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Granite countertops in the kitchen. A tub for the master bathroom. A family-room addition off the living room. Whatever home improvement you're dreaming of, it probably feels like a fantasy right now. Let's face it, you're not going to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a renovation in this crazy economy. Still, that doesn't mean you have to live with an outdated or uncomfortable house, either. Believe it or not, you can get granite countertops or other normally pricey upgrades for a couple of thousand dollars. You just have to throw out the old rule book and use some innovative approaches. Start with these ideas to save a whopping 50 to 75 percent on eight popular home improvement projects.
In the Kitchen
What You Want: New cabinets ($10,000 to $20,000)
Save By: Refacing the old ones ($3,000 to $6,000).
How It Works: You keep your cabinets but update them with the fresh look of your choice, from Shaker to Mission to contemporary. The installer applies wood veneer to the existing cabinets, replaces the doors and hardware and installs new drawer glides. After you have chosen the color of your dreams the transformation is so complete that everyone will think you got new cabinets.
What to Think About: You can't alter the kitchen layout or footprint without making a significant investment, so refacing makes sense only if you're happy with the current configuration and the cabinets are in relatively good shape.
Who Does the Job: Most kitchen renovation contractors and home centers offer refacing, or they can refer you to a specialist.
An Even-Lower-Cost Option: Paint your old cabinets yourself and install new knobs and pulls ($100 to $300 in supplies).
What You Want: Granite countertops ($6,000 to $8,000)
Save By: Having granite tiles laid over the existing countertops ($2,000 to $3,000).
How It Works: Your existing countertops become the foundation for standard 12-by-12-inch granite tiles laid edge to edge. The tiler applies narrow color-matched grout lines so it looks like a solid slab of stone.
What to Think About: To make your stone tiles look like a single piece of granite, choose a stone with a uniform color pattern and use tiles rather than wood for the counter edges.
Who Does the Job: A tile setter.
An Even-Lower-Cost Option: Hire a local woodworker to make you simple maple countertops, which look upscale and wear well, despite their affordability ($600 to $1,000).
What You Want: A new kitchen floor ($2,000 to $3,000 for ceramic tile)
Save By: Exposing the wood floor that's already there if your home is prewar ($700 to $1,000).
How It Works: Until the 1950s homebuilders often laid wooden floors throughout the entire house and then added linoleum just in the kitchen. If you have an older home you might already "own" a new kitchen floor. You can check by removing a corner tile or two.
What to Think About: Old flooring may contain asbestos, so the contractor should quarantine the work area and properly discard the old material.
Who Does the Job: A contractor who specializes in floor refinishing.
An Even-Lower-Cost Option: If you don't have a hidden wood floor you can still get a similar look from laminate, a manufactured product that looks identical to real wood, stone, or tile. It snaps in place over any existing floor without nails or glue, an easy do-it-yourself job ($500 to $700).
What You Want: A new tub ($2,000 to $6,000)
Save By: Lining the one you already have (approximately $1,000).
How It Works: Rather than tearing out your old tub, you can have a new custom tub made to fit right over it (think of one paper cup nesting inside another one). The installer takes exact measurements of your tub -- and sometimes makes an impression of its shape with a paint-on rubber mold. A few weeks later he returns with a one-piece liner manufactured to a precise fit that's made from the same acrylic used for new tubs. He then bonds it in place over the old tub.
What to Think About: This process won't get you a bigger tub or let you change the configuration of the room, but you also won't have to go through a messy and disruptive construction project.
Who Does the Job: Specialty companies, many of which are national chains (see bathfitter.com, rebath.com, and luxurybath.com).
An Even-Lower-Cost Option: Have your chipped, pitted, or rust-stained tub reglazed in the color of your choice ($400 to $700; search for "bathtub refinishing" online to find local companies).
What You Want: To replace outdated tile wainscot ($3,000 to $5,000)
Save By: Installing wood beadboard paneling right over the tile ($1,000 to $1,500).
How It Works: A tile wainscot -- a half wall of tile -- is a nice bathroom feature, but not if the tiles are bright pink or avocado green. (What were they thinking?) For an instant update a woodworker can glue beadboard plywood over the tile and create a small shelf along the top, then paint the woodwork white.
What to Think About: Make sure the plywood that your contractor uses has fully rounded grooves (or "beads"), rather than just a shallow suggestion of the shape, which is common with some cheaper products.
Who Does the Job: A contractor, carpenter, or experienced neighborhood handyman.
An Even-Lower-Cost Option: Paint the tile white with a specialized epoxy coating available at refinishingonline.com ($68 per kit).
What You Want: A family-room addition ($20,000 plus)
Save By: Knocking down an interior wall ($1,000 to $1,500).
How It Works: Instead of building a brand-new family room by adding on to your house's current footprint, you can remove an interior kitchen wall to create an open floor plan among existing rooms. "You go from having an undersized kitchen next to an undersized living room, dining room, or back hall to having one generous multipurpose space," says Rob Wennersten, a contractor in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey.
What to Think About: If the wall is bearing (that is, structural), you'd need to add a beam, raising the cost to around $4,000, and if it's "wet" (that is, it contains plumbing), rerouting the pipes could be cost-prohibitive.
Who Does the Job: A general contractor and plumber, if needed.
An Even-Lower-Cost Option: Rather than removing the wall entirely you can create a large opening in it, such as for a breakfast bar or pass-through. That way you avoid potential structural and plumbing complications (about $700).
What You Want: Custom Built-Ins ($6,000 to $10,000)
Save By: Using and personalizing stock cabinetry ($3,000 to $4,000).
How It Works: Inexpensive kitchen cabinets stocked unassembled at home centers offer plenty of mix-and-match storage solutions to create terrific built-ins -- from bookshelves to window seats to wet bars. And manufacturers even provide trim pieces that give the modules a customized one-piece look.
What to Think About: Sales reps in the kitchen department can use computer software to help you design your built-in based on your space and their selection of cabinetry. This service is usually provided at no extra charge.
Who Does the Job: A contractor, carpenter, or home-center installation crew.
An Even-Lower-Cost Option: If you're handy enough to do the cabinet assembly yourself you can reduce the installer's labor fee. Figure it'll take you about 20 minutes to assemble each cabinet unit, after the first one, which may take 45 minutes (about $1,000).
What You Want: New windows ($800 to $1,200 per window for a quality wood product, installed)
Save By: Having the existing windows "doctored" ($150 to $300 per window).
How It Works: A handyman frees the painted-shut upper sash and replaces old sash cords, broken panes, missing putty, and old hardware. He gets everything working like new and adds weatherstripping to improve energy efficiency.
What to Think About: Old windows may never be as efficient as brand-new ones but you get to keep the character of the house's original windows. (And there are more cost-effective ways to slash energy costs than replacement windows anyway, like adding attic and basement insulation and weatherizing windows and doors.)
Who Does the Job: A window installer, handyman, or contractor.
An Even-Lower-Cost Option: Do the job yourself. Order the instructional DVD How to Repair Old Windows for $22 at greenwichwindowdoctor.com ($8 to $15 per window in supplies).
What if you could have improvement made without doing any construction work at all? Skip the contractor, sawdust, and about 90 percent of the cost for these four common household upgrades.
More Interior Lighting
Figure on up to $600 per new light/switch combo, plus the cost of repairing wall holes made for snaking in the wires.
No-Reno Solution: Buy floorstanding torchieres (starting at $30 each from lowes.com) and plug into outlets or add wireless switches that adhere to the wall.
A New Surface for Your Stained Deck
You can spend $2,500 to $3,500 for redwood or tropical hardwood.
No-Reno Solution: Have the existing deck bleached to refresh the wood, treated to prevent future damage, and stained to whatever color you want -- this project will cost about $200 in supplies for DIYers.
A Kitchen Island with Breakfast Bar
This project may cost up to $5,000 for materials and installation.
No-Reno Solution: Put a freestanding table or an island topped with wood, granite, or stainless steel ($300 to $1,200) in the kitchen with a few stools. Non-matching islands are in style now.
Under-Cabinet Kitchen Lighting
You'll shell out about $2,500 for the wiring and LED or xenon disk lights.
No-Reno Solution: Tack a strand of rope lighting (available at home stores) to the underside of your wall cabinets and plug them into a nearby wall outlet -- about $50.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2009.