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How Ugly is Your Door?

Tips for Improving Your 'Home for the Holidays'

The holiday season, though festive, can be overwhelming, even chaotic for some. There's shopping, decorating, entertaining, cooking, cleaning and a host of other tasks that can make an already busy life virtually unmanageable.

In an attempt to "get it all done," many folks take short cuts that can expose their home and family to dangers such as house fires or safety and security hazards.

We have found that planning, preparation and pacing can lessen the stress and help avoid holiday-destroying pitfalls.

We offer the following tips on how to choose a fresh Christmas tree, how to keep it fresh through the holidays, how to prevent electrical problems when hanging lights and how to keep your home safe and secure during holiday travel.

Choosing a Christmas tree can be a grueling task. Beyond the quest to find the "perfect" tree with a faultlessly straight trunk and uniform pouting branches, there are things you should know and do to get the freshest tree possible -- one that will stay green and safe for many days to come.

Stand the tree upright and give it the "scratch, thump and bend" test. First, reach in and scrape the trunk hard. The bark should be moist and green underneath. Then, lift the tree and thump it down hard. If there's a shower of needles, it's too dry. Finally, bend a branch way over. If it snaps, the tree is too dry, and won't last very long. Many trees are cut four to eight weeks before they go on sale and, thus, become a fire hazard. So before you buy, remember to "scratch, thump and bend."

For many, a fresh fragrant Christmas tree enhances the holiday season. Conversely, a dry brittle tree can lead to disaster. The secret to a fresh tree is simple. Treat your Christmas tree as carefully as you would a bouquet of fine flowers. Once you've found a tree that passes the scratch, thump and bend test, get the tree home and make a fresh cut on the butt to open up the pores and immediately put the tree in water. If you dont make a fresh cut, the tree wont be able to absorb the water.

Next, place the tree in a sturdy stand that will hold at least one gallon of plain water and water the tree daily. An average tree consumes between a quart and a gallon of water each day. Keep the tree away from heat sources such as heating vents, fireplaces, wood stoves and sunny windows.

Are you one of those fanatics who puts up so many outdoor Christmas lights that jet planes think your house is a runway? Remember Chevy Chase's house in "National Lampoons Christmas Vacation"? In the movies, decorating disasters are funny. At your house, safety is no laughing matter. Here are a few things you can do to make sure your holidays are safe.

First, never use indoor lights outside. Only use UL-approved exterior lights. Stay off the roof to avoid falls. Suspend lights from hangers rather than nailing or stapling -- these methods can cut into wires, creating shocks, shorts and hazards. Putting too many strands together can cause overheating and a fire. Overloaded circuits can blow fuses and trip circuit-breakers. A little decorating common sense will make your home a safe showplace this holiday season.

For many, the holidays mean vacation time and leaving home for relaxing or family gatherings far away. But when you're off in search of post-holiday bargains or visiting Uncle Charlie and Aunt Jane, it's the wrong time to think and wonder: "Did I unplug the iron?"

If you're planning a trip for the holidays, be sure your home is vacation-ready too. First, halt mail and newspaper deliveries and set timers to turn on lights and a radio. Let trusted neighbors and your alarm company know you'll be gone.

In the heat of packing and getting under way, it's easy to forget things if you don't have a checklist. "Things to do" should include avoiding any potential household problems by unplugging appliances and resetting thermostats to save energy while you're gone. Do a full house survey and write everything down. The next time you travel, use it again.

With the holidays come visits from family and friends. Keep in mind that your home might be somewhat unfamiliar ground to many who gather there. Make your home a safer place to visit by ensuring that exterior lighting is up to snuff.

Think about installing automatic light controls -- the kind that operate by sensing heat or motion. Photoelectric operation is OK, but a timer must be added to this kind of configuration so that lights can be automatically turned off when not needed. Solar garden lights don't need wires and can be staked into the ground next to entry walks and driveways. After the holidays, the walk lights can be stored until next time.

Beef Up Security In Your Home

When we were kids, our folks rarely locked the front door to our home. We couldn't have been classified as "latch-key children" -- we never had to carry a key.

Times have changed and an "open door" policy is now the rare exception and a locked door the rule. According to statistics presented by the U.S. Department of Justice, there are more than 8,600 break-ins daily -- one every 13 seconds! Most unlawful entry is through doorways and about 50 percent of those are through doors left unlocked. More than half (51 percent) of break-ins occur during daylight; 49 percent after dark.

Here are some suggestions to help beef up security on your home front and give you and your family greater piece of mind.

Install a deadbolt. According to law enforcement statistics, most burglaries are the result of forcible entry. There are many steps that you can take that will make your home less desirable to a would-be prowler. The first step is simple -- lock your door!

Unfortunately, a plain keylock will not provide the level of security needed to prevent a break-in. All exterior doors including the door from the house into the garage should have a deadbolt with a full one-inch throwbolt. However, a good keylock and deadbolt at exterior doors is only part of the solution. Equally important is the integrity of exterior doors and frames. Exterior doors should be of solid construction (not hollow core); measure a minimum of one and three-quarter inches thick and have secure frames.

A latch-key-kid alternative. Some parents are reluctant to send their children off to school with a house key for fear that it will get lost or that a duplicate will be made unknowingly. Consequently, they leave doors unlocked. This presents an especially dangerous condition that leaves both your home and children vulnerable. If you are reluctant to give your child a key, consider a new state-of-the-art alternative -- a keyless deadbolt.

Kwikset ( has developed a user-friendly and easy-to-install substitute for the traditional keyed version of this locking device. The Kwikset Powerbolt 1000 has a numeric touchpad that can be programmed with a four-to-eight digit security code. A single push of the lock icon button throws the deadbolt. Its battery operated and has both a visual and audible low battery alert. Since the code can be changed as often as you wish, this technology is especially suited for service technicians or other personnel that require access but whom you dont want to have a key.

Improve exterior lighting. An intruders greatest fear is being seen. In fall and winter, as daylight grows short, crime is on the increase as intruders have a better chance of not being seen. Its your job not to give them a place to hide by making sure that the entire perimeter of your home -- especially areas with doors and windows -- has good exterior lighting.

In addition to improving safety and security, good exterior lighting will create a psychological barrier that will make your home less desirable by a would-be intruder.

Keeping the perimeter of your home lit from dusk till dawn can be an expensive proposition. Therefore, consider installing motion-activated lights that only turn on when activity is detected. They are an effective alternative that wont bust your utility budget and will still provide great security. Keep in mind that all porches and entrance locations should be lit with a minimum of a 40-watt incandescent bulb or the fluorescent equivalent.

Keep bushes trimmed. Thick bushes and densely landscaped areas around your home provide excellent locations for prowlers to hide. Regular pruning and thinning of bushes and trees will not only improve the appearance of your home, it will provide fewer hiding places. Also, tree branches that overhang a roof can serve as an excellent conduit from the ground to a second floor window for a tree-climbing prowler.

Glass can shatter your security. Locks that are located within arms length from glass panels and sidelights require glass block, grates or grilles. An alternative, where building codes allow, is to install double cylinder deadbolts that must be opened with a key on both sides.

Many brands of sliding patio doors can be especially vulnerable access points in a home since they are lifted into position when installed and can be easily lifted out. Adjusting roller height to limit clearance, installing a latch at the track-to-frame connection or laying a wooden dowel into the track is effective means of preventing a sliding patio door breach.

Maintain that "lived-in" look. In the movie "Home Alone," an inadvertently abandoned child used a host of creative pranks to give his home the appearance that it was occupied by his entire family. Although some of the techniques that he used were a bit outlandish, maintaining the appearance of occupancy at all times can prevent unlawful entry.

Use automatic timers to operate different lights and appliances in different locations at different times and at varying intervals. Have a trusted friend or neighbor retrieve newspapers and mail or have them discontinued if you plan to be away for a while. Its even a good idea to have them use your garbage cans and place them out for collection.

And dont forget to have someone shovel snow if you plan to be away for the winter.

Keep an eye on your neighborhood. According to law enforcement, neighbors watching out for each other is the most effective method of crime prevention. Host a Neighborhood Watch get-started meeting for your block and invite local law enforcement to assist with planning, education, and training and prevention techniques.

A Winter Checklist

In the years that we have spent in the construction business, we have found that water is the single greatest threat to a home. Whether it be from a leaking shower, a broken pipe or poor drainage, water damage can result in costly repairs. So, the first step in getting your home ready for winter is to protect it from water damage.

What is the condition of the roof? Missing shingles, cracks or worn spots are a sure sign of a potential roof leak. If you're skittish about heights, you can, with binoculars, make a close inspection of your roof with both feet planted firmly on the ground.

When making your inspection, pay particular attention to flashings and roof jacks. Jacks are the metal and rubber cone-shaped structures that surround plumbing pipes and other elements that exit the roof. The metal can, over time, become corroded and the rubber gaskets can become brittle resulting in leaks. Also, metal flashings at valleys, chimneys and wall-to-roof connections should also be checked and repaired.

Where does the water go once it hits the roof? Ideally it travels to the lowest point of the roof and into gutters and downspouts and then into a drainage system that transports it away from the home. If you don't have gutters and downspouts, install them. If you do, make sure that they are clean. Downspouts should not be allowed to discharge water next to the house. This can cause everything from cracks over windows and doors to rotted floor framing.

The best, most permanent method of dealing with this condition is to install solid drain pipes that will carry the water to the curb and into a municipal storm drain system or into non-erosive riprap. The water can also be collected into a sump and discharged using a sump pump. If time or money won't allow for this method now, temporary downspout extension devices can be installed that will direct water away from the home. If you do have a sump pump, clean it and check to be sure that it is working properly.

We have reported before about the dangers associated with a damaged or dirty chimney. The firebox and chimney should be inspected annually and cleaned as needed. One good rule of thumb is to clean the chimney after each cord of wood is burned. Also, make sure that birds have not made a nest atop the flue. The spark arrester and chimney cap should be in good condition. The former prevents a potential roof fire while the latter prohibits water from traveling down the flue. Further minimize potential water damage by sealing exterior brick and stone with a high-quality stone and masonry sealer. This will help to prevent damage from freeze and thaw cycles.

If you are heating your home with something more than a fireplace or wood stove, such as a furnace or boiler, you will want to ensure that it is operating in safe and peak operating condition. Although many local utility companies will make a no-charge annual safety check of your heating system, we suggest that you enlist the services of a qualified heating professional. Checking for a cracked heat exchanger is just one of the many elements of a professional checkup. A cracked heat exchanger can be deadly as it can fill your home with the silent killer - carbon monoxide.

Other furnace tune-ups include filter replacement, blower compartment and duct cleaning, motor lubrication, fanbelt adjustment or replacement and burner cleaning and adjustment. Many local heating professionals offer annual service contracts which typically include two visits per year; one for heating and one for cooling.

Caulking around windows, doors and gaps in siding not only will prevent drafts, but will safeguard siding from water damage, as well. Siding exposed due to peeling paint should be scraped, filled and spot-primed. A more thorough preparation and painting can be done in the spring.

Finally, a winter item that is often overlooked is a bad-weather supply kit. The kit should include a battery-operated radio to monitor news and weather reports, extra batteries, a flashlight with extra batteries, cat litter for traction, shovels for snow and picks for ice.