The cold winter weather might prompt you to consider lighting a fire in your home's fireplace, but that is a bad idea unless you've taken steps to properly maintain your fireplace during the year. A poorly maintained fireplace can lead to a host of issues and will be noted during a home inspection. To avoid the fire and structural risks introduced by a neglected fireplace, use the following tips to keep things working properly:

Check out the chimney

The chimney that allows smoke to escape from your home is a crucial part of the fireplace and a likely source of issues. It's also difficult to properly clean on your own. Start your maintenance by contacting a professional chimney sweeping service. It will be able to remove any debris and soot that has built up, and locate any structural issues that need to be addressed.

The main thing cleaners will remove is creosote, which is a black substance that coats the walls of your fireplace and chimney when wood is not burning completely. While this looks like regular soot, it's highly flammable. Even if you've had your chimney cleaned recently, contact the cleaner again if you notice a black buildup on the walls inside the fireplace. 

Once you've invested in a professional cleaning, make sure you protect the chimney from further issues by purchasing a high-quality chimney cap. This is the vented lid that sits on top of the tube to prevent excess moisture or small animals from entering your home. It's worth finding a model that perfectly suits your house, as this simple device will significantly improve the lifespan of your chimney. 

Consider modern upgrades

Some of the best ways to boost your fireplace's efficiency, durability and safety involve upgrades with modern materials. Pairing glass doors on the front of your fireplace with a fan that pulls heat into your living space provides all the heat and visual interest of a fire while eliminating much of the danger. 

You also may want to add a stainless steel liner to your fireplace. A metal surface will contain hot embers and resist damage better than traditional stone.

Burn clean wood to cut down on grime

To keep your fireplace cleaner between chimney sweep visits, burn only hardwood that has been dried for over 6 months. Doing so will reduce soot and smoke that needs to escape up the chimney, and will cut down on the smoke that enters your home.