A friend of mine is about to buy her first home. As she talks excitedly about updating the furnace, installing a fence, and perhaps finishing the basement, I've gently tried to remind her that she might want to slow down. These projects will each eat up considerable money (some projects more than others, of course), and she may want to rethink some of them.

I think it's a good rule of thumb to just live in your new home for a year before starting any major upgrades (unless they're necessary due to unsafe conditions). That will give you time to see how you actually live in the space and to imagine lots of possibilities. For one thing, you'll get to see what's growing in your yard, which can inform your landscaping decisions. You'll also get a feel for which rooms are hot and cold at different times of the year.

While you wait, and even when you're in the throes of work on your home, I urge you to spend some time on our Building and Maintaining a Home discussion board. There you'll find scores of people discussing all kinds of repairs and upgrades, offering advice, and answering questions. Use the "search" feature, and you can tap information stored in nearly 90,000 posts that have been made over more than seven years. Here are just a few samples of information I ran across there recently:

  • One poster asked how long it takes for concrete to cure, as she's planning to have 4 inches of it poured in her sunken living room, to bring the room level with the rest of the house. She got lots of responses, including suggestions that she consider just raising the floor with wood, such as 2-by-4s and plywood. She worried about a squeaky floor and was advised to ask that glue and screws be used, for extra stability.
  • Someone asked, "Is there any problem that might arise by using an 'interior' handle on an exterior door?" That's exactly the kind of question that piques my interest. I know you're not supposed to do so, but I always wonder why. Fortunately, as expected, an answer was offered: "Yes, it will likely rust very quickly, and might not fit the thicker exterior door."
  • Another poster asked about repairing an asphalt driveway. He was advised to use a tube of compound in a caulking gun for small cracks, and to stuff "cold asphalt patching compound" into larger spaces. Then the question of whether to seal it all came up, and someone suggested that sealing driveways is largely a cosmetic thing. A fellow board denizen argued convincingly against this: "I think sealing the cracks serves two purposes. It helps prevent water seeping into the cracks during the winter where it can undergo a series of freeze/thaw cycles. It also prevents weed seeds from germinating and their roots weakening the asphalt around the crack. Just from viewing driveways where people seal and don't seal, it appears to me that the sealed driveways last longer."
  • A question was asked about oil-based vs. latex deck stain primers. I actually knew the answer to this one. Oil-based primers can be more effective, soaking into the wood more (though they're smellier), and you can put latex paints and stains over them. You can't, however, put oil-based coatings over latex primers. If you're working indoors, latex can be preferable to avoid fumes (though even latex paints have issues in that department -- look into "low VOC" paint to combat that). Many people would opt for oil-based primers outdoors.

Other topics recently tackled include remodeling a kitchen and the order in which to proceed, using solar electricity, the need for backflow-preventing valves on pipes, filling holes in a yard, vinyl fencing, leaky water heaters, storm doors, tank-less water heaters, toilet flanges, gunk on tubs, whole-house vs. attic fans, and more.

Alternative investments
For most of us, it makes sense to buy our own homes. They will give us shelter and comfort, while (usually) helping us build valuable equity. Beyond that, though, think twice before spending more money on real estate as an investment. To make the most of your dollars for your future, it's hard for most of us to beat the stock market. If you want exposure to the real estate industry in your portfolio, buying shares of homebuilders like Pulte (NYSE:PHM) and Centex (NYSE:CTX), home improvement retailers like Home Depot (NYSE:HD) and Lowe's (NYSE:LOW), or building materials companies such as USG (NYSE:USG) and Owens Corning (NYSE:OC) may offer better returns than buying a piece of land. If you prefer, investing in a broad S&P 500-based index fund is easy and immediately plunks you into hundreds of America's biggest companies. Over many decades, the S&P 500 has averaged annual gains of about 10%.

Learn more
If you're interested in homebuying and -selling issues, visit our Home Center, which features lots of money-saving tips on mortgages and other issues. You might also want to check out these articles, especially if you'll soon be buying a home:

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Home Depot, which is an Inside Value recommendation. Try any one of our investing services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is  Fools writing for Fools.