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12 Fall Fix-Ups That Pay You Back

Save yourself thousands in future repair, maintenance, and energy costs by not leaving these minor problems to get out of hand

1. Beef Up Insulation in an Unfinished Attic

Photo by Bruce Forster/Getty Images

WHY NOW:

Baby, it's cold outside—or it will be soon. "So pop your head up in the attic and check insulation levels," says Mike Rogers of GreenHomes America, which specializes in energy-efficient improvements. In addition to sealing gaps in the attic floor and framing, Rogers recommends upping insulation levels to R-49 or even as high as R-60 for most areas of the country.

HOW TO DO IT:

If insulation is level with or below the ceiling joists, add loose fiberglass or cellulose—even over existing batts—using a rented blower. Make sure the material is well distributed, with no low spots. "Even a small gap greatly undermines performance," Rogers says.

THE PAYOFF:

Up to 10 percent savings on your utility bills.

2. Add Storm Windows

Photo by Keller and Keller

WHY NOW:

Old single-pane windows leak copious amounts of air, which makes for chilly drafts come winter. By installing triple-track storms, you can dramatically reduce air infiltration and protect those lovely wavy-glass panes from the elements.

HOW TO DO IT:

Measure carefully to determine whether you can use standard-size storms or need to custom order. When you're ready to install, position the unit in the window opening to check fit. Clean the window's exterior frame and trim. Apply a bead of elastomeric caulk on the back of the storm's surrounding fins, at the top and sides. Do not caulk the bottom of the storm: Moisture needs to drain through the pre-drilled weep holes. Position the storm unit in the window frame, pushing up snug at the top, and secure with screws. Adjust the storm's built-in bottom extender bar to rest on the sill.

At the very least, try a temporary window insulator kit.

THE PAYOFF:

Storms cost a fraction of replacement windows, $60 to $110 compared with $300 to $700, and yield energy savings of 13 percent (21 percent with low-e storms).

Storm Window How-To

Illustration by Joe McKendry

A. Caulk the storm's side and top fins, but not the bottom.

B. Insert the unit inside the window frame.

C. Secure the storm's fins to the frame by driving in screws around the unit's perimeter.

D. Tap down the storm's extender bar.

3. Button Up Interior Doors to the Basement and Garage

Photo by Kristine Larsen

WHY NOW:

It's not just the front and back doors that you need to worry about. Cold air can also enter the house through gaps around any door leading to an uninsulated space, such as a garage or basement.

HOW TO DO IT:

Weatherstripping the top and sides, and add an inexpensive door sweep to the bottom. TOH general contractor Tom Silva recommends a wood sweep that you can stain or paint to match your door and that has an attached nylon brush to follow the contours of irregular flooring or carpeting. Sweeps usually need to be cut to size, so be sure to measure the width of the door first. To insulate the top and lock-side jambs, use peel-and-stick high-density foam tape or nail-on vinyl gaskets. For the hinge-side jamb, a premium adhesive-backed strip made of EDPM rubber will retain its shape after years of use.

THE PAYOFF:

For $20 and 30 minutes of your time, reduce cold air infiltration by as much as 11 percent.

Door Weatherstripping How-To

Illustration by Joe McKendry

A. Apply peel-and-stick or nail-on strips to the door stops on the top and lock-side jambs.

B. Use a peel-and-stick rubber strip for the hinge-side jamb.

C. Secure a brushed sweep at the bottom of the door.

4. Seal Exhaust Vents

WHY NOW:

Exterior vents, particularly those for a clothes dryer or a whole-house fan, allow heated air to seep out of your house, while letting cold outside air in.

HOW TO DO IT:

Swap your dryer's louvered or metal flapper-style vent for a Dryer Vent Seal (About $20; Battic Door), which consists of an elbow pipe topped with a plastic cap and shuttle. When the dryer is in use, the floating shuttle beneath the hood rises to let warm air, lint, and moisture escape. When not in use, the shuttle drops down to seal the hole and prevent drafts. For a whole-house fan, construct a simple box-shaped cover out of rigid foam insulation (use foil-type duct tape for the seams) to enclose the fan during cold months, when it's not in use. From inside the house, fit the cover over the fan, and secure it to the frame with adhesive-backed Velcro strips. Just remember to remove the cover before you switch on the fan come spring. This kind of DIY cover can also help insulate in-wall or window air-conditioning units that are left in year-round.

THE PAYOFF:

Vent sealing can prevent 4 percent of your home's heated air from escaping.

5. Remove Aggressive Vines

Photo by Russell Kaye

WHY NOW:

On brick or stone home facades, climbers with suckers, such as Virginia creeper, pull the lime out of the mortar, creating entry points for water. Vines also hold moisture against walls, which can wreak havoc on wood clapboards, slowing their ability to dry out after a rain and causing rot. If vines get between boards, they can push them apart.

HOW TO DO IT:

"Pull all the vines off, working from the top down; cut them at the base, and dig out the roots," says TOH landscape contractor Roger Cook. To remove any residue left behind on wood siding, do a quick pass with an orbital sander. Come spring, paint an herbicide on any new growth.

THE PAYOFF:

You'll avert having to spend up to $25 per square foot for professional mortar repointing. For wood houses, dodge up to $3,000 to re-side and rebuild a rotted clapboard wall.

6. Install a Solar Roof-Vent Fan

Photo by Kansas City Star/Getty Images

WHY NOW:

In winter, trapped heat can melt snow on the roof, which then refreezes, clogging gutters with ice. Water runoff from the roof gets trapped by the dam and eventually backs up the roof, travels under the shingles, and leaks into the house.

HOW TO DO IT:

"The trick is to keep the top and underside of the roof the same temperature," says Tom Silva. One way to do that in unfinished attics is with a solar roof-vent fan that draws in cold outside air through existing soffit or gable intakes and exhausts warm air that's built up under the roof. Powered by the sun, the fan, which costs about $300, further saves you money in summer by cooling the attic so your air conditioner doesn't have to work as hard.

THE PAYOFF:

You're spared $5,000 to replace rotten roof framing, as well as ceiling and wall damage.

Solar Roof-Vent Fan How-To

Illustration by Joe McKendry

Start by hammering a nail through the underside of the roof to mark the location of the fan. The nail should be halfway between two rafters and close to the top of the roof.

A. Make a compass out of a wood strip with a screw in each end, and etch a circular template on the shingles where the fan will go.

B. Cut through the shingles and underlayment to reveal roof sheathing. Mark a second, smaller circle and make the fan cutout using a reciprocating saw. Remove shingles around the cutout so that the fan's flashing will overlay the roof sheathing.

C. Caulk around the cutout with a tri-polymer roof sealant.

D. Position the fan, and secure it with screws. Follow with a bead of caulk along fan's flashing. Reinstall the shingles.

7. Replace Damaged Asphalt Roof Shingles

Photo by Vstock/Alamy

WHY NOW:

Many leaks are caused by a broken shingle or a rusted nail that allowed a shingle to slip out of place. A drip now can become a flood later, and the last place you want to be on a frigid winter day is on the roof.

HOW TO DO IT:

Spot damage from the ground using binoculars, or get a closer look from a ladder at the eaves. On the roof, use a pry bar to loosen the shingles above the one that's broken. Then pry out the nails holding the damaged shingle to remove it. Slip in a new shingle that's the same width, and secure it with nails.

THE PAYOFF:

Catching a leak before it happens can save you $300 or more to repair a ceiling or wall and up to $6,000 for mold remediation.

8. Patch Cracks in the Driveway

WHY NOW:

Small fissures and holes in asphalt can quickly expand into large gaps and potholes if snow and ice get into them.

HOW TO DO IT:

Wait for a mild day; tar-like asphalt repair products work best when pliable. Clean out loose debris in the hole, and ensure the surface is dry. Using a caulk gun, inject a sealant (try Dupont 7906 Driveway & Repair Caulk, about $18 per four-pack) into the opening. Use a wood craft stick to tamp the sealant level.

THE PAYOFF:

Keeping on top of minor cracks can save you $3 to $6 per square foot to resurface the whole driveway.

9. Lengthen Stubby Downspouts

Illustration by Joe McKendry

WHY NOW:

Heavy winter rain can cause pooling near your home's foundation if your downspout kick-outs are too short. That water can then infiltrate the foundation and be wicked up the side of the house, wreaking havoc along the way in the form of mold, insects, or rot, says Roger Cook. Telltale signs may be a wet spot in your basement after a rain or widening cracks in the foundation.

HOW TO DO IT:

Attach a flexible downspout extender that's connected to a length of drainage pipe buried just below grade; the pipe should direct water at least 10 feet away from your home's foundation. Rather than sending that diverted water into a dry well or losing it to the storm drain, put it to work by attaching another length of perforated pipe, wrapped in landscape fabric, that'll disperse the water to feed your flower beds. To allow for proper drainage, lay the perforated pipe on a 3- to 6-inch bed of washed stone. See our full tutorial on extending downspouts here.

THE PAYOFF:

You're spared $10,000 to $30,000 to jack up the house and replace a rotted main beam, plus $1,000 to $3,000 to repair damaged joists.

10. Quick Change: Screw in LED Exterior Bulbs

Shorter days mean you need outdoor lights to find your way without tripping. So take this opportunity to swap burned-out incandescents for LED bulbs, which screw right into your existing fixtures. For a bright beam that's equal to a 75-watt incandescent, try Sylvania's Ultra High-Performance Series LED Narrow Flood. While pricey, LEDs are more durable and use 75 percent less energy than incandescents. They can also last 22 years or more, so you may never have to climb a ladder to change a burned-out bulb again.

11. Quick Change: Set, Then Forget, the Thermostat

Photo by Ryan Benyi

It's human nature to fiddle with the temperature on an unusually hot or cold day. But overriding the pre-sets on a programmable thermostat wastes energy and reduces the technology to an old-school rotary dial. Achieve peak performance and save up to $180 a year in heating and cooling costs by keeping the temperature fixed for at least eight hours at a time, such as while you're asleep.

12. Quick Change: Flush the Water Heater

Photo by Ryan Benyi

Sediment build-up displaces water and prevents the heater from operating at full capacity. By flushing the tank once a year, usually before winter, you won't be wasting cash by heating this gunk. Start by turning off the heater and letting the tank cool; then shut off the water supply. If gravity is on your side, connect a hose to the drain cock and run it to a floor drain. If you don't have a drain, send the water to a sink or bucket using a drill pump (an attachment that will suction water out of the heater). Draining 3 gallons is usually enough, but you may have to fill and flush a few times until the water's clear.

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