This article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of This Old House Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe.
12 Easy Ways to Get Your Home Ready for the Fall Season
1. Transplant crowded shrubs
The cooler temperatures of early-to-mid fall make it prime time for moving shrubs that have outgrown their space or are languishing in the wrong location. Here’s how:
- Prune or tie back branches with twine to prevent breakage.
- Use a sharp shovel or spade to score the soil just beyond the root ball. A typical 2-foot-tall shrub has a root ball about 14 inches in diameter.
- Dig down, angling the shovel toward the center to isolate the roots.
- Using the shovel, lift the root ball onto a tarp, keeping as much soil as possible around the roots to minimize shock. Drag it to its new location.
- Dig a new hole twice as wide and no deeper than the root ball.
- Place the shrub in the hole, with its best side facing forward and the top of the root ball at or just above grade; backfill with the excavated soil.
- Water well and spread a 2-to-3-inch layer of mulch around the base, making sure to expose the root flare around the main stem to avoid trapping moisture against it.
“Keep watering plants in fall, up until the first hard freeze. Doing so will help assure their survival through the long stretches of cold, windy weather to come.”—This Old House Landscape Contractor Jenn Nawada
2. Put cordless yard tools to bed
Before you retire battery-powered lawn gear for the winter, use a stiff wire brush to clean out dried debris from the underside of the mower or string trimmer. Now is a good time to sharpen or replace worn blades, so they’ll be ready come spring.
If you have a cordless chainsaw, remove the battery, empty the oil tank, clean off debris, and lubricate the chain before storing. Unplug all batteries and their chargers, and store them in a temperate, dry place.
Check the manufacturers’ charging instructions; while some recommend storing batteries with only a partial charge, lawn tractor batteries may need to be connected to a low-voltage trickle charger to keep the batteries viable till they’re ready for full use.
3. Plug basement leaks
Older houses may have air and water leaks in the foundation. Water leaks are usually obvious after a heavy rain; if ignored, they will get worse and damage the foundation. Water seeping in through foundation cracks can be caused by drainage issues; add downspout diverters if needed to channel water away from the house.
TOH mason Mark McCullough recommends using type N mortar mix to seal holes or cracks in the foundation that are leaking water. Fixing air leaks—typically around windows and doors, and at the rim joist—will keep your basement warmer and lower your energy bills. To identify them, stand in the basement during daytime hours, turn off all the lights, and look for spots admitting daylight.
These can be sealed with expanding urethane foam; once the foam has cured, minimize its appearance by cutting away the excess.
4. Inspect gas fireplaces
Fireplaces that burn natural gas or propane require professional service and maintenance yearly, since these combustion appliances need to operate and vent properly to carry away the carbon monoxide they produce. Here’s what you can do:
While cleaning the glass, check for cracks or chips, and that the gaskets around the glass aren’t degraded. If ceramic logs are starting to crumble, have them replaced. It’s also a good idea to vacuum up any loose debris on the floor of the firebox, which can clog burner ports and impede full combustion.
Examine the walls outside the unit. Burning gas produces a lot of water vapor, and peeling paint and wallpaper or obvious damp spots can signal a leak in the flue. Check the chimney exterior, too; whitish stains on brick or crumbling mortar joints can indicate excess condensation. Call in a pro if you see any of these signs.
5. Take care of wood thresholds
Between foot traffic, sun, rain, and snow, the transition strip at an entry door really takes a beating. Now is a good time to renew its finish.
TOH painter Mauro Henrique likes to start fresh, sanding off any existing paint or stain down to bare wood and recoating from scratch.
Once the old finish is stripped off a painted threshold, he starts with a coat of oil primer and follows with two coats of porch and patio enamel, sanding with 120 grit between coats. For thresholds that have been stained and clear-coated, after a thorough sanding, he follows with a coat or two of stain as needed, followed by three thin coats of marine spar varnish.
6. Get grubs under control
Noticed small patches of dead grass on your lawn or places where skunks or raccoons have dug up turf? You may have grub trouble.
The whitish, C-shaped larvae of several types of beetles (including Japanese beetles, june bugs, and chafers), grubs emerge in early fall, feeding on grass roots until cold weather, when they burrow deeper and become dormant. Come spring, the grubs become active again and continue to feed until they mature.
Now is an ideal time to control their numbers. There are lots of grub-control products on the market, but many of them contain neonicotinoids and pyrethrins, insecticides that can also kill bees and other beneficial insects. A safer alternative: Treat the lawn with a product containing Bacillus thuringiensis galleriae, a naturally occurring bacterium that is less harmful to other insects.
Studies by several state university agricultural schools have shown the bacterium to be more broadly effective than other natural remedies such as milky spore.
7. Set the stage for a greener space
With cooler temperatures but ample amounts of sunlight, autumn is when your lawn can recuperate from the dog days of summer. Here are some ways you can help:
- Keep watering. In fall, turf grass grows down more than up. To foster root growth, aim to give it 1 inch of water per week until the ground freezes or the lawn goes dormant.
- Aerate. This creates holes that allow air, water, and nutrients to reach the soil. Forgo spiked shoes: Your best bet is to hire a lawn service or rent an aerator.
- Reseed and fertilize. If you live in a northern climate with cool-season grass, Labor Day’s the time to overseed and feed. Use a slow-release fertilizer that’s high in nitrogen for optimal results. For southern climates with warm-season grasses, wait until spring, after your first mowing, to give your lawn a nitrogen boost.
8. Mind the gaps
That daylight you can see inside your garage when the door’s closed is where cold air comes in, too. To stop heat loss, start at the bottom. Metal doors have a plastic gasket that slides into a metal channel; wood ones typically use a strip-style seal that is tacked in place. Replace seals that are worn or torn. If the floor is uneven, attach a garage door threshold to seal any gaps. Next, seal the top and sides with doorstop molding: Press the flange against the door’s outside, then nail or screw it to the sides and top of the opening.
9. Freeze protection
To avoid ice damage or an emergency visit from the plumber, winterize outdoor water lines and accessories before temperatures drop below freezing. Start with your in-ground irrigation system. Some systems can be drained; others require a blow-out with an air compressor. To winterize outdoor faucets, shut off the water line and open the tap or install outdoor faucet covers. Drain portable items, like hoses and fountain pumps, and store them in a basement or an attached garage.
10. Seal out the squirrels
Attics and soffits make ideal nesting spots for squirrels. Once they’ve chewed their way inside, they can cause thousands of dollars in damage. To keep these critters outdoors, check fascia boards, soffits, and siding for any holes or soft spots. Replace or block damaged sections with metal screening. Inspect vent covers and chimney caps, too, and repair or replace as needed. To discourage pests from gnawing tiny cracks into wider openings, seal up gaps around dryer vents and pipe holes using rodent-resistant expanding foam.
If squirrels do find their way in, don’t try to take care of them on your own. A professional service can evict the furry freeloaders and suggest ways to keep them from coming back.
11. Don’t get stuck in the cold
Over time, dirt, moisture, and corrosion conspire to keep door locks from turning smoothly and can even cause them to seize up. A 2-minute tune-up can keep you from having to wait outside for a locksmith. To clear the keyhole, give it a quick blast of a Teflon-based dry lubricant (like B’laster Dry Lube, $9.99; amazon.com), then insert and remove your key and wipe away any dirt. Repeat several times. Next, lubricate the keyway and any moving parts; turn the key a few times, making sure the action is smooth in the cylinder and the bolt functions as it should. Avoid graphite and other dry-lubricant ingredients, which can cake up when they get wet. Nondrying oils, like WD-40, can attract more dirt.
12. Deep clean your dishwasher
Did you know you should be using dishwasher cleaning tablets once a month to remove limescale, food debris, and detergent residue? Even so, glasses can take on spots, and there can be instances when something doesn’t smell quite right. Then it’s time to roll up your sleeves. Fortunately, a deep cleaning requires less than 30 minutes of hands-on work.
- Step 1: Unclog spray arms. Remove the racks and look inside. Pop off both arms, scrub them with a plastic bristled brush, and then set them under a faucet to check for clogs. If any outlet holes are stopped up, use a toothpick to gently dislodge the debris.
- Step 2: Clear filters. Newer washers have a cup-shaped filter that can be twisted out and rinsed; they may also have a metal screen on the bottom (like the one at left) that lifts out for cleaning. Older washers employ self-cleaning filters that sit under a plastic grid or cover plate. Despite the name, this filter can get clogged, too. Unscrew the cover plate to remove the filter underneath. Soak the filter in warm, soapy water for 10 to 15 minutes, then clean the screen and the cover with a soft-bristled brush.
- Step 3: Clean front corners. Wipe rubber flanges with a microfiber cloth. Pay special attention to spots where crud is likely to collect, such as where the door attaches to the case.
- Step 4: Run a regular cycle. With all parts back in place, pour 1 cup of white vinegar into an upright bowl on the top rack and run the machine. When it’s done, check the door for leaks.