Is your home prepared for winter? Recent research reveals that over the years, 80% of us have suffered some sort of property damage as a result of wintry weather, while 70% are concerned that their household cannot cope with higher winter energy bills.
Fortunately, the right preparations will help protect your home and your finances - with very little outlay.
We reveal the seven secrets to protect your home against winter - without breaking the bank.
If you have a loose fence panel or a wobbly piece of guttering, then all it takes is a gust of wind to whip it away - leaving destruction in its wake.
Before it has the chance to do any damage, make sure these niggles are fixed and secured. It's also worth putting loose equipment like garden furniture and toys into the shed, to protect them - and save them blowing around in high winds and damaging your property.
Remember regular maintenance
Nobody likes to clear leaves out of their guttering, or off the path around the drains. But maintenance is vital if you are to avoid overflowing guttering (which can cause damp patches) or blocked drains (which can lead to floods). With the average cost of rectifying a flood costing more than £1,000, prevention has to be worth the effort.
You're less likely to notice loose or missing slates in the summer, but you're bound to spot the damp patch on the ceiling when the wet weather hits. Get out and have a good look at your roof to see if you need to make any repairs before it's too late.
Check your boiler
The mild autumn meant that many people have had the boiler off for months, and have only had it on intermittently in the first few weeks of winter.
As the weather gets colder, the boiler is likely to see more action, so make sure it has been serviced recently, and test it out before absolutely necessary. It's better to discover a problem before it becomes unbearable to cope for a few days without hot water or heating.
Freezing pipes can be one of the most damaging winter mishaps, and could leave you with a bill for hundreds of pounds. You can protect yourself by ensuring that your heating comes on regularly - even if it's at a low temperature - to keep the pipes warm. It's also essential to make sure they are insulated against the cold.
Cut the cost of heating
Even if the boiler doesn't fail, many people can look forward to a cold winter, because they are so worried about the size of their energy bills that they'd rather sit in the cold.
However, there are ways to make your home warmer without cranking up the heating or spending a fortune. Insulation is a big part of the solution. This includes loft insulation and cavity wall insulation.
Until the end of 2012, everyone was entitled to free insulation. Now it varies between suppliers - some of whom offer the freebie under a new ECO scheme. Eligibility will depend on where you live, the kind of property you live in, and whether you receive certain income-related benefits. Those offering the freebies include British Gas, EDF, Eon, Npower, Scottish Power and SSE.
The government has also extended its Green Deal, which doesn't offer free improvements, but is designed to make thinks like insulation and a new boiler more affordable. The idea is that a green deal assessor will visit your property, talk to you about what's available, and decide whether you could benefit. You may have to pay for this assessment.
You can then decide whether you want to go ahead with the improvements. You can either pay for this up-front, or take a finance plan from the Green Deal provider. The interest rate will depend on what you're borrowing and for how long, but repayments won't exceed the sum you are saving on your energy bill - so your monthly costs don't go up. It is repaid through a charge on your electricity bill.
Get help with heating costs
There is government help available for some people who are struggling to afford to heat their home. All pensioners will get a winter fuel payment of between £100 and £300.
If you receive certain benefits (pension credit, income support, income-based Jobseeker's Allowance, income-related Employment and Support Allowance or Universal Credit) you may also get a cold weather payment of £25 for each seven-day period of very cold weather (zero degrees or below) between the beginning of November and the end of March.
You may also be entitled to the warm home discount on your electricity bill, worth £140. This is available to electricity bill-payers who get the Guarantee Credit element of Pension Credit. Some suppliers also make it available to vulnerable people and those on low incomes. Each company has different rules, so it's worth checking with your supplier whether you qualify.
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