Identify your priorities when planning improvements

If you are like most homeowners, you're constantly kicking around ideas for home improvements. You know you want to upgrade the kitchen, or build a patio, or repaper the walls in the living room, the hallway, or a bedroom. But it is sometimes hard to know where to start.

Maybe you're even debating whether or not to get a home-improvement loan.

Before you can decide on what to do, you will have to decide how long you plan to stay in your present house. This will helf to keep everything in perspective. For example, if you plan to move within the next 12 to 18 months, you probably shouldn't spend $1,000 for storm windows and doors. You should be concentrating instead on getting the house fixed up to sell.

There are four broad categories of home improvements: repairs and upkeep, beautification, modernization, and longterm investments.

If you plan to stay put for at least 10 years, you will need to plan for improvements in all four categories. All your investments should pay off in this length of time, both in the higher value for the property as well as the benefits you will enjoy while you're still at the same address.

If your plan to move in a year or two, you will probably be better off doing routine maintenance and simple beautification projects, such as painting and wallpapering.

Money would be better spent on pieces of good furniture that you will take with you when you move.

Most people plan to stay in a house at least five years when they buy it, unless their job requires a move before then. If you fall in this category, you may want to go ahead with a few modernization projects, particularly in the kitchen and bathroom.

If the fixtures are outdated, they will be even more out of date five years from now. Moneywise, a modern kitchen and bathroom pay off when it comes time to sell the house. In fact, you should plan all your projects with selling in mind.

Use colors and designs your family will like, but think twice about using outlandish wallpaper that some future buyer may deplore.

It will help tremendously to put your tentative plans down on paper. Make a list of what needs doing and what you'd like to accomplish during the time you are in the house. Then make another list of projects you want to finish in the next 12 months.

Be realistic in deciding what to do according to the time and money you want to spend. Home improvements can turn into nagging chores if you don't concentrate on one year at a time.

Getting your ideas down on paper eliminates confusion and helps you to resist the temptation of skipping around too much. You may want to divide your projects into two categories: indoor improvements and outdoor improvements.

Indoor projects can be done in cool weather. Outdoor projects can be started in early spring.

As you make your lists, the first thing to decide is which jobs to tackle first. You should get your priorities straight. Repair and maintenance jobs should come first, especially if you have just moved into an older home that needs a lot of work.

Get the furnace fixed, cut underbrush, and fix a leaky roof. Eliminating eyesores, such as sagging gutters, can boost your morale, too. Then plan some type of beautification, such as new paint and carpeting for the living room.

On any house, you will be a lot happier if you fix up the most-used rooms first. The kitchen, living room, and bath fall into this category. Bedrooms can wait.

Outdoors you should concentrate on the front of the house first. If you have just move in, try a little do-it-yourself landscaping or paint the front door. A good coat of paint on the outside of the house will help to beautify it more than anything else.

As you plan your indoor decorating, imagine the rooms as they will look when they're finished and then work toward that goal. In fact, you should make plans for each room on paper first. That way you'll know exactly where you're headed.

After you have decided where you want to begin, you must decide whether to hire the work done or tackle it yourself. Unless you enjoy spending your free time working on the house, don't plunge into difficult, time-consuming projects. Do the easy, inexpensive ones yourself. Leave the hard work to repairmen, even if it means waiting until you can afford it.

If you feel you really want to paint the outside of the house yourself, try painting two or three rooms indoors first. Then see how you feel about tackling the exterior.

Before you make any moves on buying materials or jumping into a project, ask yourself whether a home-improvement loan would be a good idea.

Putting money into your home is not the same as buying a car or similar item. Home-improvement money is invested and will someday bring a return. If you don't like long-term loans, get a $3,000 or $4,000 loan and pay that back. Then borrow more money later.

Do you need to hire an architect? If you plan to make any major structural changes, such as adding a room, it makes a lot of sense to bring an architect onto the job.

Room additions that are not planned by an architect can look wonderful inside the house but tacky outside. The fee for planning a one-room addition should run somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 to $600. Most indoor projects can be handled by a carpenter or builder.

What improvements will increase the value of your home the most? Only an appraiser can give you the answer to that question. It depends on where you live -- the East, the Far West, the South, in a rural area, a suburb of a big city, or the city itself -- and what type of house you have.One thing is sure, however: Frills sell a house.

A pleasant-looking, good-working kitchen is a big asset. So are pretty wallpaper, a chandelier in the dining room, a fenced backyard, patio, and good landscaping.

Keep this in mind as you plan your projects, but steer clear of expensive frills, such as a swimming pool, unless you plan to stay in the house for a number of years.

Home improvements don't have to be burdensome, but they do have to be planned. Good planning is the quickest way to seeing your dreams come true.

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