Fix Your Home Without Gutting Your Wallet

Trading up (or undergoing extreme home makeovers) isn't as popular as it was in the go-go days of real estate. But even if you aren't in the midst of gutting your kitchen or adding on a rumpus room, chances are, if you own your home, you'll spend a nice chunk of change this year keeping your place up to snuff.

According to a study by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS), homeowners with abodes that are in their late teens to mid-20s shell out an average of $2,450 annually for maintenance and improvements. By the way, two out of every three homes in the U.S. are at least 25 years old.

You don't need a reciprocating saw to shear sizable chunks from your home-improvement tab. Planning, preparation, and smart shopping can save you 10% to 50% on your home-improvement budget.

Lop off some labor costs
The size, scope, and complexity of the job are all factors in your labor outlay.

If you hire a general contractor (GC), which is something you'd do mostly for midsized to large projects, plan to spend an extra 20%, even on work the GC pays a subcontractor to do. The fee covers the headache factor of scheduling and sourcing as well as the costs of fixing mistakes made under his or her watch.

If the job requires fewer than three subcontractors, you can save money (but not necessarily time) by acting as your own GC for all or part of the job. Remember, you're responsible for any do-overs that don't meet code or other contractors' standards. For my own renovation I found a GC who had a full-time electrician, plumber, and trim guys on staff.

If you live in a metropolitan area, you can cut the hourly tab for specialty jobs such as plumbing and wiring by widening your search radius. Many independent operators will travel for work for an additional flat fee.

And, if you're at all handy, do some of the work -- like painting or tiling -- yourself. "DIY" can translate to "cash in hand." (Or "glue in hair," in my case.)

Save on future work. As long as the walls are open, you're living in a construction zone, so knock off future projects. I had my entire apartment wired for cable, even though I needed it in only two spots.

Be strategic about supplies
With planning and patience, you can snag bargains on everything from new windows to old architectural details.

  • Put on some grubby clothes and shop for salvage. My 1920s mantel and two sets of French doors were $500 at a salvage yard, versus $1,375 (and minus the charm) at Home Depot. My "preloved" bathroom sink and light fixtures were $128 less than new, and my vanity mirror and granite hearth tiles, the latter of which retail for $6.98 each, were serendipitous curbside finds that cost me nothing!
  • Handle online shopping with care. High shipping surcharges can cancel out any price breaks, particularly on fragile items such as tiles (pros recommend ordering 10% to 20% extra to allow for breakage) or large items like appliances.
  • Pay wholesale or less on new goods. Search online for local builder/supplier liquidators who sell or auction overstocked, misordered, or returned items like doors, windows, cabinets, bathroom fixtures, construction materials, and flooring.
  • Shop with retailers who buy in bulk for new construction, and you can get half off retail for overstocked items.
  • Consider floor samples. When new models come in, retailers (particularly mom-and-pops) will sell display models to clear out floor space. They may even honor the manufacturer's warranty.

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In the spirit of full disclosure (which is popular around, Dayana Yochim would like to admit that she actually purchased real estate on impulse. Seriously. This is one particular financial strategy that she does not recommend to readers.

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