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Gutters and downspouts are key elements in protecting your home from water damage. Ideally, gutters collect rainwater as it comes off the roof, and downspouts carry it to the ground, releasing it at least five feet from the foundation wall.

Without good gutters, rain falls off the edge of the roof and pools along the drip line all around your house. You'll get seepage into your basement, mud splashing up on your home causing discoloration and staining, and possible structural damage to the outside walls and foundation over time.

Material

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Aluminum is the standard material used for gutters and downspouts: It won't rust, is weather resistant and comes in a variety of colours. It has pretty much replaced galvanized steel, which, while it is stronger than aluminum and can stand up better to falling tree branches or badly placed ladders, it can rust through.

When buying any metal gutters, choose the thickest gauge you can afford - they'll last longer.

If your contractor recommends vinyl gutters and downspouts, get someone else to do the job. The plastic variety is sold in building supply stores, and it's for do-it-yourselfers. A pro wouldn't use it.

The vinyl product comes in sections so the homeowner or handyman can install it more easily, but every one of those seams will eventually develop a leak. Sure it's cheaper, but vinyl gets brittle with age - and in extreme cold - and the colours are limited.

Go seamless

Gutters are either sectional - sold in 10-ƒ|or 12-foot lengths - or seamless. I prefer seamless - no question. Obviously, there are no seams to develop leaks; the only joints are at the corners of the house where the runs meet, and where the downspouts connect.

Seamless gutters are made on site to the exact length your house requires. They can be made only by using a portable forming machine, a procedure that requires a professional.

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Size, pitch and placement

The standard gutter width is four inches, but six inches is better. The bigger size simply handles more flow, and the same is true with downspouts.

If your gutters aren't properly pitched, water will sit in them rather than flow to the downspout. This is even more of a problem if leaves collect in the gutter.

But the number of downspouts is also a factor. Think about it: If you have a gutter that runs the length of your house - maybe 30 feet or more - and there is only one downspout at the corner collecting water from two sides, the huge amount of water in a rainstorm will cause the gutters to overflow.

Cleaning

Make sure you clean your gutters at least twice a year - especially if there are trees near your home. Clogged gutters can cause water to leak into the house, and also provide the conditions for mosquitoes to breed, and grass and weeds to grow. If leaves and debris aren't removed, the rust and corrosion process will be speeded up.

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But even if you clean your gutters - and many homeowners don't - debris can still build up.

Just like in your home's plumbing system, if there is a clog in a downspout, water will back up and overflow your gutter.

Or in the winter, water can back up and freeze under your roof shingles and soffits, forming an ice dam.

Gutter screens

I recommend you use a leaf-proof screen on your gutters. It will let water flow through, but keep debris out of your gutters and downspouts.

If the leaves can't get into your gutters, they can't create a blockage.

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Go pro

You should hire a professional to install gutters and downspouts, but you need to be careful and ask questions. It's an easy business to get into: All you need is a seamless gutter machine, a few tools, a ladder and a truck. So there are a lot of "pros" out there who really don't have much experience.

Before you sign a contract, it's important that you check a contractor's references, drive by some of his finished jobs, ask questions, and compare product guarantees and warranties.

Don't let price be the only criteria you use to make your decision. If your gutter contractor's bid is really low, there's a reason for it. Maybe he's using a thinner-gauge aluminum, or maybe he has no idea what the job involves and is in over his head.

Mike Holmes is the host of Holmes on Homes on HGTV. E-mail Mike at mikeholmes@holmesonhomes.com or go to www.holmesonhomes.com .

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