Home Improvements for First Home Buyers

first home improvements paintingTo improve or not to improve--that's the big question when you're about to move into a new home, and especially challenging if it's your first home. You want to make the right choices for your wallet, your comfort and your return on your home improvement investment dollar.

Before you hire a contractor or take a sledgehammer to that annoying yet load-bearing wall, consider the following Three M's of improvements for your first home.

If you're tempted to blaze ahead with a minor or major change to your new place, first be clear as to whether your plan is motivated by right-now wants and needs or better resale value later. Rash decisions can be expensive, inconvenient and messy. What's more, if you haven't given yourself time to acclimate to your first home before changing it, you might be swapping instant gratification for the possibility of a better, more value-building renovation later.

Fred Miller and his colleagues at the Home Improvement Research Institute (HIRI) see repeating project trends in their biennial Recent Homebuyers Study, for which they ask recent first-time home buyers about the projects they've done and the ones they plan to do.

"With most of the projects people are doing, they're not thinking about future value, unless they're just flipping the home," says Miller. "They're thinking about the enjoyment they're going to get out of it as a homeowner. For instance, one of the very common projects done by people who buy brand-new houses is landscaping. They want their home to look nice, and they want to make it theirs. So the value they're getting isn't in resale value, but value in terms of enjoying their home and their property for themselves."

Kitchen projects
also tend to be tops in HIRI's Recent Homebuyers Study, but that's one area of the home Atlanta RE/MAX realtor Bill Golden recommends first home buyers wait to renovate. "It's a good idea to live in the house for a while, so you're sure what you want to do and exactly how you will use certain spaces," he says.

The best way to save money on home improvements is not to do them, of course. But if you feel you must make a few changes, research your home improvement financing options and be fully prepared for the costs involved. Bigger-ticket changes are usually worth waiting on, especially because you may end up spending your money differently after you've had time to get to know your new home.

Atlanta homeowner Drew Plant applied this strategy to his second home, after learning its value during renovations on his first home.

"Previously, I though kitchen and bath redos were projects to knock out before moving in," says Plant. "In reality, by waiting, I ended up doing very different kitchen and bath renovations than I would have done otherwise. Waiting also meant I could budget more easily for those projects, and I had a better experience taking that approach than I did on my first home."

Realtor Golden also reminds homeowners that there are low- and no-cost maintenance chores they can do that will actually save money and make bigger improvement decisions easier.

"Depending on the time of year, it's a great idea to trim old-growth shrubbery so it has a chance to rejuvenate," advises Golden. "It's an inexpensive way to refresh the landscape, and cutting back some growth will help you determine what landscaping changes you really need to make--changes that can actually be solved with some TLC and well-thought-out grooming."

Settling into a first home is hard enough with all that unpacking and new household routines to get used to, so ask yourself how much more mess you're truly willing to take on. If you're planning to tackle any home improvements yourself, be realistic about what you can accomplish. Most of us tend to dig in to projects with the best intentions of finishing in a few weekends, and then life interferes. And then it's six months later, and we're still staring at a halfway de-wallpapered room when holiday guests are on their way over.

If you haven't given yourself and your family enough time to acclimate to your first home before starting an improvement project, the resulting mess will feel that much messier and disruptive. So take a step back, resign yourself to a few oddities for the time being, and pace out the projects. By planning ahead during the purchase process, you can accomplish any necessary changes, like new flooring or interior paint jobs, well before move-in day. Just remember to allow plenty of time for those improved spaces to air out before you take up residence, so you're assured of a fresh, VOC-free start in your first home.

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 tips and ideas.

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