In most cases, making home improvements right before you list your home to sell is a losing proposition. You won't get a decent return on your investment. You'll be lucky to break even.

The sad truth about major remodeling projects
Experts have studied the return on investment in common home-improvement projects, and the results are in. For 2014, according to Remodeling magazine, you'll do well to recoup 49% of the costs of a remodeled home office. A major kitchen remodel that costs more than $50,000 does a little better: You may recoup 75% of your outlay. A good new front door has one of the highest recoup rates at about 97%.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't make strategic improvements to your home before you sell. Put yourself in home buyers' shoes and imagine their first impressions as they step into your entryway. Making sure these things are in top shape can help you sell your home more quickly. Also look for areas that are out of line with the overall quality of your home. And definitely remove the "ew!" factor whenever possible if something is garish, dumpy, or impossible to clean.

If you watch your costs and have good taste, careful improvements and repairs should more than pay you back when you sell your home.

Higher-return upgrades
Consider these home improvements before you put your home on the market:

  • On the exterior, a new coat of paint will give your house the curb appeal it needs to sell quickly.
  • Don't forget to spruce up the yard. Even if you have to get a professional landscaper to do it, make sure everything is cut, pruned, trimmed, and mulched. Keep your grass trimmed without scalping it, and keep those dandelions at bay.
  • The kitchen, in general, is the best place to invest money in your house. However, you don't need to spend 50 grand. Concentrate on what people see first. The condition of your cabinets can make or break the sale. Cabinets that are more than 15 years old may need to be replaced if you want to get top dollar for your house. In a modestly priced home, make sure the cabinets are clean and polished and consider new hardware, or even a paint job.
  • Countertops in the kitchen and bathrooms make a house stand out from the crowd. If you replace your cabinets, you'll be replacing the countertops anyway. If the countertops are in poor condition, replace them. If you can afford it, a solid surface (especially granite) will wow the buyers every time. Replace tile countertops that are more than 10 years old, unless you plan to spend money restoring the grout. If you have tired old countertops, you may hear your potential homebuyer's partner say, "But honey, the other house had granite countertops!"
  • Check all windows to make sure they work, none are cracked or broken, screens are in good condition, and the glass is clean, inside and out. This is important because you want to open all curtains and blinds to let the light in when you show the house, making your home a bright and cheerful place to live.

Must-do home repairs
Certain home repairs are not optional, however. If neglected, these repairs may even be required by the home inspector -- after you negotiate a price:

  • Check for water intrusion of any kind or stains from old ones.
  • Make sure toilets flush properly.
  • See that all faucets function properly with no dripping.
  • See that your sinks drain quickly.
  • Fix any doors that rub on the frame or the floor.
  • Fill and touch up cracks.
  • Look in attic or crawl space and fix any leaks, trash, rodent activity and make sure all insulation is in place.
  • Lightly clean off the roof and clean out the gutters.
  • Replace the furnace filter.
  • Clean the oven.

Your home may be your largest investment. Make sure you know which remodeling projects won't pay you back when you sell, which strategic home improvements give you the best return or help move your home faster, and the home repairs you must make to close the deal.