Smart Home Improvements When You're Staying Put

home improvementsWith real estate sales slow to recover, many Americans are choosing to stay put and improve the homes they have. But all home improvements aren't created equal. Strategic improvements in equipment, systems and materials can add lasting value, increase comfort, and even save you money. The right home improvements can also make a home of any age just as good as new, without the expense and uncertainty of buying new construction.

"Because homeowners are making a choice not to sell and move, they're looking to upgrade their home and find some of the benefits that in fact they would be receiving in a newer home," says Rick Croce of Chicago-based Smykal Renovations. "As people understand their needs and their wants, it's really more about what exactly will fit their budget and what's best for them."

If you fall into the stay-put-and-improve category of homeowners, here are seven savvy home improvements that will continue to pay dividends for years to come.

1. New Roof
Most roofing products are meant to last 20 years or more, so if your current roofing is due for replacement, literally take it from the top as you weigh your long-term home improvement options. In some cases, you may be able to add a new roofing layer over the existing one and save a few bucks, but you'll get the best results and longest life with a completely new roof.

Starting fresh means using new technologies in flashing and underlayments that help preserve the integrity of the roofing material and prevent leaks. Also look into roofing options that make the maximum contribution to your home's energy efficiency, such as reflective "cool roofs" that stay 50 to 60 degrees cooler in the summer sun. Installing cool roofing can also bring valuable tax credits and rebates.

2. New Siding
Preserve your home's structural integrity and give it an updated look by installing new siding. Super-durable, low-maintenance products like James Hardie's HardiePlank®fiber cement siding come in a range of style profiles and colors, with coordinating detail and finish pieces to amp up architectural interest. Comprised of cement and wood fibers, this product also happens to be a green siding solution, and an affordable one at that.

3. Heating and Cooling Equipment
The condition and function of your HVAC equipment have everything to do with efficient, affordable home comfort. Even the best-maintained appliances start showing their age, and upgrading to newer, more efficient equipment is a sensible home improvement investment that also leads to savings. Shop for Energy Star qualified heating and cooling equipment, which can trim your annual energy bills by as much as 30 percent while putting money in your pocket through rebates and tax incentives.

4. Efficient Windows
Another energy-smart investment is replacement of old, poorly insulated windows. High-efficiency window glass and weather-resistant construction combine with clever technologies and great styling for a change that'll do your house proud. Special window labeling by the National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC) will tell you all you need to know about a window or skylight product's performance and efficiency, and thanks to their construction for year-round efficiency, you'll be able to ditch that old-school winter storm window routine. (For more tips on this topic you can also download my no-cost Replacement Window Guide.)

5. Long-term Landscaping
Also take a sustainable approach to the outside of your home, making selections and investments that add value, keep maintenance reasonable and provide flexibility over time.

"The master plan has to be taken into consideration," says Dennis Stevens, principal designer with Lindeman/Stevens Landscape Design in Los Angeles. "Look at creating a long-term atmosphere that can move from kids in a sandbox to the teen years...Make the exterior work for how your family grows."

That includes sensible sizing of a porch, deck or terrace to make an outdoor room that accommodates needs without wasting space. It also means selecting easy-care, indigenous hedges, trees and groundcovers, with an eye toward "dwarf" varieties that will look great now and later.

6. Universal Design
With multi-generational households on the rise and Baby Boomers aging toward their retirement years, accessibility is a big concern when it comes to home improvements. Ensure that you'll be able to enjoy your home for as long as you plan to by applying the principles of Universal Design. Keep barrier-free features in mind as you replace fixtures or remodel rooms, replace standard doorknobs with lever-style models, and install grab bars in the bath. Make clear pathways for wheelchair and walker access, and restyle spaces so there's plenty of room for folks of any age to maneuver.

7. Built-In Storage
Maximize the space you have while bringing order and calm to everyday living with customized storage solutions. Do-it-yourself closet systems make a definite difference, and working with design pros like those at California Closets takes storage scenarios to the next level. A small spare room can be transformed into a storage-filled, efficient office space, and a cavernous closet can become a deluxe dressing area. And don't forget the garage: with the right fixtures in place, you can have that workshop you always wanted and room for the family car, too!

Investing in home improvements that last make it possible to enjoy your home in the present with less home maintenance hassles and preserves your home's future value for many years to come.

Tom Kraeutler is a home improvement expert for AOL Real Estate and host of "The Money Pit," a nationally syndicated home improvement radio program offering home improvement and remodeling tips and ideas, as well as help tips for buying or selling a home.

Thinking about adding value with home improvements? Here are some AOL Real Estateguides to help you, whether you're selling or staying.

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