Home heating bills are soaring in most parts of the country. Here's how much you can expect to pay.

YOU DON'T HAVE TO be Alan Greenspan to know it's going to cost a lot more to heat your home this winter.

Thanks to continued tensions in the Middle East, production issues in the Gulf of Mexico and increased global demand, crude-oil prices have reached a staggering $55 a barrel, up from $27.54 in 2003 and $15.56 in 1999. Natural-gas prices are on the rise, too, topping $7.30 per million British thermal units recently, up from $4.88 a year ago.

Suddenly, a lump of coal in the Christmas stocking doesn't seem so bad.

Consumers who use heating oil are likely to suffer the worst case of sticker shock this winter. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), heating oil, on average, is expected to cost $1.75 per gallon this winter. A typical homeowner in the Northeast, where two thirds of oil-heated homes are located, can expect to spend $1,223 this winter season, a 28% increase over last year. This figure is based on the government's assumption that homeowners this year will consume 698 gallons during the next few months.

A particularly cold winter could make matters worse. Based on the agency's forecast, a severe winter could push prices up an additional 15.4%, and cause heating bills to rise to $1,412.

Ready for some more bad news? EIA economist Neil Gamson explains that the agency's forecasted price is already starting to look too low, thanks to ever-rising crude-oil prices. A better indicator, Gamson says, is the most recent State Energy Offices' survey, which looks at current prices. On Oct. 18, heating oil cost an average of $1.98 a gallon, or $1,382 for the entire season. And in places like Washington, D.C., the cost was a staggering $2.23 a gallon, or $1,556 for the season.

The situation isn't quite so bleak for those who heat their homes with natural gas. The EIA projects prices will average $10.86 per thousand cubic feet, an 11.2% increase over last year. The average Midwestern household, where the majority of natural-gas users live, are expected to use 92.3 thousand cubic feet this winter and pay a total of $1,003 for the season.

Like heating oil, natural-gas expenditures will rise quite a bit more if we suffer a colder-than-normal winter, Gamson says. If temperatures drop significantly, consumers can expect to spend 17% more than the forecasted figure — or $1,172 — to heat their homes.

Of course, there are plenty of ways to save on your heating bill. Gamson recommends proper maintenance and furnace cleanings. Also, homeowners should make sure insulation is plentiful, and seal drafty windows and doors. Another way to trim costs is to follow the recommendations of an online energy audit. Just log on to Eenergyguide.com and fill out information about the size and construction of your house, the appliances you use and what your heating-oil and natural-gas expenses are.

When all else fails, keep the thermostat low — and pile on the thermal underwear.