You can hardly click through three cable channels without landing on a home-improvement show. It's no wonder -- Americans spend nearly $300 billion a year on remodeling. Respondents to a survey by word-of-mouth rating and networking service Angie's List say they planned to spend an average of more than $5,000 on home projects in a typical year. Tops on their improvement hit list are the hearts and thrones of their homes -- kitchens and bathrooms.

Maybe you don't plan on refacing the kitchen cabinets or installing a heated-seat loo, but there's always the Home Depot "maintenance spending" for basic upkeep. Homeowners with abodes that are in their late teens to mid-20s shell out an average of $2,450 annually for maintenance and improvements, according to a study by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS), which says that 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 sizeable chunks from your home-improvement tab. Planning, preparation, and smart shopping can save you 10% to 50% on your home-improvement budget -- and that can mean hundreds or even thousands of dollars back in your pocket.

Pick improvements that pay off
According to Remodeling magazine, every dollar spent on the average makeover project should cost you 20 to 25 cents -- the remainder is what adds value to the home. But that all depends on the kind of project you choose.

Kitchens and bathrooms are at the top of the list for most renovators, and for good reason -- homeowners are likely to recoup more from these investments when they sell. But not as much as in years past. Although several types of projects in the past few years returned 90% of the amount invested or more, none did by 2007.

Your cost also depends on geography and the neighborhood standard. Projects that make sense in one area may not pay off in another. In addition, going upscale doesn't always give you better returns.

Lop off some labor costs
The size, scope, and complexity of the job are 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. I went with a GC who had an 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.
  • If you're at all handy, do some of the work -- like painting or tiling -- yourself. "DIY" can translate to "cash in hand."
  • 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 on fragile items such as like tiles -- pros recommend ordering 10% to 20% extra to allow for breakage -- or large items like appliances can cancel out price breaks.
  • Pay wholesale or less on new goods. Search online for local builder/supplier liquidators who sell or auction overstocked, misordered, or returned items such as 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. My granite countertops were remnants from a larger job, and at $920 installed, they were nearly half the cost.
  • 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.