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6 easy ways to spruce up your home's curb appeal in fall

Julie Belcher

"When it comes to buying and selling a home, the final months of the year present some unique advantages in the marketplace - think less competition and highly-motivated buyers," according to Maureen Moran of Chicago Dream Home.

And while you may feel like giving curb appeal a pass in autumn (afterall, leaves are falling everywhere and it gets dark practically the second the kids get off the school bus), it's actually even more important in a lower-traffic real estate season. "Make the most of the season by staging your home so that it's warm, cozy, and inviting for homebuyers," Trulia advised.

Not sure where to start? Here are six worthy curb appeal projects for fall:

Tidy up

Keep the leaves raked and the gutters clean. Prospective buyers are envisioning your house as their own. Don't remind them that your home involves outdoor chores or let your yard give the impression that you haven't taken good care of the rest of the house.

Tie a ribbon around a pumpkin for a simple outdoor display. (Contributed by Fynes Designs/For the AJC)

Create an updated display complete with pumpkin

While you don't want to go overboard, a clean and pretty fall display is a great way to get folks looking at the front of your house. One popular project that's simple and screams "fall" is a wood crate used as a shadow box for a pumpkin festooned with a ribbon. "Add a straw bale or two for a look that's pure country comfort. You can almost smell the pumpkin pie in the oven!" enthused the designers at Bob Vila's website.

Beautify with a window box

"Despite the charms of the season, many homes aren't exactly showing at their best during fall," Realty ToolKit noted. Their instant curb appeal solution? A window box with a combo of violas, trailing ivy and tall, colorful snapdragons that will flower through early autumn. "Remember the container garden rule of thumb: thriller, filler and spiller," according to the Toolkit article. "Choose an eye-catching thriller to showcase, an attractive filler plant to keep the container from looking too sparse and a vine or trailing plant to spill over the side."

And don't skimp.

"You'll be using mostly annuals for quick color, so you don't need to be as concerned about leaving enough room for the plants to spread. A window box filled to bursting with lush plants should be visible from the street."

Consider painting the exterior

Those with chipping paint or a 1970s color scheme should call the pros ASAP for new exterior paint, according to Trulia. The good news: pros are more readily available in autumn. The better news: according to Trulia, you can expect a return on investment of 60 to 100 percent with exterior paint, and this investment in curb appeal can help homes sell for as much as ten percent more than others on the block. 

Add (or enhance) outdoor lights

If you look at the challenge optimistically, shorter days in autumn mean you get extra value from adding the outdoor lighting that can boost curb appeal. According to Popular Mechanics, a good option are lights that lead to your entryway to guide potential buyers after dusk and emphasize your home's safety. "Soft exterior lighting also makes your home appear more inviting and friendly, and it can emphasize landscaping and any other features you want to call out to anyone approaching your front door." 

They also recommended solar lights for sidewalks and paths. "They don't require running electrical cable or the use of extension cords, don't use any electricity from the house, and are easy to install - you just stick them in the ground." Solar lights also give off just the right ambient light without being too bright, and will usually run for at least six hours after a full day of charging.

Cool fall temps are perfect for a DIY project like bordering the driveway. (Contributed by Gregs Landscaping/FLIKR/For the AJC)

Install a border along the driveway

Sure, you're wrangling with damp ground and fallen leaves cluttering up the landscape, but you also get cooler temperatures for working on quick DIY projects that will boost your curb appeal.

According to Popular Mechanics, installing a border along the driveway gives it a crisp, elegant look. "Edging materials such as bricks, pavers and stone, or a combination of them, bring a boring asphalt slab to life with color, texture and decorative designs. The edging can be level with the driveway or elevated to prevent people from driving onto your lawn."

You can install edging pretty easily by removing a swatch of grass the width of your edging along both sides of the driveway and digging down the depth of your edging plus 2 inches. Fill in with a level 2-inch sand base and place the edging on top of the sand. Depending on the type of masonry edging, you may need to sweep sand over the top to fill in the joints.

How to keep snakes out of your yard

Julie Belcher

Forget about "Snakes on a Plane," we're more concerned with snakes in the yard. Even though snakes are nowhere near as prevalent as our irrational fears would have us think (assuming you don't live smack dab in the middle of rattlesnake territory), if you're a homeowner with a bit of landscape or yard under your direction, you may encounter snakes on occasion.

» RELATED: 6 venomous snakes to watch out for in Georgia

That should be no biggie, according to experts at the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension

"As a general rule, snakes are just as frightened of you as possibly you are of them and often they move as quickly as possible in the other direction," the extension noted. Venomous snake bites are rare and you can readily take steps to treat them. If you're an avid gardener, you may even want snakes in your slice of the great outdoors, since they diet on rodents and insects and can actually help protect you from garden pests.

Not buying it? You can try to keep snakes out of your home life. Just understand that even the best measures are not 100 percent foolproof, according to America's Wetland Resources, which is based in the South.

"There are no magic or absolute solutions," AWR asserted. "There are no poisons or repellents that work, though some new 'breakthrough' is occasionally advertised. Horsehair ropes and trails of mothballs have consistently tested negative, and pest control operators have no answers."

» RELATED: How Atlantans can identify venomous snakes

But there are still plenty of valid ways to limit, or possibly eliminate, a slithery presence in your yard, garden or home. Here are five tips from the pros on how to keep snakes out of your yard:

Seal crevices. Closer to your home, seal the openings where snakes like to set up house. "Check the clearance of door bottoms, weep holes, openings where pipes enter, cracks and spaces under eaves," AWR recommended. "Don't neglect storerooms and sheds."

AWR added that sealing enough openings to make a difference is much more difficult if you own a raised wooden home.

Lawrenceville approves $253,061 for upgrades to the Lawrenceville Lawn. Courtesy City of Lawrenceville (For the AJC)

Tidy up the yard. Snakes might choose to live on your property or simply travel through, according to AWR. You want to make your property as inhospitable as possible, so concentrate on ridding it of any places snakes would consider good spots to hide. Remove debris, from piles of boards, tin, sticks and leaves to flat boats on the ground and piles of bricks or stone, AWR advised, and keep vegetation cut back.

» RELATED: 7 most common myths about snakes

Stop serving the snake's preferred menu. It's a win-win. When you take away potential hiding places for snakes, the spots where rat and mice families like to congregate are also eliminated. But take this one step further, AWR advised, and take further steps to get rid of the rodents that snakes like to snack on. You may want to involve a pest control agent, but you definitely want to practice anti-rodent hygiene, including not leaving pet food out for more than an hour or so, closing trash cans tightly and securing compost in a sealed container.

Combat the climbers. If limbs from a neighbor's yard hang over your fence, snakes may use them as an entry to your place. Consider working with your neighbor to get them trimmed.

» RELATED: Largest venomous snake in U.S. spotted swimming in waters off Florida Keys

Consider the snake-proof fence. If you live in an area where one or more venomous snakes are common, you may want to invest in a snake-proof fence, according to NCSU. "Small areas where children play can be protected from all poisonous and most harmless snakes with a snake-proof fence," it noted. "However, the cost of the fence may make it impractical to protect an entire yard."

Make a fence by burying 1/4-inch mesh wire screening 6 inches underground and building it up 30 inches, instructed NCSU.

"It should slant outward at a 30-degree angle from bottom to top. The supporting stakes must be inside the fence and any gates must fit tightly. Tall vegetation must be removed along the fence, both inside and outside."

It's costly, but you can snake-proof the entire yard with a concrete chain wall that extends six inches or so below the surface, noted AWR. 

» RELATED: Photos: Georgia’s venomous snakes and how to identify them

"If you already have a wooden fence and the boards are very close together, a good solution is to snake-proof the bottom." 

One fairly cheap way is to use 1/4-inch hardware cloth cut in strips wide enough to overlap the bottom of the fence so it can be tacked securely and extend down into a narrow trench six inches deep.

AWR added another word of caution for either snake-proof fence design (spoiler alert: it's nightmare inducing.) "Many snakes climb by looping over objects and the above described design may virtually eliminate their entry," it noted. "Others, however, can crawl up vertical surfaces if they are rough, such as the trunk of a tree or a brick wall (including the side of a house)."

» RELATED: Snakes are most attracted to these kinds of Atlanta homes

To overcome this creepy climbing capability, you can place a foot-wide ledge made of wood or metal flashing along the outer side at the top. "This structure makes the snakes lean out away from the wall and it will lose its grip and fall."

After all this snake talk, AWR does have one bit of great news. "Snakes are rarely abundant in any one location."

And if all your efforts fail and snakes do make their way into your yard, AWR recommended the ultimate failsafe. 

» RELATED: It’s the season for snakes: When should you worry?

"The best thing you can do for yourself and family is to teach everyone to respect snakes and to be on the lookout for them," according to the  AWR website. "Remember, don't touch it with your hands. Use a shovel to place the snake in a deep bucket with a cover. The chances of your encountering a venomous species is remote, but possible enough to always by careful!"

Here's what a $1 million house looks like in Atlanta and 6 other major US cities

Julie Belcher

Paying a cool million for a home is always a sweet feat, but you get lots more if you buy in certain locations, locations, locations.

»RELATED: This is the salary you need to move to these 5 hot job cities

One man's million-dollar mansion is another's modest million-dollar family home, depending on whether you're talking a major Southern city, the most expensive city in America or a luxury beach community. 

Whether you actually have that line of credit or cash at hand or merely dream of a $1 million place, here’s a sampling of the  “million dollar babies” in seven U.S. cities: 

Austin (Contributed by Zillow/For the AJC)

Austin, Texas

4 bedrooms, 3 baths, 2,061 square feet, shared lot

Price: $995,000

According to Austin Homes Research, as of December 2017 Austin continued to have one of the highest demands for housing in the nation, particularly where price points are the lowest. So a higher-priced dwelling wouldn't have as much competition among buyers, but this custom two-unit condo still offers just a bit over 2,000 square feet for a $1 million price tag. Other property lures include its contemporary design, the heritage oaks along Bouldin Creek that surround the dwelling, and the architectural skylights, panoramic glass doors and portrait windows that flood the home with natural light. The sellers bill it as "a new standard of downtown living, melding the comfort and privacy of nature with all the amenities of an urban lifestyle." 

West Palm Beach (For the AJC)

West Palm Beach,Florida 

5 bedrooms, 5 baths, 4,680 square feet on .33 acres

Price: $995,000

The median list price for single homes in the West Palm Beach area of Florida is around $230,000, a mere one-fourth the price of this lavish home. The address is part of "The Club at Ibis" and offers golf course and lake views, marble staircases, and the club's doorman among the "amenities" listed. Other alluring details include 26-foot high living room windows, paneled office with a granite desk, and three bedrooms on the second floor.

Atlanta (For the AJC)

Atlanta

4 bedrooms, 4.5 baths 3,110 square feet, 8,742-square-foot lot

Price: $1 million

You get lots of bang for your million bucks on the Atlanta real estate market. Besides its four bedrooms and four-and-a-half baths, this custom-built North Atlanta contemporary home includes local white oak flooring, en suite luxury baths and walk-in closets in each bedroom and a detached two-car garage with its own guest suite and full bath.

New York City, the Bronx (For the AJC)

New York City, the Bronx

6 bedrooms, 4 baths, 2,040 square feet, 3,741 square foot lot

Price: $999,999

According to the New York Times, the Bronx is booming, particularly with more sophisticated rental apartments. 

This two-family attached brick house in Country Club is an example of what $1 million will bring a midst the boom. It includes hardwood floors, a fenced backyard, renovated kitchens and baths and tons of closet space. Most attractive of all: the modest million dollar dwelling is minutes from Manhattan.

Chicago (For the AJC)

Chicago

5 bedrooms, 6 baths, 5,500 square feet, no data on lot

Price: $999,000

The Wildwood Neighborhood in Chicago delivers lots of space, amenities and bedrooms for a million bucks. The place sits on a double lot and contains three fireplaces, cove moldings and custom millwork. Other value adds include a grand foyer, formal dining room, eat-in gourmet kitchen, and a second-level master en suite with a stone fireplace. Outdoors, an attached sun room, deck and patio offer great views of established perennial gardens. 

Detroit (For the AJC)

Detroit

Price: $995,000

4 bedrooms, 4 baths, 3,477 square feet on 1.97 acres

One of Business Insider's most affordable city for 2017, Detroit's Million Dollar Baby offers the most acreage of any on this list, at almost two acres. Other lures: open-concept two-story vaulted ceilings, large custom kitchen, Florida room surrounded by windows overlooking a manicured landscape and a finished lower level with fireplace.

San Jose, CA (For the AJC)

San Jose, California

3 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1,391 square feet, 5,998 square foot lot

Price: $998,000

The most expensive American city on CNN Style's 2017 list of the 10 most expensive cities to live in, San Jose offers a relatively modest million dollar home for sale. Features include an elegant formal living room, updated kitchen, bay window and beautifully landscaped private back yard with PebbleTec and lemon/lime trees. 

Numbers don’t lie: 5 things to know about your FICO score

Julie Belcher

With the 2017 hacking of credit bureau Equifax, credit scores have been in the spotlight recently. But credit scores are important every day for adults who earn or borrow money, especially the FICO score, which is used by 90 of the top 100 largest U.S. financial institutions. 

Just what is a FICO score? The short answer: the global standard for measuring credit risk in the banking, mortgage, credit card, auto and retail industries, created by Fair Isaac Corporation. The average adult has FICO scores from each of the three main credit bureaus: Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. FICO scores are based on amounts owed (30 percent), new credit (10 percent), length of credit history (15 percent), payment history (35 percent) and credit mix (10 percent).

A low FICO score might contribute to a lender's decision to deny you credit and could increase the cost of an auto loan by almost $5,000, according to Consumer Reports. A high FICO can save you thousands annually on everything from reduced credit card interest to the size of the deposit you must pay for electric utility service.

Check and re-check your credit report

Request one free credit report from a different reporting agency every four months through AnnualCreditReport.com and check for errors, according to Consumer Reports. If you find an error, dispute it with the credit bureau. Pay particular attention to make sure no one has incorrectly listed a late payment on any of your accounts or miscalculated amounts owed on any open accounts. "Hard pull" credit inquiries, which are made by potential lenders with your permission, can lower your FICO score slightly, but this is different. When you check on your own credit, there's no penalty. 

Avoid quick-fix promises

According to myFICO.com, so-called "quick fix" efforts to repair your credit history are the most likely to backfire, so consumers should be leery of any advertisements or credit counselors claiming they can improve your credit score fast. Depending on the reason for a low score, you may need 12 to 24 months before any efforts (except for error corrections) start showing on your score. You can accelerate the improvement by enrolling in a debt-management program and making payments on time, but there's no instant fix.

Persistently pay your bills on time

Even if you are only missing payments by a few days, delinquent payments can seriously damage your FICO scores, particularly since you can't fix previous missed or late payments. If you have missed payments, get current and stay current so you can demonstrate that the problem is in the past. Accoding to myFICO, older credit problems count for less and will fade as your new on-time payment pattern starts showing up on your credit report. Some older versions of FICO keep collection accounts on your credit report for up to seven years even if they're paid off, but the most current versions of FICO ignore any collections when the balance is zero, according to Consumer Reports.

Pay off more of what you owe

The "amounts owed" category makes up 30 percent to your FICO score calculation. Unlike payment history, you can address it immediately, but you'll need financial discipline: "The most effective way to improve your credit scores in this area is by paying down your revolving–credit card–debt." Don't close unused credit cards as a short-term plan to up your scores, since it may just increase the percentage of available credit you are using - a no-no for high credit scores. The same goes for opening a new credit cards you don't need: while it will increase your available credit, it could negatively impact the average age of your credit accounts and damage your FICO scores.

Apply for credit cards one at a time

When you apply for multiple credit cards at the same time, you generate several "hard pull" requests for your credit history, which can hurt your FICO score, according to Consumer Reports. This advice only holds true for credit cards, not house, car or student loans. 

MyFICO also reminds consumers that while FICO scores are important, they're not the be-all and end-all. Lenders look at information such as the amount of debt you can reasonably handle given your income, your employment history and your credit history. Based on their perception of this information, as well as their specific underwriting policies, lenders may extend credit to you even if your score is low - or decline your request for credit even though your score is high.

To get started improving your FICO score, access myFICO's estimator tool, which helps you approximate your score range without any identifying information. It also offers a direct link that allows you to file an online credit report dispute and gives more detailed answers to the question "What is FICO?"