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Smart Home Improvements

The soaring costs of oil, natural gas, and electricity offer a silver lining to homeowners in smart, affordable new products that save energy while triggering a tax break of up to $500.

Meanwhile, the debate over the housing “bubble” has left some folks wondering how much they should invest in remodeling.

Projects that make your patch of the American Dream more pleasant usually help sell it, regardless of where real-estate prices are heading, say experts at publications like Remodeling magazine.

Best use of money
Home improvement dollars should first go toward equipment that makes your house more livable, such as spiffed-up kitchens and baths.

Costs recouped at selling average 90 cents on the dollar for major kitchen work, and more than 100 percent in major cities on buff-and-polish work.

Make the house feel cozier and boost its resale value by replacing the fireplace mantel for a few hundred dollars. A total makeover, replacing mantel, hearth, and masonry surrounding the firebox, can cost several thousand dollars, notes Bill Keith, host of the Home Tips Show on PBS television.

Or consider a gas insert, which can be started by remote control, for $500 to $1,800, plus installation.

At the top of the renovations scale are kitchen remodels. Appraisers and realtors agree that a new kitchen adds more value to a home than any other project—an average of $42,660, according to Money magazine. A renovation that includes new countertops, refurbished cabinets, an island, a walk-in pantry, and the latest appliances can be done for $15,000 or less.

Tax credits
Now, about that tax credit for making your house more energy efficient.

The credit—a dollar-for-dollar reduction in your tax bill—applies to certain windows, insulation, roofing, central air conditioning, water heaters, and fans. Not all improvements qualify for the full $500. The top window credit, for example, is $200.

For more on the program, check the Alliance to Save Energy Web site at www.ase.org.

Some fast fixes: Install more insulation. Invest $850 in insulation and save $125 a year in heating/cooling costs; buy a $150 programmable thermostat to turn back the heat by 4 degrees as you sleep and you’ll save 4 percent in heating costs; spend $20 to insulate your water heater and save 5 to 10 percent on your hot-water bill.

Add color
Is painting more your speed? Before buying the paint, ask your store about mis-tints—cans of paint that customers never pick up or have refused, often available at 50 percent off the standard price.

Try out color combinations without picking up a brush. Scan pictures or download digital images of the exterior and interior of your home, and then use Glidden’s Color @Home software to test different colors. The software costs $6.99, with more information from Glidden online at www.glidden.com or (800) 454-3336.

All that new paint may spur an interest in replacement floor coverings, so go through home-design magazines to check out the latest in rugs, tile, or laminates.

Remember that a combination of patterns in a room will add visual interest, and that the larger the pattern, the larger the space will appear.

Another tip—to see how light affects wall color and flooring, place a sample in the room and look at it in both daytime and at night.

If you hire someone
If you are not going to do the remodeling work yourself, proceed carefully in hiring a professional remodeler. Ask for references, follow up on them, and check the reputations of remodelers with your local Better Business Bureau.

Get a contract that spells out the work to be done and the cost, the materials that will be used, and approximate start and completion dates.

Avoid companies if you cannot verify their credentials, if you are asked to pay for the entire job in advance, or if a salesperson tries to pressure you into signing a contract.


HOME IMPROVEMENT INFO ONLINE

hes.lbl.gov: Enter your zip code and find relevant information and suggested upgrades for energy efficiency.

www.energytaxincentives.org or www.ase.org: Information on a federal tax credit of up to $500 for making your home more energy efficient.

www.aceee.org: The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy has a list of energy-efficient brand-name appliances, such as washing machines and dishwashers.

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