With winter approaching, now is a good time to clean and check your gutters

The leaves have fallen from the trees, but that doesn't mean they are gone.  Hundreds, if not thousands of them are probably clogging your gutters making now the perfect time to check them.

Rain gutters are an essential part of your home.  They keep water away from your home and prevent soil erosion and damage to your foundation.  But you need to maintain them to make them last.

"Your gutters should last about 20 years so it's important to properly maintain them, but more importantly your gutters are your first defense against water coming into your house," says Angie Hicks of Angie's List .  "So if you are not cleaning your gutters once or twice a year, you can have serious water problems."

When you check for damage, take a good look at the area around your home.

"Look on your landscaping and see if there is wash out due to the gutters above," says guttering contractor Don Holman.  "People hardly look up at their guttering they could see sagging gutters, but in the rain they are usually not outside to see the damage that it's doing it's usually like an after effect."

Here are more tips on checking and cleaning your gutters:

·    Twice a year:  Gutters and downspouts should be inspected and cleaned at least twice a year - once in the spring and again in the fall after the leaves have stopped falling. Homes in heavily wooded areas may need a cleaning three or four times a year. Expect to pay about $100 or more per cleaning, depending on the size of your home.

·    What you should look for:  Regularly walk around your home and look for leaking or sagging gutters, loose or damaged fasteners, and streaking in front or back of the gutter.

·    Check gutter screens/guards:  Gutter protection systems can help keep debris from settling in the gutter - allowing water that does collect to flow freely through the downspouts. But that doesn't mean these products are maintenance-free. Check regularly that these are not damaged or clogged with leaves.

·    Time to replace?  If you notice your gutters pulling away from the fascia board (the board that holds the gutter) or your gutters to continue to overflow after having already been cleaned, it could be time to replace them. The cost to replace aluminum gutters is between $4 and $7 per foot.

·    Don't forget gutter miter seams:  Be sure gutter miter seams, the corner seam where gutters bend, are caulked properly. Miter seams not caulked can eventually lead to the gutter board or soffits rotting out. Pay special attention to drips from seams occurring over walkways, or leaks that may be causing harm to the adjoining wood fascia. These should be repaired.

When it comes time to hire a professional, make sure they are licensed and insured.  You'll also want to make sure you have enough homeowners insurance in case of an accident.  If you need to replace your gutters, learn about the pros and cons of each type, from aluminum to copper to vinyl.  And when you purchase new gutters, read all the details before signing a contract and look for a warranty that runs at least 20 years.

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