For newer homeowners who aren't familiar with their home's maintenance needs, home maintenance chores can be daunting. When the list of home repair chores, from inspecting the roof to regrouting the bathtub, grows overwhelming the question naturally arises: What's most important?

The answer: Maintenance chores that involve safety or water intrusion should be top priority, according to David Tamny, American Society of Home Inspectors inspector and owner of Professional Property Inspection in Columbus, Ohio.

"One of the most important elements of homeowner maintenance is anything that has to do with drainage or water flow. Gutters or problems with grading and drainage around the structure that can contribute to foundation problems are probably things you don't want to defer," he says.

Stop Water Intrusion, Fix Safety Hazards

In the safety category, homeowners should prioritize:

  • Inspecting and repairing broken hand railings or walkway cracks that could lead to a slip-and-fall injury.
  • Pushing the "test" buttons on electrical outlets to make sure the ground-fault circuits are working.
  • Installing and testing smoke detectors in sleeping areas and hallways that lead into bedrooms.

Water is so insidious that it's the No. 1 concern of home inspectors at Amerispec of Northeast Florida, according to Charles Gifford, owner of the home inspection company in Jacksonville.

In the water category, homeowners should prioritize:

  • Cleaning out rain gutters and downspouts.
  • Repairing stucco cracks.
  • Using good-quality exterior paints.
  • Recaulking showers, bathtubs, sinks and toilets to keep water out of the walls and floors.
  • Repairing and sealing window leaks, which can cause mold and damage the structure of the home.
  • Cutting back plants that have grown too close to the foundation.

"Vegetation should be trimmed back so rain is running away from the house," Gifford says.

Head's Up for a Roof Inspection

A periodic roof inspection is also a must because undetected leaks can cause myriad costly home repairs. How often a roof should be professionally inspected depends on the age and type of roof and local weather conditions. An older roof exposed to severe weather should be inspected more often than a newer roof in a mild climate.

In any case, homeowners shouldn't wait until they see telltale stains on the ceilings to get the roof checked out. Instead, a roof inspection should be part of the regular home repair routine.

"When you start having damage due to water in the interior (of the home), that's going to devalue the property, and the worse that it gets, the more expensive and tough it will be to fix," Tamny says.

Cool it Now: Your HVAC System

Next on the to-do list should be the home's heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system, known in the trade by the abbreviation "HVAC," whether that means a furnace, air-conditioning unit, heat pump or other components. These systems should be serviced at least once or twice a year because, again, poor maintenance practices can lead to much more costly repairs.

"A dirty filter can lead to all kinds of problems," Gifford says.

Proactive Approach Saves Money

A proactive approach to home maintenance, rather than the more common I'll-fix-it-when-it-breaks mentality, can help homeowners save money on repair costs. The hard truth is that just about everything in a home requires some sort of maintenance, and it usually makes sense to stay ahead of the inevitable deterioration.

"Your house starts aging from the second the last nail is put in," Tamny says. "It keeps running down and eventually the systems become obsolete and need repair or replacement."

Gifford cites the backyard fence as a classic example of ill-advised deferred maintenance. Fences that are sagging or leaning or have broken slates often can be repaired. But if those signs of neglect are ignored, the fence will experience a "catastrophic failure" and need to be entirely rebuilt, he says.

Do it Yourself or Hire a Pro?

Whether the do-it-yourself option is a viable alternative for home maintenance depends largely on the homeowner's situation. For instance, older homeowners may not be spry enough to climb on the roof and clean out the rain gutters, while younger homeowners may be disinclined to take time away from their careers or family commitments, Tamny says.

For those determined to DIY, simple tasks such as painting a fence or clearing overgrown brush are a good place to start. Most homeowners shouldn't attempt electrical repairs due to the risk of electrocution. (Trimming trees near high-powered electrical lines is also extremely dangerous.) Projects that require special equipment such as cleaning air ducts are also ill-suited for the do-it-yourself approach.

One more tip: Few people enjoy house cleaning, but cleanliness can offer important home maintenance benefits, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Removing dirt and dust can prolong the lifespan of major appliances, window treatments, floors, carpets, sinks, bathtubs, cabinets and many other components of a typical home.

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Copyright 2012, Bankrate Inc.