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Ten Home Improvement Tips
Anna Rohleder, Forbes.com

1. Making A Personal Imprint

"As a rule," says Ballantyne, "the more personal the improvement, the more likely you won't recover the investment." Those expensive, hand-painted tiles from Portugal may look lovely in the bath--to you. It's unlikely someone else will pay a premium for your decorating taste, however. And with even more substantial investments, like the facilities for an equestrian property, potential buyers already have their own ideas about stall size or type of terrain, and they probably won't change their minds when they see what you've done. The grim truth: You'll be lucky to get back 50 cents on the dollar if your renovations are a vehicle for self-expression.

2. Ignoring Local Circumstances

There are a few obvious ones here--a pool is a must-have in Florida, but not in Vermont. Yet other circumstances that would seem just as obvious are often disregarded. "We get a lot of people who buy a house on Cape Cod who want to build a deck right out on the ocean," says Craig Ashworth, a builder with E.B. Norris in Hyannis, Mass. "But when the wind picks up, there's no way you could sit outside. Even lawn furniture would blow away." The same principle applies to an outdoor barbecue in the rainy Pacific Northwest. Changes to the house won't change prevailing weather conditions.

3. Going Out Of Character

Every town's got one: the local monstrosity. Some are new construction, like the sprawling faux-Tudor McMansion on a street lined with elegant old homes. Other properties take on grotesque proportions when their owners start adding amenities and just can't stop. The swimming pool begets the tennis court, which begets the golf course, which begets the guest house and so on. The point being, who else will want to live in that house besides the current owners? Also, if you haven't yet bought a house and are still getting a sense for the character of the neighborhood, find out if it's likely to change soon. Are those rolling green fields slated to become a subdivision? Talk to your potential neighbors before you move in.

4. Making Invisible Changes

First impressions count for a lot, with houses as well as people. If you've installed radiant floor heating and a central vacuum system but haven't bothered to paint the home's exterior or have the siding replaced, potential buyers will think they're getting a fixer-upper. It's common sense: Good-looking houses sell themselves.

5. Making Changes As You Go

A large project taken in its entirety can seem overwhelming. The temptation is to make each decision as it comes up instead of articulating a clear vision of what you want at the beginning. According to professionals in the home-renovation business, however, the piecemeal approach is a sure recipe for wasting time and money. "A renovation will always go faster and better if everyone knows they can depend on the plans," says Ashworth. "If an owner comes in and changes something every day, the contractor gets gun-shy and is afraid to do anything."

6. Not Making A (Real) Budget

Did someone say budget? It's a word that touches a nerve on both sides of the renovation process. Owners fear contractors will charge more if they know how much money they really have to spend, while contractors worry that owners expect a level of quality that doesn't match the price they want to pay. But pretending there's no money involved won't make the project any less expensive; it just gives you less than you wanted. "A lot of people have a budget that's a little bit of a lie," says Alan Hanbury, present chairman of the Remodelors Council and owner of House of Hanbury Builders in Newington, Conn. "But if they were honest, contractors would be able to use higher-quality materials and give them more value for their money."

7. Going It Alone

If you're not an architect or a designer yourself, hire one. A good set of plans will cost money, but there's a reason: It works. "People will hire a designer who's a friend of their cousin," says Ashworth. "They'll draw up a set of plans that look pretty, but they're totally meaningless." There may be zoning or environmental restrictions on some projects, like garage conversions or putting greens, that require permits or licenses. Professionals know the right channels to go through for permits and licenses. Don't wait until the building inspector shows up to find out what you should have done.

8. Doing It Because You Can

Whether out of a vague feeling of dissatisfaction or simply because the resources are at hand, some people will undertake renovation projects that have no purpose other than to satisfy one's ego. The project may be wrong for the property in some way--as when a bedroom is transformed into an enormous bathroom--or even go against the building code. When the point is the project itself, other considerations only come up in hindsight.

9. Using False Economy

"The biggest mistake clients make is to choose the lowest price they get from a contractor, figuring they can take the gamble and still pay someone else to fix it if it goes awry," says Hanbury. In other words, if the price sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Someone made a math mistake, or the contractor is overextending himself in some way to give you a cut-rate price. Not surprisingly, discount prices usually translate into shoddy work. "The emotional cost of a bad job is far higher than the financial cost," says Hanbury. "It's not about the money."

10. Hiring A Contractor You Don't Trust

Contractor horror stories loom large in the minds of homeowners, but statistically they are the exception rather than the rule. Someone who's been in business for more than five years understands the nature of the trade, which is that it is foremost a service industry built on trust and good relationships. For a job to be satisfactory, both client and contractor should feel listened to and respected. "Interview someone as though they were going to be an employee, house guest, or dating your daughter," recommends Hanbury. "Find someone you're comfortable with, and then only get one or two bids." 


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