Judging by the TV commercials, most home improvements are a blast. You waltz into a store, throw a bunch of new faucets and buckets of paint in your shopping cart, without sweating about the cost, then transform your dingy kitchen into something out of, well, a TV commercial.
Frequently, those TV spots are spot-on. It is fun to have a new kitchen or to show off your newly installed hardwood floors to your friends and family. But it's all too easy to forget about home improvements that will only get you a polite nod when showing them off - and yet if you ignore them, they could cost you serious money.
So if you're a homeowner with some extra cash this month, look around. There's plenty you can do.
The basement. Particularly if you live a humid climate, you could install a dehumidification system, suggests John Isch, co-chair of the American Institute of Architects Custom Residential Architects Network. This is a much more sophisticated operation than your basic humidifier and will get rid of the humidity in the basement, and some are designed for the entire house.
It may not sound like much of an improvement at first, especially if your family and visitors aren't complaining about the humidity in your home, but even if it isn't noticeable, the humidity may well be there. As Dawn Zuber, another American Institute of Architects member, points out, if the humidity is removed, the house will feel cooler - which may mean you use the air conditioning less.
A dehumidifier may also protect your collectibles. "I run one in my basement and as long as it takes the humidity out of the air, it's keeping all the junk I am storing downstairs from decaying," Zuber says.
Typical cost: Expect to spend at least $1,000, depending on the system.
Typical savings: It is impossible to say, and it may not be worth the cost. But consider how often you use your air conditioner and how much the stuff in your basement is worth.
The attic. If you're interested in only heating and cooling the parts of the house that you live in, and not, say, the drafty attic you rarely visit, Zuber suggests homeowners seal up the air in the upper part of their homes.
"Have someone go up in the attic and seal any penetrations between the ceiling and the attic, like where the pipes and vents go through, and add spray foam insulation to the rim joists in their basements or crawl spaces," Zuber says. "This is the area above the concrete or concrete block wall, where the floor framing meets the exterior wall. Adding attic insulation also provides a nice return on investment if there's less than 10 inches of existing insulation."
Why is that important? The thinner the walls, the faster heat passes through. The more insulation you have, the longer your house stays warm in the winter, and in the summer, it'll stay cooler longer, since the heat from outside can't get inside as quickly.
If you're really into this project, Zuber suggests hiring an energy auditor or home energy rater to test your house and recommend the most cost-effective insulation and air sealing techniques.
Typical cost: A can of spray foam insulation only costs about $6. Of course, if you hire an energy auditor or home energy rater, plan on spending $400 to $500. And if you send a professional handyman up to the attic with a can of $6 spray foam insulation, you may want to add another $100 to your cost.
Typical savings: Again, it's hard to quantify, but if all you have to spend is $6 on a can of spray foam insulation, and you find even one gap to fill, you'll probably come out ahead.
Cracks under windows and doors and holes near the foundation. Unfortunately, there probably aren't just cracks and gaps in your attic - your basement may have them, too, and there may be spaces around your windows and doors where air is getting in. (If you want to, you could spend a good month or two, and quite a bit of cash, sealing up all the cracks in your house.)
Dean Bennett, who owns Dean Bennett Design and Construction, Inc., a design and building firm in Castle Rock, Colo., suggests looking for gaps in the walls of your basement. "It's very common to have these gaps in houses that are more than 15 years old," Bennett says. "Construction techniques did not involve sealing between the sill and foundation very well. Now, they use a layer of foam between the two."
If you live in an older home, Bennett says you can do yourself a favor by doing a "close visual check" for any holes around your basement or foundation. He says filling in the holes could help prevent hot summer air or cold winter air from filtering into your home - not to mention mice and other critters.
Advertisements will tell you to replace your current windows and doors with energy-efficient ones, and maybe you need to. But many home improvement experts will tell you that if there's a draft, it may be adequate to simply weather-strip your doors and windows.
In fact, "the biggest home-energy and money wasters are windows and doors because of the heat they let out and cool air they let in, depending on the season," says Andrea Thomas, Wal-Mart's senior vice president of sustainability.
Typical cost: The can of spray foam insulation to use in your basement runs about $6. As for weather stripping, the price varies, but a 10-foot strip of rubber window weather stripping can be found at many stores for less than $10.
Typical savings: If you weather-strip, Thomas says the average homeowner can save $160 every year in heating and cooling costs.
Decks. Have a wooden deck? Don't forget to put a new coat of stain on it, once every three years, according to Bennett. "It will weatherproof it as well as make it look better," he says.
Typical cost: Deck stain can cost anywhere from $40 to several hundred dollars. Add a couple hundred dollars if you hire a professional to do it. And if you want to replace a deck, Bennett points out that those made of composite materials don't require staining.
Typical savings: A wood deck that is stained regularly can last 20 to 30 years, Bennett says. "If you never do it, you'll shorten the life of your wood deck by 50 percent or more."
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