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10 Great Winter Home Projects

By Leah L. Culler
Reprinted from MSN Real Estate

Feeling cooped up inside your house? Now’s the perfect time to tackle indoor projects that make your home more livable, from changing furnace filters to regrouting bathroom tile to dye-testing your toilet.


When it’s cold and wet outside, it can be tempting to curl up in front of the fireplace with a good book and a cup of cocoa. But winter is a great time to complete some indoor home projects. Some of these tasks require only a few hours — even minutes — of your time; others will need a much larger investment of time and, in some cases, money.

For most of these projects, we’ll give you a rough idea of what special skills, if any, you’ll need to complete them, as well as an estimate of the cost and time involved. This is not a how-to, however. You’ll want to do your research before you drag out the power tools and try to make “improvements.”

Easy and cheap

Let’s start with a few quick, simple projects that anyone can do. Yes, even you.

1. Change your furnace filter.

Ideally, you should have completed this task, along with a few other winter prep essentials, before the chilly weather arrived. Filters last about three months when you’re using your furnace regularly, so you may need to do this more than once if it’s an especially long and brutal winter.

Skills: Any homeowner can do this. You’ll just need to note the size and type of filter you’re replacing before you go out and buy a new one, and make sure the new one is facing in the same direction as the old.
Cost: You can find furnace filters for as little as $10. High-quality filters will catch dust mites and other allergens and are often worth the extra cost if you’re prone to allergies, says David Lupberger, home-improvement expert for ServiceMagic and past president of the Master Builder Group Inc., a design/build remodeling company.

Time: This task should take just a few minutes once you have purchased a replacement filter.

2. Wash your windows.

Even if you’re stuck indoors, that doesn’t mean you can’t improve your view of the winter wonderland outside. Winter’s a great time to wash the inside of your home’s windows. You can tackle the other side of the glass when it’s bearable to step outdoors.

Skills: All you need is some basic hand/eye coordination, and possibly a decent sense of balance if you’ll be cleaning tall windows using a step stool.

Cost: Most homeowners have window-cleaning supplies on hand. Use crumpled newspapers to polish your windows until they shine.

Time: Lupberger estimates you’ll spend 15 to 30 minutes for an average window. Break it up into several shorter sessions if you’re short on time and/or have lots of windows.

3. Insulate your water pipes.

Adding insulation will save you money by reducing heat loss in the pipes that carry hot water. You also won’t wait as long for hot water when you turn on your faucet.

Skills: Any homeowner can do this.

Cost: You can insulate pipes by wrapping them in several layers of newspaper and duct tape, or you can buy pipe insulation made of foam or other materials. The cost is minimal, typically around 30 cents per foot.

Time: A few minutes to an hour or so, depending on how many pipes you have and the type of insulation you use.

4. Dye-test your toilet.

Monica Ryan, president of Village Plumbing in Houston, says most people whose toilets are wasting water don’t even know it.

“A toilet that is constantly running wastes a lot of water and could cost little to repair,” she says.

Put five drops of food coloring in your toilet’s tank, wait 10 minutes and see if the color comes into the bowl. If it does, you know you have a leak. The most common cause for a leak is a defective flapper, the rubber mechanism that allows water to exit the tank when you flush. That 10 minutes of your time could end up saving you a lot of money on your water bill.

Skills: No special skills required.

Cost: All you need is some food coloring, which many homeowners will likely have on hand.

Time: Just 10 minutes.

Medium-difficulty projects

These tasks will require a bit more of your time, and you may need to do a little research before you get started to be sure you understand all of the steps involved. Don’t be afraid to hire a professional to consult on a do-it-yourself job or even to get you started.

If your project involves plumbing or electrical work, it’s probably a good idea to get a permit.

“A permit means someone is inspecting your work and making sure it is being done to county codes,” Lupberger says. “When they know a homeowner is doing it, the inspector will take more time and explain how to do things.”

5. Regrout your bathroom tile.

This project is a little more labor intensive, but definitely doable, Lupberger says. You may want to regrout the tile because it’s old and dirty, or because you’ve decided to go with a different color of grout. Either way, you’ll first want to clean out the old grout.

“My first stop would be a tile store,” Lupberger says. ‘Tell them what you’re trying to do and they’ll get you the right tools.”

You’ll be using some version of a grout scraper, which is designed to remove the loose and aging grout from between tiles. You’ll also be using a lot of elbow grease.

“It’s hard work,” Lupberger says. “You’re trying to manually remove all that old grout, because you do have to clean all of those gaps before you regrout. You’re scraping up and down every grout line.”

Be careful not to scratch the tile as you’re cleaning out the grout. Once you’ve scraped out the old grout, remove it by vacuuming and wiping down the tiles. Then you’ll usually use some kind of primer to prepare the surface before you go in with new grout.

Putting in the new grout will be much faster than removing the old. Once your grout is mixed, you’ll trowel it onto the entire surface, working it into the joints between tiles. Let it sit for 20 or 30 minutes — read the instructions on the grout you purchased — then wipe down the tile surface, leaving the grout that is embedded in the joints. Once it sits for 24 hours or so, you can apply sealant.

Skills: Patience and a steady hand.

Cost: Grout scrapers start at about $13; a pound of grout powder starts at $2 or $3.

Time: A handy homeowner can complete this in a weekend, including drying time. Just remember that your bathroom will be unusable while you’re working.

6. Paint a room or two

Whether it’s time for a new coat or you’re sick of the pale pink the last homeowner loved, painting can be a quick and inexpensive way to renew and change a room. Painting is a perfect winter project, but it can be time-consuming. And Lupberger warns that even water-based paint has a smell.

You can ask a local paint store for help selecting a paint color and deciding how much paint you’ll need to cover the walls in a room. They can also help you pick the right brushes and rollers.

Remove curtains, light fixtures, electric outlet covers and as much furniture as you can from the room you’ll paint. Protect the floors and any remaining furniture with dropcloths and tape off doorways and windows. Fix any holes and cracks before you start painting the room, and be sure the wall is clean and smooth. Depending on the paint you use, you may want to apply a layer of primer. If you’re painting the ceiling, it’s usually best to do that before you start on the wall.

Make sure you allot plenty of time for your painting project and remember that any furniture you move out of the room will probably stay out of the room for a day or two, depending on how many coats of paint you apply and how long it takes to dry; read the label on the paint you purchase.

Skills: Previous painting experience is helpful, but a patient first-timer can get the job done.

Cost: Varies. A gallon of paint averages $20 to $40. Plan on one gallon per 350 to 400 square feet. You may also need to purchase other supplies such as primer, brushes, rollers and dropcloths.

Time: A day or two per room, including drying time, depending on the size of the room and the number of coats of paint you apply.

7. Install flooring.

Pergo and laminate flooring is designed to go on top of an existing floor and is a great project for do-it-yourselfers, says Arthur Walters, a flooring contractor in Orange County, Calif.

Walters says he prefers Pergo to laminate, and encourages homeowners to spend a little more per square foot to get higher-quality flooring. Be ready for a small learning curve if you’ve never installed a floor yourself.

“I would recommend taking one of those classes at a home-improvement store,” he says.

Installing hardwoods is a lot more complicated and time-consuming, but Walters says it’s still doable if you’re willing to put in the time and effort to do it right.

“It takes practice and practice and practice,” he says. “If they took one of those classes where they can tell you the best place to start and what to look out for and which areas to undercut, then you can see what you’re getting into before you make your decision.”

Installing carpet may be a job best left to a professional. It involves putting down carpet tack, seaming the carpet in the joints and stretching it. Lupberger says do-it-yourselfers without previous experience are not going to be able to pull it off.

“Buy the carpet and get it in the house, then hire an installer,” he says. “You’re going to just go crazy if you see ripples where it’s not stretched properly, and you’ll end up paying someone to come out and fix it.”

If you have commercial carpet with rubber backing that just lies over a floor, you can do that yourself, he says.

Skills: Patience

Cost: The price for flooring ranges widely, but starts at $1 or $2 per square foot for laminate. Walters warns against going with the very cheapest, however.

Time: Plan to spend at least a weekend installing Pergo or laminate. “The first time they do it, even a small bedroom is going to take a couple of days,” Walters says.

8. Install new lighting.

Justin Merritt, owner of JM Electric Inc. in the Denver area, says homeowners can do basic electrical work themselves, but that “caution must be taken to do things correctly and not cut corners.”

“I see a lot of simple mistakes made that do not seem to matter to someone who is not a trained professional, but can become a major safety hazard,” he says.

He advises homeowners to get a how-to book and brush up on methods and materials to keep themselves safe from electrical hazards.

If you’re taking on an electrical project at home, including installing new lighting or changing out a switch or wall outlet, do your homework. Merritt says to be aware of these four things:

  • Shut off the power, then test to be sure the power is off. Some rooms in your home may have more than one circuit, so don’t trust that the power is off just because one light in the room no longer works.
  • Always read the instructions completely.
  • Never cut wires short; this creates loose connections, which cause most electrical fires.
  • Don’t leave green, bare or grounding wire disconnected.
  • Pay careful attention to how a light fixture is installed so you can put the new one in correctly, Merritt says.

Skills: Basic understanding of electrical wiring, and willingness to do your homework.

Cost: Depends on the light fixture being installed.

Time: An hour or two.

9. Replace a faucet.

Ryan says most faucets can be replaced by a handy homeowner. She suggests downloading the manufacturer’s instructions online so as not to damage the faucet body by using incorrect tools or parts.

“Remember that replacing the insides to the faucet is the easy part,” she says. “Acquiring the correct part, locating the correct tool and resisting the temptation to pry out the old part or bang on the faucet to loosen the old part is the more difficult aspect of the repair.”

A professional at your local hardware store can help you determine which faucet fixture will be the correct fit for your sink and be sure you have the right tools for the job. Videos online, including one from Home Depot, can walk you through each step of the process.

Always remember to turn off the water source before attempting any repair, Ryan says.

Skills: No special skills needed; just be sure that you know what you’re doing and that you have the correct tools before you get started.

Cost: The cost for a bathroom faucet ranges from less than $10 to well over $100.

Time: A couple of hours, after you have the new faucet and all the tools.

10. Replace a toilet.

While a homeowner could complete this task himself, Ryan warns that it requires a strong body to lift a toilet, and a handy mind to complete an installation.

“Toilets are made of china and can easily cut someone, so the utmost care must be displayed when working with a toilet,” she says. “I would not suggest this to a ‘weekend warrior’ unless they are committed to spending a lot of time and have someone to help them.”

If you are committed to do it, do your research. Watch a video online, read a how-to book or take a class. Again, remember to turn off the water to the fixture. You’ll also need to drain the tank by flushing the toilet to remove excess water.

Skills: Physical strength, patience, previous experience.

Cost: Toilets cost from less than $100 to well over $2,000 for fancy, designer models.

Time: To be on the safe side, plan to have your toilet out of commission all weekend.

3 more projects for the handiest DIYers.

These projects are only for homeowners who have experience or are willing to take the time to acquire the knowledge needed to get the job done.

1. Tile a bathroom floor. This project is time-consuming and requires a lot of attention to detail. You’ll lay the tile out on a dry floor first to determine the layout, then mortar, lay tile, grout and seal.

2. Finish a basement. Finishing a basement requires knowledge of framing, electrical work and insulation. “If somebody wants to, you bet you can do it,” Lupberger says. “Most of your weekends are gone, but you can finish it in a winter.”

3. Refinish a hardwood floor. This is one that Lupberger doesn’t recommend for homeowners, unless they have previous experience. It’s a dusty, dirty project and usually involves a very powerful floor sander. “If you’ve done it before, more power to you,” he says.

Lupberger and Ryan advise homeowners to expect a project to take at least twice as long as your original estimate, and require an extra trip or two to the hardware store.

“Any project is doable if you have the correct tools and experience,” Ryan says. “That is what a homeowner pays a professional to provide. If you do not have the correct tools or are not willing to acquire the tools or the knowledge for your project, then I would leave it to the professional and do something you enjoy.”