Home & Living

Top 10 Smartest Upgrades

Local experts share their best home improvement projects for under $5,000.

It may sound like a cliché colliding with bad dating advice, but when it comes to your home’s appeal—and market value—looks do matter, as do first impressions. So what upgrades can you make that will make a big difference to a buyer, but not break the bank?

We went to the local experts, from contractors and developers to Realtors, to get the answers, and they came up with a top 10 list that would move the curb-appeal meter on any house. And the best part? Owners of average-sized houses can pull each of them off for $5,000 or less.

Clear as Day
Not everyone feels that new windows will get a quick payback, but it’s still important to the resale value—after all, it affects the functionality of the house.

“New windows get rid of nagging problems, such as when they won’t open, have broken hardware, and have drafts,” says Jeff Rubin, the owner of The Baltimore Handyman Company and also an architect.

Especially if a home was built decades ago—or if the original windows were cheaply made—the improvement can make a big difference.

“If you have a home that is more than 30 years old, your windows probably are ready to be updated,” says Kim Cavanaugh, owner and project manager of Cavanaugh Homes.

Average price per vinyl window: $65-200.

Watch Where You Step
While this next tip doesn’t have anything to do with how a home really works, it can change its appearance dramatically—we’re talking a flooring redo.

“Get rid of that tired carpeting you’ve been staring at for years,” says Rubin. “This will improve the appearance of a room easily, and you won’t feel embarrassed by those stains.”

And if it’s not carpet, consider changing the color palate of hardwood floors, rather than doing a complete overhaul.

“Most hardwood floors can be sanded and refinished easily and inexpensively,” says Clay Goodier, president of homebuilding at Goodier Baker Homes.

Average price, carpet per square foot, including padding and installation: $5. Average cost, floor refinishing for 12-by-12-foot room: $450.

Open it Up
Another item Goodier advises homeowners to consider is an open-concept living space.

“People live socially and casually now,” says Goodier. “Confined, formal living spaces are a thing of the past. More often than not, fewer walls are better.”

Realtor Lisa Richland of Long & Foster agrees: “If you can take a wall down, it makes a difference. Buyers who I work with want to be in a kitchen that isn’t secluded.”

Average price to remove typical interior wall: $750.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Something several contractors support is adding good organizational systems inside the home.

There are several cost-efficient products to achieve that, but they require assembly by either you or, if you’re all thumbs, a professional.

George Brown, president of Greenleaf Construction Baltimore, believes closet organization is what homeowners should focus on. His recommendation: “Install custom shelves and rods, instead of a pre-fab system, if your budget allows it.”

Average price for a storage system: $500-2,000.

Up in the Attic
This next option may not be seen, but it could help a homeowner’s wallet.

“Upgrade or add attic insulation and air seal,” recommends Brown, who also suggests getting a home-energy audit.

Cavanaugh shared a similar sentiment: “Most attics in older homes are drastically under-insulated.” Homeowners will likely see a difference in their utility bills after installation.

Average price, insulating attic of 2,500-
square-foot home: $1,000-2,000.

Get Control Over Your Air
It may not seem very sexy, but having a modern and efficient heating and air-conditioning system is a crucial home-improvement item. It’s one Richland believes is so important, she won’t show a house without a proper air-conditioning unit.

“If the HVAC isn’t working, take care of that first,” says Richland. “Focus on the basics first before the glamour items.”

Rubin concurs, saying that energy-saving home improvements are good for the wallet and the environment. “When it comes to new energy-efficient heating and cooling equipment, everyone should embrace these home improvements.”

Average price, new HVAC unit, 2,500-
square-foot home: $3,000.

Get Cooking in the Kitchen
The “heart” of the modern home—the kitchen—is the place potential buyers often zero in on.

For that reason, says Brown, “the kitchen is still the main area of the home that most of our clients have chosen to invest their money in.”

And when you consider the amount of time spent on family dinners and entertaining in that space, a simple, cost-effective solution can really be worth it.

“Installing new kitchen countertops and cabinet knobs can add a whole new look to your kitchen,” recommends Cavanaugh.

Typical price range for manmade or natural stone: $60-90 per square foot.

Apply Yourself
New kitchen appliances are also a good place to put your money.

“If you have an old fridge, it’s worth paying to deal with that before new countertops,” Richland suggests. And it’s a pretty cheap upgrade.

“Replacing your kitchen appliances is a good value,” says Rubin. “It is something you use everyday.”

And those stainless-steel appliances that used to be the sole province of the rich? Not so, anymore, says Goodier: “Stainless-steel appliances are standard now and are inexpensive to put into a home.”

Average combined price of new stainless-steel refrigerator and oven with convection: $2,500-3,000.

Think: View From The Street
If a homeowner can only budget for one item, Cavanaugh suggests focusing on curb appeal, especially landscaping. “If your home looks terrible from the road, some buyers may not even get out of the car. Make sure your landscaping is trimmed neatly and the grass is mowed.”

And that may mean plant upgrades, says Goodier: “Changing out overgrown bushes and trees shows off your home better and gives you a fresh look.”

Typical price range for front-yard redo, including mulch, hauling, and new shrubs and flowers: $2,000-5,000.

Take a Broad-Brush Approach
One of the most economical on this list—and most important—is paint, whether it is the interior or exterior of your home.

“Painting is inexpensive and can even be done yourself,” said Goodier. “It is a great way to change the mood of a home.”

But, if you’re thinking of selling, skip the chartreuse. “When I work with buyers, they talk about awful wallpaper or paint colors. Some people can’t get past it,” shares Richland. “If you can, paint neutral colors.”

Average price for a professional to paint a 12-by-12 room: $400-500.