Home Improvement: Dos and Don'ts From a Pro

Bruce IrvingIf you're a new homeowner, chances are you have a wish list of home improvements you'd like to make as soon as you move in. If you own a home and are trying to sell, you're scrambling to make upgrades before you can put your place on the market.

Either way, it's easy to make renovation mistakes--especially at this time of year, when home improvement retailers flood the airwaves with special deals and promotions. So before you embark on any overzealous remodeling projects, slow down, take a deep breath, and consider all your options.

Then listen to this advice from Bruce Irving, the former executive producer of This Old House. Irving, a home renovation consultant, helps steer clients through the remodeling process. He's evaluated hundreds of homes for buyers and sellers, and shares with AOL Real Estate his top tips for improving your home today while preparing to sell in tomorrow's market.

After the jump, find out what often-cited kitchen addition homeowners should beware, and discover why original windows are a home's best asset.

Tackle First Things First

Planning your first home improvement project can be a daunting task, Irving says, but if the thought never crossed your mind before signing on the dotted line, you've already in trouble.

"Buying the right house for your skill level is step one," Irving says. It's common for people to buy homes that require some work from the get-go, but don't underestimate the time--or the money--necessary to bring your new home up to snuff.

From there, every home will offer its own unique challenges, but a top priority in any home is to keep the water out. "Water kills houses," says Irving, and mold in particular can require costly cleanup or even create health risks. Make sure you hire a pro to inspect "everything from the roof, to the flashing around the chimneys, to the gutters," he says.

Know When to Let Your "Freak Flag Fly"

For homeowners making improvements with an eye toward selling, "keep the idiosyncrasies to a dull roar," Irving cautions. Sure, you want to put your own personal stamp on the place, but not so much that it scares off prospective buyers. The best strategy is to express your most peculiar aesthetic quirks through semi-permanent and easily replaceable projects.

"Let your freak flag fly with things that can be removed, like paint color, fabrics and artwork," Irving says. Overwrought projects like hot tubs in the master bedroom and elaborate tile work can put off prospective buyers, who won't want to pay for features they're going to have to rip out. "Think in terms of the permanent and the mutable," Irving says, and you'll be glad for it when your house hits the market.

Understand that Un-Sexy Sells

Granite countertops and stainless steel appliances are a standard feature of home listings these days. But in Irving's experience, making cosmetic fixes in worn-out kitchens won't do you any favors. "It tends to reveal itself for the play that it is, in that granite countertops on old cabinets tend to show how old the cabinets are."

Instead of blowing your budget on aesthetic cover-ups, Irving suggests making more practical improvements. "The buying public is more and more impressed when they see good heating equipment in place," he says, so a high-efficiency furnace is a better idea than a high-end accessory.

Another useful, though less glamorous, improvement that benefits buyers and sellers is good insulation. "If I was planning on staying in a home for more than five years, I'd look into getting some good insulation, starting with the roof," he says. Unlike many flashier improvements, insulation will start to pay you back as soon as the heating and cooling bills come in.

Take Pains With Windows

Owners of older homes might see the windows as a smart place to start making changes, but Irving says to resist the urge. "If you have original wood windows and they're salvageable, I would vastly prefer to see people tune them up and put a good storm window on, versus throwing it all out and putting in a complex, perishable replacement window." Despite the industry's insistence that modern windows save more energy, Irving says that the investment almost never pays off, as newer products "tend to crap out" before you see any savings.

There's also a value proposition in keeping your original windows intact. "Windows are the eyes of a building," he says. "You degrade the aesthetic of the building when you poke them out."

For more home improvement advice, visit AOL Real Estate's Home Improvement guide section.

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