Home improvements that add instant value

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Even with today's real estate worries, homes remain the single largest investments most make. And, regardless of the market, it's always a good idea to make improvements that keep a home updated and refreshed. Some home improvements can take years to return the investment, while others are simple, calling for more elbow grease than money.

When to go pro

When it comes to making improvements that add instant value, it helps to bring in a professional. If you don't have a lot to spend on a designer or architect, look for one on Craigslist.com or through a local university who will work on an hourly basis. Landscape designers can help you create a cohesive landscape plan -- something that helps maximize a budget and prevents costly errors. Some nurseries will provide a landscape plan, or one at reduced cost if you purchase the plants through them. Another investment is a professional home inspector, who can advise on problems with a house, helping to prioritize improvements.

Work from the outside in

To launch a home makeover, start at the front door. Repaint it in a color that contrasts with the trim. Give the front of the home a good cleaning and replace any dated house numbers, light fixtures and handle sets. Stain or paint porches or steps to make the house appear more polished.

Remove any trees or shrubs that block the view of the front door to boost curb appeal. If the home lacks trees or shade, invest in the largest tree possible and have it professionally installed. Other easy improvements are sod and hardscaping. If the yard is full of weeds, resodding is easy and makes a big impact. Adding simple gravel or mulched walkways in the garden or from porches to the driveway instantly gives a neat look. This is especially true of homes that lack walkways to the front door or that have trails in the backyard from pets and people.

Update, update, update

If your home has dated elements like popcorn ceilings, bright gold bathroom fittings and old wallpaper or fixtures, tackle these next. Lighting fixtures can be changed easily and inexpensively, often without the need for a professional electrician. Strip off wallpaper in favor a neutral coat of paint. Replace dated tile with a new wood floor. Many wood floors can be laid right on top of tile.

If there's money left in the budget, go for energy savings with updated appliances. And don't forget to replace the water heater -- give some thought to a tankless model that heats water only when needed. It can account for a giant cost savings over a traditional model that keeps water hot all the time.

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