Making Big Improvements

Many home improvement projects begin with someone in the household saying, "Wouldn't it be nice if...?"

Assuming that they're not just muttering the old Beach Boys song about living together, they may then lament the fact that there's no island in the kitchen, or not enough counter space, or that the cupboards are made of cheap particleboard instead of oak. It may be a wish for hardwood floors, or for a new paint job. Whatever it is, it's likely that reality will intrude: There's only so much money and so much space. If you want to turn at least some of these dreams into reality, then you should start by evaluating your reasons for doing these things.

Most homeowners consider home improvements for one of the following reasons:

You need to update the out-of-date. Sure, you may wait 75 years until fifties-green linoleum is back in style, but now may be the time to make it current.

You need to replace major appliances or plumbing. If the sink, tub, or toilet has to be replaced, many people take the opportunity to refurbish the entire bathroom. And if you're going to have to bash through a wall anyhow to get to that leaking pipe, maybe it's time to think of wallpapering or repainting.

You're selling your home. You want to be sure you'll get top dollar from the sale of your home, and that may be the rallying cry for some home improvement projects that you've been hemming and hawing over for some years.

You're staying put. You thought about moving, but now you realize that improving your present home is a better option. Commitment spawns industry.

Improving to Move or Improving to Stay
Once you've decided that you're improving your home to put it on the market, cutting corners could hurt rather than help your prospects. On the other hand, you don't want to go overboard. Potential buyers may not want to pay for the extras you have included, so keep changes simple. Also keep in mind that people viewing your house may not share your tastes and therefore won't necessarily appreciate the time and effort you put into finding just the right shade of green paint for the walls or decorating your kitchen with hand-painted Portuguese tiles.

Even if you're remodeling in order to stay in your home, you still need to avoid over-improving it. Here you might place more emphasis on the kinds of things that will give you pleasure over the years. Keep in mind, though, that you'll probably sell someday, and even if your house is the best on the block, you may have a hard time persuading buyers to pay extra for the things you found so important. Keep the value of other homes in the area in mind whenever you consider improvements. Remember the old saw: "Buy the worst home in the best neighborhood rather than the best home in the worst neighborhood." Your home's value should be no more than 20% above the average. That means a $10,000 kitchen improvement project might be a better idea than a $30,000 pool, especially if no other homes in your area have pools.

In most cases, the cost of an improvement isn't recouped in the sales price. Redoing a kitchen may help sell the house, but a seller should never expect to get 100% of the cost back in the sale. It's usually much less.

If you're remodeling the kitchen, ask yourself if you can handle the plumbing, electrical, and carpentry work. And don't forget that you need to finish it all quickly, because in the meantime you'll be without a kitchen. Hiring people who have experience can save you money and time, too. For example, these professionals can help you get a custom look using stock products, and that can be a significant savings. Getting something done right -- the first time -- will give you value that lasts for years.

Some furniture and home improvement stores have free design services. Depending on your needs, this may appeal to you. (The benefit to the store is that you'll spend money on their furniture or cabinetry.)

Finding the Professionals
Word-of-mouth is a good way to start looking for home improvement specialists. Check with friends, business associates, and neighbors for recommendations. Always ask for at least three references -- and check them out. Check, too, with your local chapter of the Better Business Bureau. You can find the number in the community services section of your telephone book. Make sure everyone is in agreement about design, schedule, and budget. Get the details down in writing in a signed contract.

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