Low-cost remodels are sign of the times

As real estate begins to rise from the depths of the recession, is it time to dust off those remodeling plans? WalletPop asked two experts for tips on low-cost ways to make your home sparkle in 2010 without digging too deeply into what remains of your savings.

Jennifer Gilmer, a kitchen and bath designer, says the key may be to figure out what you really want most and then focus on that, rather than on a complete gut and remodel. Fernando Pagés, a builder and author of "Affordable Remodel: how to get custom results on any budget", says the key, especially now, is to think of your home as a refuge, not an investment.
"You really never were going to get the money back" from remodeling," Pagés said. "It was an 80-90% return and today it's 40-60% at best. ...Think of this as your house, think of this not as an investment but as an expense, and enjoy."

Both Pagés and Gilmer agree that lighting may be the single most effective tool in upgrading your home, so let's start there.

JG: Try changing the lighting out or adding under-cabinet lighting, maybe exploring some LED lighting that might retrofit more easily because the actual fixture is easier to fit in. You can add pendant lights over the island and a chandelier over a table that blends or matches those pendant lights. (In the bathroom), hang pendants from the ceiling instead of sconces on either site of the mirror. It adds a sculptural element and a nice punch of color.

FP: Changing the lighting has a huge effect not only on how a place looks, but how it feels. Go to a romantic restaurant and you will find it's the candlelight and slightly orange lighting that makes it seem romantic. Think like a photographer – walk through the house and change light bulbs. A great way to take care of places you do not want to remodel is to use lights that throw shadows up on the wall. It's three-dimensional, sculptural lighting

Paint, and other resurfacing, remains another way to upgrade on a budget. Pagés compares such refurbishing to the makeup on a fashion model's face.

FP: Change the floors, paint the walls (and you're) reviving the surface of the house. Color affects mood, so you think paint in terms of mood. Are hallways dark or exciting spaces? In areas that you want to be cozy, paint the ceiling. Tranquil in the bedroom. A bedroom is not an activity room, so airbrush on the wall so it mimics a sunset, darker on the ceiling. It helps a lot if you are an insomniac like me.

JG: Tile on the backsplash is really easy to take down and re-tile with more updated, stylish tile. You can go with back-painted glass panels, too. You can add a beautiful color that is durable with cooking at the range (and it) adds a kind of sparkle you cannot get with just regular paint. Changing out the counters is always easier than replacing cabinets. Formica is going to be coming back (as) new and improved plastic laminates. They are very green-friendly and the new ones are very durable.

Sometimes, both agreed, less is more.

JG: Some problems with older kitchens is they have cabinet after cabinet on the walls. If you can do without some of that storage, remove a blocky thing off the wall, paint and add artwork and art lighting, and it makes it feel less kitcheny and more designed. If you remove a cabinet, you also can install some floating shelves for your dishes, which stack neatly and get used every day so they don't collect dust. (In the bathroom) you can do bits and pieces gradually. If you have a molded shower insert, it might be a good idea to pull it out and put in a tile base; it's kind of expensive, but it will make the whole bathroom look better. The risk is it makes the whole bathroom look like it needs more help. You can take the shower curtain down and put in a glass panel that just goes 2/3 of the way across. Take the glass all the way to the ceiling.

FP: That romantic spa that people put in their houses? That's the mid-life crisis car: it's what you're supposed to have when you are a newlywed. People keep that dream too long. They're no longer having romantic evenings in the tub. A showy master bath is silly. Then you've got to drag people through your bedroom to show it off. Just consider the master bath intimate space; just (include) what you need and want.

The bottom line, they said, is to figure out exactly what it is you want and then remember to keep a focus on that element.

FP: Distill what really the essential elements are of your attraction to things. I like to take Better Homes and Gardens, look at this gorgeous living room: molding, tall fireplace, etc. I make a photocopy of it, trace over just the lines. Then I look at that drawing and I see if it captures the essence. Do I get the same feeling as I got from the photograph? If not, maybe it's the colors. I trace over just the colors. What's the key element or elements? Once I've got that figured out, that's all I have to do (to the room). Maybe it's just a band of color around the ceiling.

JG: A lot of people have tile floors they hate. If you fix everything up and leave that floor, that is a mistake. It's not that much to just tear it up and replace it with wood.
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