Illustration of a house with someone on a ladder, emptying leaves out of the gutter, and another person installing a security camera.
Photo-Illustration: C.J.Burton

With 2020 being what it was and hindsight being 20/20, we’ve learned a lot about new ways of living—with a pandemic, climate change, and working (and working out) at home. We also know a few things we would do differently. But through it all, our appreciation for our homes has never been greater.

Whether you like it or not, you might still find yourself spending more time at home than normal this winter—but this time, you and your home will be ready.

We have top-rated products that have proved their worth during these trying times. Plus, expert tips to help make the most of the space you have, give your things some TLC, do essential safety checks, and prep your home for whatever comes next.

Protect Your Place

Thought you didn’t need an air conditioner in the Pacific Northwest? Didn’t think pipes could freeze in southern Texas? Wildfire smoke ain’t no thing in New York City? Think again.

The past year has taught us to be prepared for extreme weather—no matter where we live. Don’t get caught off guard the next time Mother Nature throws you a curveball.

Secure the Perimeter
Keep the elements out while also protecting yourself and your family.

Buffer windows and doors. To identify drafts that drive up heating bills, look for damage to the rubber or foam gaskets around doors and gently shake windows. “A rattling sound or light coming through edges indicates leaky gaps,” says John Galeotafiore, CR’s lead product tester. Seal gaps using caulk or weatherstripping. If you have thin single-pane windows, install glass storm windows, which slow down heat loss and reduce air leaks but cost less than upgrading to thick double-pane windows. They’re great for renters because some can be put on the interior of windows.

Get rid of leaves. Jammed gutters overflow, causing water to seep into your house. You can buy a curved-nozzle attachment ($20 for most leaf blowers) that lets you blow leaves out of gutters from the ground—making this task quicker and safer. Also consider installing a plastic mesh gutter guard, about $5 for 20 feet, to keep debris out.

Be your own watchdog. Installing a DIY security system can help give you peace of mind. For your whole home, we recommend the Abode Essentials Starter Kit, $250; it has door and window sensors, a motion detector, and a key fob to control it all. But if you need to cover just one dark entrance, consider buying a motion-detecting LED floodlight camera, such as the Arlo Pro 3 Floodlight Camera, $250. “In addition to illuminating dark areas at night, the Arlo has a built-in siren that can potentially scare off intruders,” says CR home editor Dan Wroclawski. “Plus, installation is quick and easy because it doesn’t need to be hardwired like many other cameras—shaving off at least 45 minutes of setup time.”

More on Home Improvement

Condition and Clear the Air
Keep your air clean, cool, and comfortable by replacing filters on time and sealing up leaks.

Breathe easier. Swap out flimsy filters in your heating, ventilating, and air conditioning system. Use filters with at least a MERV 10 rating, such as the Aprilaire Healthy Home 213 MERV 13, $40. They provide high filtration of fine particles, such as smoke. On days with poor air quality, shut windows and turn the HVAC fan on to filter the air.

If you don’t have a ventilation system, buy a portable air purifier with a HEPA filter. We find that large models—for 350 square feet or more—are often best at filtering smoke.

Fend off mold. Place a dehumidifier in a muggy basement or laundry room to help keep humidity levels between 30 and 50 percent and allergy-triggering mold at bay. The Honeywell TP70WKN, $300, is big enough to remove as much as 50 pints of water per day. Clean your dehumidifier if you spot any mildew on it.

Stay Ahead of Storms
Power outages tied to extreme weather are making storm prep more essential by the day—even in areas not usually hit with winter storms. Being prepared will also save you money in the long run. 

Power up. Don’t wait until days before a storm to buy a portable generator; models might be in short supply then. A typical house needs one with about 5,000 watts. Make sure you have enough stabilized gasoline to last for at least 24 hours. Larger portable generators can use up to 20 gallons per day.

If you live in a condo, you may want a portable power station—a large battery that stores electricity. It’s very costly, but it’s the only type of generator that can be safely used inside. The best model in our tests, a Goal Zero Yeti, $3,000, powers a fridge for 44 hours on one charge.

Protect pipes. Burst pipes are one of the most common causes of property damage and can easily cause $5,000 or more in water damage. The pipes most at risk are those in unheated interior spaces, such as basements (where 37 percent of bursts occur), attics, and garages. Cover pipes yourself with foam insulating tubes for as little as 33 cents per foot. “On extremely cold days, open cabinet doors that are along outside walls,” Galeotafiore says. “This allows heat from the house to get further toward the piping.”

Strategize snow removal. Even if you have a snow blower, lay down a thin layer of ice melt before a storm, and again during the storm, to make removal easier. If you don’t get much snow, try a battery-powered snow shovel, such as the Greenworks 2600602, $300, which has a spinning auger to discharge snow—a worthy upgrade from a cheap plastic snow shovel (and easier to store than a blower).

Refresh and Flex Your Spaces

There has been so much wear and tear on the stuff we’ve been using all day long. Here’s how to brighten some things up—and replace what has seen better days.

Utility Rooms
Refresh key kitchen filters.
 Keep your tap water crisp and clear by replacing your filter—whether you use a pitcher, the refrigerator dispenser, or an undersink unit to filter your water. If you have a range hood and/or an over-the-range microwave, soak the filter in hot soapy water at least every two months to remove grease and other flammable debris. Some dishwashers also have a filter that needs to be cleaned every few months.

Trick out your toilet. Give your bathroom a luxe makeover for a few hundred dollars by installing a bidet seat on an existing toilet. A spray wand on the seat cleanses your undercarriage, reducing the need for toilet paper. Many electric models heat up the seat and water—comforts you’ll appreciate on cold mornings. Some even have a heated air dryer.

Give the laundry room some TLC. Minimize mold in the washing machine by cleaning it once a month: Run an empty load on the hottest setting with a bleach-based washer cleaner. On a front-loader, gently pull back the gasket to wipe away residue; regularly clean the drain pump filter if it’s accessible. Clean out lint buildup in and around your dryer’s duct to prevent fires. Unplug the dryer and disconnect the duct. Use a dryer-duct brush to remove lint, and vacuum it up using a hose and crevice attachment. A $15 Lint Lizard extension tube attaches to the hose on a vacuum and tunnels into the duct, making this task easy.

Living and Working Spaces
Optimize your TV picture. TVs have a lot of menu presets, such as Vivid, Sports, and Dynamic. But those tend to increase or reduce a TV’s brightness and colors too dramatically—and might not give you the best picture for your favorite fall shows and football games. Use CR’s TV Screen Optimizer, which has lab-tested picture settings for specific TV models. If you need a new television, check our TV ratings and buying guide.

Boost sound quality. Add oomph to your TV’s audio by hooking up a sound bar, placing it above or below your TV. Full-featured models offer surround sound and integrated access to streaming music services. But even a basic model with a Good score in our testing is often better than a TV’s built-in speakers.

Declutter your desk. A tidy work-from-home desk can save your sanity. Wrangle tangled cords using a “cable sleeve” or adhesive cord holders, around $10 online, or simply use twist ties to group cords together. And, as we all do more online—from banking to buying groceries—invest in a password manager to auto-generate and store a different strong password for each of your accounts.

Take it outside. Extend the seasonal usability of your backyard or balcony by making it warm, comfy, and welcoming. It should feel like an extension of your living room with cushy furniture, a rug, throw blankets, and calming greenery. A WiFi extender ensures that you have a strong enough signal to stream music and movies. Solar-powered lights ensure that you’re never left out in the dark. If you opt for corded lights, plug them into a weather-resistant smart plug and program them from your smartphone so they turn on at dusk and switch off at dawn.

Set up a home gym. A spare room or nook can turn into a satisfying workout space. A full-length mirror will let you check your posture while an adjustable tablet stand makes it easy to attend virtual training classes. If you live in an apartment, place a thick rug on the floor under your yoga mat—it’ll not only help protect your knees during floor exercises, but also your relationship with the downstairs neighbors during high-intensity interval training sessions. Exercise bikes are great for low-impact cardio and take up less real estate than treadmills and ellipticalsAdjustable dumbbells or workout bands also take up little space.

More Home How-Tos

Every Room
Regulate temperatures. 
When you’re home in the winter, set your thermostat to 68° F. When you’re asleep or away, keep it 7° to 10° F lower to maximize heating bill savings. And if you don’t have a smart thermostat, install one to remotely control your HVAC system. Setting a schedule can save around $83 per year on energy.

Another cool trick: Set fans so that the blades rotate clockwise. (Do this by flicking a switch on the housing or via remote.) Run the fan on a slow speed to pull up cool air from the room, which sends the warm air that collects near the ceiling back down to where it’s needed.

Repaint dull walls. One of the least expensive improve­ments you can make to any room is a new coat of paint. “Even if your refresh budget is small or you’re in a rental, painting an accent wall or a room can make your home feel fresh again,” says Rico de Paz, who runs the Consumer Reports paint lab. “A top-rated paint will also cover old stains and prevent new ones from soaking in.”

Get smart with lighting. Smart lightbulbs, such as those from Cync by GE Lighting, start around $10. They can be controlled remotely via an app or a digital assistant. You can set all the lights in your home to turn on and off with your security system or just customize color and brightness for different rooms.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the November 2021 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.