Protect your old house this holiday season

By: Shannon Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Old House Inspection, Old Houses, Home Improvement Tips, Old House Musings, Technology

The holiday season means colder temperatures, and that means heating your old house. But this can be trickier than simply flipping a switch or dialing up a thermostat. Every year about this time, there are horror stories in the news of homes that burned to the ground, families that were devastated by the loss and historical gems that vanished in a pile of ashes.

Image credit: Country Living

Hopefully, your old house is in better shape. But there are still a few special precautions to take when the winter winds try to get into your house.

  1. Get a thorough chimney inspection. If you plan to use the fireplace, have it checked out, cleaned and if necessary, repaired by a professional contractor. This is an important step to take even if you don’t use your fireplace. Plenty of warm air can escape your home through a faulty chimney, and that means higher heating bills.
  2. Have the furnace checked out. If you use an electric furnace, a maintenance check can help ensure that it runs efficiently and safely. Some furnaces are old workhorses that have worked well for years, but they still need some care in order to keep up that sterling track record of service.
  3. Be careful with heaters. During my first year in an old house, the wiring was rather iffy and the furnace didn’t work. I was nervous about using the fireplace, so I went with electric heaters instead. If you are in the same situation, keep in mind that vigilance is key. Choose heaters that shut off automatically if they tip over or overheat. Place them strategically around the home, always away from curtains, blankets or carpets, and keep an eye on them at all times.
  4. Don’t overload the outlets. This is an important thing to remember during the holidays but it holds especially true for old houses, where the wiring might not be the best. In many cases the breaker will trip or the fuse will burn out, but if it doesn’t, you could have a serious fire hazard on your hands. Never overload extension cords.
  5. Put safety measures in place. This is one of the most important things you can do to keep your family safe. Install smoke detectors and make sure they are in good working order. Install carbon monoxide detectors as well. Don’t forget to invest in fire extinguishers. I once had a kitchen blaze that was quickly handled with a fire extinguisher; if I hadn’t had it handy, my old house could have been lost.
  6. Have a plan to get out. If the worst happens, have a plan to get out of the house quickly. If you are living in a fixer-upper, keep in mind that some windows might be painted shut and other routes out of the house might be compromised. Have a plan that takes all of these possible issues into account. In one of my former old houses, I purchased inexpensive ladders for every upstairs window rather than rely on the kids coming down the narrow spiral staircase. Though we never had to use them, the peace of mind worked wonders.

Staying safe during the winter months takes a special kind of vigilance, especially in an old house. Now is the time to call a contractor to handle any issues with the furnace, wiring or fireplace. As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.