For the past five years, home renos have been all about getting maximum payback value — and for good reason. In a hot real estate market, paying thousands of dollars to install a granite countertop in your kitchen or a walk-in closet in your bedroom can be a good investment, since the right touch of decor magic can boost the resale value of your house into the stratosphere.
But not anymore. As the real estate market cools across Canada, many of us are realizing that we’re going to be spending longer than we thought in our current homes. Given that economic reality, it makes sense to return to a simpler notion of renovating. Instead of thinking about what’s going to fetch maximum dollars at sale time, you should be thinking about which renos will actually improve your everyday existence. So check out our top 10 list of budget-smart home improvements. They’ll stand you in good stead when the time comes to sell your home. And even better, they’ll improve your life right now.
Here comes the sun
Nothing improves your mood more than a blast of sunlight. But before cutting a big hole in the side of your house to put in new windows, consider less invasive — and cheaper — ways of getting more natural light into your home. Tactics to consider include:
Brightening up a windowless bath or hallway can be as easy as installing a “tubular daylighting device” —or light tube, in plain English. These slender tubes , roughly the diameter of a dinner plate, are lined with reflective material. They start from your roof or outer walls and snake through joists and behind walls to channel daylight through your house, providing as much illumination as you would expect from a big skylight.
Light tubes can be installed almost anywhere in your home, including tight spaces and rooms without direct roof access — and, in most cases, they require no structural reframing or drywalling. To see what’s available, check with a lighting specialty store or visit www.amazingdaylight.com. Expect to pay $600 to $700, including installation.
You can bring more light into a room by replacing part of a wall with glass blocks. These small cubes of glass can be installed in any non-load-bearing wall. They let light pass through, but are patterned on the inside to obscure the vision of passersby, so you retain your privacy.
You can build a whole wall with these nifty blocks. Or, if your budget is limited, you can replace only the top portion of a wall with the blocks. That’s what Jon Eakes, a home improvement expert in Montreal did this past year when his wife asked him to convert an empty room in their basement to a home office. “I just took 18 inches off the top of the office walls and put glass there” says Eakes. “You get light all day long, but you can’t see through the glass so you maintain your privacy. My wife says the glass makes her basement office feel twice as big and twice as bright.” For a full range of glass block products and designs, visit www.antoglassblock.com. Expect to pay $30 per square foot installed.
Other good ways to bring light into your home include removing the wall from a stairwell and replacing it with a railing, or widening the French doors separating your dining room from your kitchen. “You’ll end up with a look that’s airier, more modern and less formal,” says Francesco Di Sarra of Capoferro Design and Build in Toronto. “A lot of the time, the light is there. You just need to take down the walls to let it shine through.”
Show off the family jewels
The easiest way to upgrade the appearance of your house is to replace small, relatively inexpensive stuff that packs a disproportionately large visual impact.
Even an old house can gleam if you replace its “jewelry”— doorknobs and cupboard pulls. Bronze knobs with leather inlays, copper roosters or even granite pulls can breathe new life into old kitchen cupboards for about $16 each. You can perform a similar trick on your doors by replacing tarnished doorknobs with glossy new ones. (To see a sampling of what’s available, check out www.cabinetpull.com.) Doorknobs in glossy bronze or polished nickel range from $8 to $250 each.
You can give most boxy, contemporary rooms a dramatic facelift by adding crown molding, cornices and baseboards. If youâ’re handy with a hammer, you can install these decorative finishes yourself in a weekend at minimal cost: an ornate flower-shaped molding for your ceiling centre will set you back as little as $100. Intricate crown moldings for the top of your walls are $2 a linear foot and up, while baseboards start at $5 a foot. Visit www.moldings.ca to see what’s available.
If you truly want your home to shine, consider installing a hardwood floor. Jotoba, mahogany or walnut ($12 per square foot, installed) are three beautiful finishes to consider.
Launch your own space program
If you’re feeling cramped in your existing kitchen, you can pay $30,000 or more to install an addition— or for a couple of thousand dollars expand the usable space in your existing cupboards with the latest in space-saving devices. “These days we all have specialty pots, small appliances and kitchen gadgets,” says Kevin Fitzsimons, a Toronto interior designer. “So designers have invented lots of great ways to expand your storage space.” Some ideas to consider include:
These wire frame devices neatly unfold into a series of shelves that give you tons of extra usable space in hard-to-reach corner cupboards. “It helps you to access the hard-to-reach space in the corner much more easily,” says Di Sarra the builder, who puts Magic Corner fold-out wire shelves by Häfele Canada in all of his kitchen renovations. Prices start at $1,500 for a 3 ft. by 4 ft. unit.
Roll-out drawers and pantries
Also convenient are larger pantries with chrome wire roll-out shelves. These larger units come in a variety of sizes and cost about $2,000 for a pantry unit that’s 2 ft. by 6 ft. Check out www.richelieu.com for these and other kitchen storage ideas.
Invest in water
To ensure your flower beds or vegetable garden always look lush, install a drip irrigation system. Instead of spraying large amounts of water like a lawn sprinkler, a drip irrigation system is made up of long, narrow tubes that snake through your garden, sitting on top of the soil, and slowly releasing moisture through tiny holes. Drip irrigation can cut your water usage by up to 60%. It also ensures that moisture reaches the roots of your plants, rather than being wasted on the foliage, where it may evaporate without benefit. “For a couple of small flower beds in your front or backyard, it’s fairly easy to set up this system on your own,” says Di Sarra. “But if you have several beds across a lot that’s an acre or more, then have an expert set it up for you.”You’ll pay about $500 if you do it yourself with parts from your local hardware store, and $2,000 and up if you hire a professional to do it. Visit www.dripirrigation.com for installation instructions. While you’re at it, hand over $40 more for a timer: this allows you to go away to the cottage for a week and come back to perfectly watered flowers and vegetables, even in the hottest part of summer.
Let the butler do it
Entertaining at home becomes a lot easier if you install a butler’s pantry between your dining room and kitchen. “All the stuff that doesn’t fit in the kitchen can go in the butler’s pantry,” says Fitzsimons, the interior designer. A modest 6 ft. pantry along one side of a small hallway will cost about $6,000 and include four upper cabinets with glass doors for stemware and china, as well as six under-the-counter easy-slide drawers for flatware, linen, scented candles and flower vases. Think of it as a built-in armoire for all your entertaining needs. “You can fit a lot into a small butle’s pantry,” says Di Sarra, the builder, who says he installs butle’s pantries into most of the new homes he builds. “They keep you organized and ensure that dirty pots, dishes and glasses are kept out of sight of the eating and entertaining areas. Homeowners love them.”
Get yourself an island
Kitchen renovations are expensive— but you can have most of the advantages of one for under $5,000 by installing an island in your kitchen. It will not only give you more storage space for dishes, pots and utensils, but will serve as a prep area for chopping vegetables and throwing together dips for parties and family entertaining. Prices start at $4,000 for a custom designed 4 ft. by 6 ft. island in maple with four cupboards and a couple of drawers.
Spend just a few thousand dollars more and you can equip your island with the best in efficient, space-saving devices like the 27-in.-wide, two-drawer compact Sub-Zero refrigerator/freezer that allows you to keep beverages, garnishes and other essentials at your fingertips. The Sub-Zero two-drawer model gives you over 5 cubic ft. of storage ($2,700). Also consider adding a small wine fridge ($300 and up), some pull-out wicker basket shelves ($40 each) and some quiet-closing pull-out drawers with adjustable dividers for storing all your flatware and kitchen utensils. Visit www.blum.com for more on these ideas.
Hug your own tree
No home improvement gives you more bang for your buck— or more enjoyment for your dollar— than planting a tree. A tree provides a visual exclamation mark to your house. It serves as a great place to put up a kid’s swing. Planted on the south, west or east side of your house, it even shades your roof and cuts your cooling costs. And it’s no slouch at sales time either. Surveys show that home buyers are willing to pay $7,000 more for a house that has a tree and a few hedges.
Which tree to choose? Don’t forget the humble maple. Bill Bryan, garden centre supervisor of the Kingston Farm and Garden Centre in Kingston, Ont., says that for shade and good looks nothing beats Canada’s national symbol. “They’re by far the most popular tree we sell” says Bryan.”A 10-ft.-tall maple costs around $150 and it’s fairly easy to plant if a family is prepared to do it together.”
Get a grip on your gear
How often have you walked into your home and tripped over a bunch of shoes and knapsacks? Thatâ€™s why it pays to spend a little money on organization. Install a desk, closet or wall unit in your entrance way so that outdoor gear has its place. Even a few basic shelves will do wonders. “One of the main reasons people move is because they need more storage,” says Robert Koci, editor of Canadian Contractor. “But shelving is one of the easiest do-it-yourself projects out there and will take only a couple of weekends of your time to finish.” If you’re ambitious, visit www.californiaclosets.com for ideas on storage for virtually any area of your home, including laundry rooms, mud rooms and linen closets. Prices start at $200 for a 2 ft. by 6 ft. open shelving unit and climb to $1,000 or more for custom-made units.
Lapping it up
Hate driving through rush hour traffic to swim a few laps at a crowded pool? Then consider an alternative. Lap pools are personal pools that fit in your basement, sunroom or backyard, letting you swim in one place against a current. They work much like treadmills for swimmers. A standard lap pool measures only 8 ft. by 14 ft. and produces a current of 20,000 to 30,000 gallons per minute â€” strong enough for training Olympic athletes. You can choose between products from Endless Pools of Aston, Penn., and SwimEx of Fall River, Mass. SwimEx models go for $27,000 and up compared to about $23,000 for Endless Pools. Whichever you choose, count on spending an additional $2,000 to $3,000 for shipping and $5,000 to $10,000 for installation and finishes. Visit www.endlesspools.com and www.swimex.com for more details.
Let’s take it outside
If the price of a cottage doesn’t fit into your budget, consider an alternative: your backyard. For $25,000 or less, you can transform your yard into a mini-resort.
Start with the Cabana Spa with hot tub by Cal Spas of Pomona, Calif. This Cadillac of spas includes a roof, three bars and ample space for beverages and snacks. (Cal Spas, $13,000 and up). Then complement your hot tub with an outdoor kitchen. “Outdoor kitchens in the form of an island are really popular right now,” says Mario Furtado, owner of Marana Kitchens in Toronto. For $8,000 you can get a custom-made eight-door counter with cabinets that will house a 3-ft. gas grill, sink, and bar fridge. Spend a few thousand dollars more and you can add nifty accessories, such as stereo speakers and beer kegs ($5,000 to $10,000). With a backyard like this, you may never want to visit a cottage again.