How to Prioritize Home Improvements

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Sponsored by Focus Real Estate

Any time of year is an excellent time for homeowners to take a look at their house or condo and decide if there are home improvement projects they want to undertake. There are no hard-and-fast rules about where to start home improvements -- the highest floor, the basement, or outside the house all hold potential depending on an individual's particular needs and desires. But while homeowners may be eager to get their home improvements going, they should not start tearing out walls, let alone lift that paintbrush, without first taking stock of their entire home and prioritizing improvements accordingly.

Head and shoulders photo of Randal Engelmann and Erik Gould of Focus Real Estate

Focus Real Estate

Randal Engelmann and Erik Gould

Create a master plan

"The plan is the most important part of starting any project," said Randal Engelmann, partner at Focus Real Estate. "Look at the big picture and consider everything you would like to accomplish in your house. Establish a master plan for all the changes you want to make -- and even some that you may not want or need to do but think somebody else might want in the future."

Planning and prioritizing from the start can help save a lot of money in the future. For example, homeowners planning to renovate their second-floor bathroom may need to run new plumbing into that space. "If there is an unfinished attic above the bathroom, consider running additional plumbing pipes there in case you -- or a future owner -- want to expand into that space eventually and add a bathroom," Engelmann said. It will be dramatically less expensive to tackle an expansion in the future if it doesn't require opening up all the walls in the newly renovated bathroom to bring the pipes all the way up. In this vein, plumbing, electrical, ceiling height and flooring are all areas to be considered as part of a master plan.

There can also be some seasonality to establishing a master plan. "It totally depends on the project. You might find it easier to renovate your kitchen in the summer when you're grilling outside. During summer, it's also easier to bring fresh air into the house," Engelmann said. Winter, on the other hand, especially over the holidays, can be a great time for securing contractors who might be difficult to hire at other times of the year.

Hire professionals you trust

No matter the timing of your home improvements, it's important to hire contractors, engineers and architects that you trust. The best way to do that, Engelmann said, is to use all the due diligence resources at your disposal. For starters, ask acquaintances for recommendations about professionals with whom they have worked previously. Inquire not only about the quality (and longevity) of their work, but also about the renovation experience, including whether they were pleasant to deal with, how well they cleaned up after themselves and whether they completed the work in an acceptable timeframe.

Angie's List is another good resource for hiring contractors, as it allows users to peruse reviews and recommendations from a broad network. Once you've narrowed down your search, be sure to ask previous employers for references and, if given the opportunity, visit homes and view the professional's finished work for yourself.

An architect can be especially important for homeowners who want to do renovations right, Engelmann noted. "They can put some things into drawings for you. When you're working with a contractor, you want to make sure they understand exactly what needs to be done. With an architect's designs, the plan is there in black and white."

Getting the most bang for your buck

No homeowner wants to overspend on home improvements. So what are some cheaper options that offer a good return on investment and can help raise the value of a property?

"Painting is quick, inexpensive, and doesn't require a lot of skill to make a big impact," Engelmann said. Even if homeowners hire a painter rather than get their own hands dirty, the relatively small sum spent can be a great way to transform a space.

For those thinking a little bigger, "The largest return on investment is the front door," Engelmann said. Painting, updating, or even replacing the entrance to your home can make for a more welcoming first impression -- not only for visitors but for potential buyers as well. And don't stop there: "We expand that to the whole first impression, including the porch, stairs, railing, and entryway features. A neat and freshly painted entrance is the best way to increase the curb appeal,” he said.

A common mistake in home renovations, according to Engelmann, is being a little too cutting-edge in selecting finishes. "Sometimes the style chosen doesn't have longevity and seems dated too quickly," he said. That's not to say your home improvements shouldn't reflect an individual's personality. "Choose nice light fixtures!" he advised. "I have seen a lot of beautiful renovations but the lighting stinks! This is an area in which you can really add your own personal style -- and if it's necessary to change them or the style falls out of favor, they are easily replaceable."

Of course, it's wise to have an eye on potential resale of the property in making changes. But it's also very important to put your own needs first -- and don't wait too long to pursue some desired changes.

"Don't just make improvements to sell your home at the last minute," Engelmann said. "Make the changes you want so you can live in it and love it. Then, even if a sale is in your future, you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor before moving on."

Watch the video below for more on prioritizing home improvement projects: