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You've unloaded all your boxes and furniture in to your new home, and you're eager to unpack and get comfy. Wait. Unless you made sure the house was ready for colder weather before you bought it, take the time to do it now. Tending to a little inside and outside home maintenance can make the coming cold months much more enjoyable -- and it can save you money, too.

Like most Americans, you'll probably pay an average of $1,300 a year on energy bills. According to the Department of Energy, nearly 50 percent of that is for heating and cooling your home. Here are just a few ways you can lower your bills:

  • Change the lighting. This fall the government's Energy Star program is encouraging every American to replace the five lighting fixtures they use most with Energy Star-qualified lighting. You can save more than $60 every year in energy costs. Also replace old incandescent light bulbs with compact florescent bulbs. They cost more, but they last far longer.
  • Before you put the furniture in place, check phone, electric and cable outlets to be sure they're not allowing drafts. Adding appropriate foam gaskets right behind the outlet cover can solve the problem. When you place your furniture, don't block heating registers or return-air vents.
  • Peek underneath sinks and anywhere else pipes come through a wall. If the hole is much larger than the pipe, fill the gaps with insulation.
  • Look outside for clothes dryer, stove and other vents. Prevent air from seeping through any crevices by applying weatherproof sealant. You also can purchase dryer vents that have a lid (rather than flaps that open with the slightest breeze), which help keep cold air, bugs and tiny animals out.
  • Investigate the fireplace. Any birds' nests in the chimney? Is the flue well sealed? Repair any loose mortar and replace the chimney cap, especially if you have trees nearby that might give small animals access to the chimney. Did the previous homeowners clean the fireplace thoroughly? Always keep the damper closed when there's no fire, and consider adding an inflatable fireplace draft stopper, like the one manufactured by Battic Door. They're easy to insert and remove, and keep warm air in and cool air out. Glass doors on the fireplace add even more energy efficiency.
  • While you're up on the roof, make sure it's in good shape. Repair any loose, damaged or missing shingles. Be sure flashing -- the material used where walls meet chimneys, other walls (next to dormer windows, for instance), vent pipes, etc. -- is secure. Flashing keeps water flowing off the roof. If it's in poor shape, water flows into your rooms instead.
  • Clean the gutters. Use a hose to be sure they drain well, and repair any leaking seams. Ice dams (caused when snow melts off the roof and refreezes in the gutter or its overhang, thus making new snow back up underneath your shingles) can cause major structural damage.
  • Looking for new appliances? Buy those with the Energy Star sticker. They may cost a little more, but you can save up to 30 percent on your utility bills. Many energy companies also offer rebates to customers who use these appliances. And just this month, a congressional committee approved an energy bill draft that will provide for incentives for energy efficiency -- tax breaks that could trickle down to the consumer.
  • Is the furnace room warmer than all the other rooms? Pacific Gas and Electric Company says that as much as 50 percent of the money you use heating and cooling your home can be lost through small air leaks in the ductwork. Seal the leaks at duct joints, and then insulate the ducts to keep the air hot as it moves through the ducts. Look for a sticker on the furnace indicating when it was last inspected or tuned up. If it was more than a year ago, call in a professional to be certain it's working correctly.
  • Replace air filters monthly. It's amazing that something so inexpensive can make your home's heating and air conditioning so much more efficient and cost-effective.
  • Use caulk to seal any drafty gaps between the edge of heat registers and the wall or floor.
  • Is your thermostat programmable? If not, invest in one. It lets you keep the temperature warm when you're at home, cooler when you're not.
  • Check for weather stripping around windows and doors. Add it if it's not there to save a bundle on your heating bill. Caulk or otherwise seal any space around door and window frames and the walls.
  • Are your windows wood? Use a glazing compound where wood meets glass, then put up the storm windows. If the previous homeowner didn't have storm windows, ask at your hardware store for thick plastic to cover the windows instead. If any windows need replacing, consider forgoing architectural and historic charm and use double-paned aluminum windows with an energy-efficient coating on them.
  • If your home has ceiling fans, look for a small switch that allows you to reverse the airflow. Your fan may be able to pull cold air up in the summer and push warm air down in the winter.
  • Ensure that your attic has R-30 rated insulation and save as much as 20 to 30 percent on your heating costs, says Pacific Gas and Electric.

    Finally, ask your local energy company if they'll perform a free energy audit. They'll send someone to check for any energy-wasters you may have missed and offer suggestions for improving energy efficiency -- and thus lowering your bills.

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