update the Infrastructure

“Once a home hits forty years,” says Ruiz, “the plumbing, electrical, and foundation are considered old because of changes in building codes and upgrades in materials.” An older home might have corroded valves and leaky pipes, or outdated wiring. If you can show your insurer that you’ve made upgrades, you could save as much as 5 percent on your premium. In rare instances, old wiring might make your home uninsurable—say, if a high percentage is knob-and-tube or aluminum.

The average life span for a roof will depend on the material and the weather in your area, and can be as little as 20 years (for asphalt shingles) and as long as 50 (for slate and tile). “Newer roofs can earn discounts with most carriers, often those no more than ten years old, especially in states prone to hailstorms or high winds,” says Collins.

Another problem with an old roof is that if it’s damaged in a disaster, your insurance may not cover the full tab to replace it. “Insurers are really penalizing people with roofs older than ten years,” says Amy Bach, executive director, United Policyholders, a consumer advocacy organization based in San Francisco. Policies often pay the depreciated cash value of a roof, not the replacement value, leaving you on the hook for much of that cost, Bach says. The same goes if you have to replace old electrical and plumbing systems—so make sure your policy will pay to install a system that’s up to today’s standards.

Prep for Natural Disasters

In areas of the country prone to natural disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, or wildfires, certain home improvements may lower the price of insurance. “Mitigation that helps reduce your risk of loss or the extent of damage may earn a discount,” says Collins. In high-risk areas, some insurers might require certain mitigation to allow you to qualify for a policy in the first place.

In hurricane regions, your roof is key, and in addition to having a newer one insurers may want to see it tied down. In areas where earthquakes are common, your foundation is important, and may need to be retrofitted with braces and bolts, says Ruiz. (California residents may qualify for state funding to help cover the cost.) You also might earn a discount for adding a seismic shutoff valve on your gas line.

The recent rash of wildfires in western states is upending the insurance market there. “People are getting dropped in fire-prone areas,” says Bach. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, it’s where you are.”

Taking steps to harden your home against a wildfire probably won’t mean a better price, but it may be the only way to get a policy. That means building with a fire-resistant roof and deck materials, landscaping safe zones near the house and adding water storage tanks, mesh over vents to keep out embers, and dual-pane heat-resistant windows.

“We’re frustrated that insurers are not rewarding people for wildfire risk reduction,” says Bach. “But we are putting pressure on them to take risk-reduction measures into account, and the tide is turning.”