Just closed on your house? Congratulations — you've joined the nearly two-thirds of Americans who own their homes.
But your work is just beginning. If you want your home to be a wealth creator rather than a money pit, you'll need to do more than pay down your mortgage. Owning real estate can come with financial benefits over renting, but it also requires constant vigilance.
Whether you've bought your first home or are looking for ways to save money on the home you're already in, making small adjustments throughout the house can add up to big savings over time.
1. Seal air leaks
Do you feel a draft near your windows? Is light coming in through the edges of your doors? If so, money is escaping.
Many houses built more than 20 years ago have leaky windows and doors, says Dan Bawden, owner of Legal Eagle Contractors in Houston and former chairman of the Remodelers Division of the National Association of Home Builders.
But shoring up air leaks around doors and windows isn’t all that hard. Bawden advises re-caulking windows. "If you've never done it before, there are YouTube videos on how to do it without making a big mess," he says.
If the caulk is so old that it's disintegrating, you'll need a screwdriver to pry out the old stuff. Exterior caulk comes in a variety of colors, so find one that matches your home's paint or siding.
Check the weather stripping around doors. If your door doesn't close all the way, try adjusting the strike plate — that piece of metal in the doorjamb that the latch connects to.
2. Schedule an energy audit
Most companies you do business with — the supermarket, the coffee shop, the microbrewery — want you to consume more of their products. When it comes to electricity, the calculus is different.
Power plants are prohibitively expensive to build, so electric utilities would prefer it if everybody could use a bit less power. Given that reality, most utilities offer free energy audits. They'll send someone to your house to spot problems and suggest fixes.
Commonwealth Edison, Duke Energy and Florida Power & Light are among the major utilities that offer this service. In the same vein, many utilities offer rebates for replacing old, electricity-hogging appliances with new, energy-efficient ones.
3. Use smart power strips
The U.S. Department of Energy recommends this cheap and simple step to trim your power bill.
Even if your TV, computer and other devices are in sleep mode, they can continue to suck power, a phenomenon known as "vampire loading." Smart power strips vanquish the vampire.
They can detect when a device is in sleep mode and stop supplying power. This is an upgrade that won’t bust your budget: Amazon lists a variety of smart power strips in the $20 to $25 range.
4. Trade up to LED lights
There's been a revolution in lighting efficiency in recent years.
"LED light bulbs are so much more energy efficient, and they're cooler," Bawden says. "If you're cooking in the kitchen and you've got six bulbs in your ceiling fixtures, it makes a big difference."
But LED bulbs are not all the same. Low-quality bulbs tend to burn out quickly and cast a harsh pall in your home. "There are a lot of crappy ones made," says Bawden.
His pro tip: Pay attention to the CRI, or color-rating index. High-quality bulbs not only display the CRI, but they also come with a number of 80 or higher. Many bulbs sold at Home Depot and Lowe's don’t include the CRI on the label.
Bawden instructs his customers to buy LED bulbs at specialty lighting stores. Many merchants will hook you up with the contractor discount if you ask.
5. Landscape for efficiency
Trees, shrubs and vines boost your home's curb appeal. And, if they're strategically placed, they can save you money on your utility bill.
Properly located trees can produce shade and, in cold climates, provide wind breaks.
The U.S. Department of Energy says positioning your landscaping properly can cut your electric bill by 25%.
6. Help your water heater
Hot showers are one of those luxuries that make modern life worth living, but they come at a cost. Water heating can account for 18% of your abode's energy consumption, the U.S. Department of Energy says.
There are ways to cut the cost. For instance, dialing down the temperature gauge on your water heater to less than 120 degrees can save you some cash — and protect you from scalding yourself. If you live in a cold climate, a water-heater blanket can help, as can replacing the insulation on your water pipes.
Alas, if you live in a warm region, those steps won’t move the needle.
7. Look for water leaks
Running toilets, dripping faucets, aging shower heads — they're all water wasters. After you move in, keep an ear out for water problems. Also look for mildew and other telltale signs of leaks.
Fixing a running toilet is usually a simple matter of replacing the flapper or another part. If you're willing to do it yourself, you can consult instructional videos on YouTube.
Even if you pay a plumber to do the work, the repair eventually will reimburse you in the form of lower water bills.
8. Adjust the thermostat
You can save big bucks simply by letting your house get a little hot or cold while you're away, the U.S. Department of Energy says.
Cranking back the climate control by 7 to 10 degrees for eight hours a day can cut 10% off your monthly bill.
If you have a programmable thermostat, automate this task.
9. Consider installing skylights
Bawden swears by small skylights as a way to bring in natural light. Manufacturers Velux and Solatube make high-quality "sun tunnels" that flood rooms with sunlight.
The skylights are just 14 inches in diameter, so they can be installed without cutting through rafters, Bawden says. The typical installation cost is $1,300.
"You'll recoup it because you hardly ever turn on lights in that room," Bawden says. Indeed, he installed skylights at his own home and office and rarely flips on the lights during the day. The sun tunnels come with flashings that keep out water.
"Everybody's knee-jerk reaction is, 'They're going to leak,'" Bawden says. "I've had them for 15 years, and I haven't had a single leak."
10. Make a checklist
Pilots, doctors and others in high-stakes situations rely on checklists to keep track of tasks. Follow their lead and develop a to-do list of your own. Include monthly or bi-monthly chores like replacing air filters and scouting for leaks.
Checklists also are good for annual events such as swapping out batteries for smoke detectors.
Keeping these updates as line items in your annual budget can help you stay on track.
11. Install new window shades
Even after you fix air leaks, windows remain a weak spot in terms of energy efficiency. If your windows let in heat during the summer, consider cellular shades.
These window treatments let in light while blocking out heat.
You can find effective blinds for as little as $30 to $50 per window, Bawden says.
12. Replace windows
We saved this for last, because it can be a pricey project. But old windows are a money pit. They're entry points for sweltering air in the summer and brisk breezes in the winter, not to mention escape routes for air conditioning and heat.
If your budget is tight, Bawden says, consider pacing your investment. Start by replacing only the windows that face the harshest weather — so north-facing windows in cold climates and south-facing openings in hot regions. And then replace other windows in a year or two.
In addition to cutting your energy bill, new windows also cut down on noise. Bawden says his clients often remark that after replacing their windows, they no longer hear nearby trains, neighbors' dogs and other nearby disturbances.
In another selling point, the National Association of Realtors' 2019 Remodeling Impact Report gives new vinyl windows a near-perfect "Joy Score" of 9.6 on a scale of 10.