MONEY home improvement

4 Deceptively-Easy Home Improvements You Can Do in a Day

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Bruce Laurance—Getty Images

Spiffing up your home doesn't have to be a neverending chore.

To the uninitiated, home renovations sound daunting and conjure painful images of burning cash. But don’t let that scare you. Many projects can be done in a day, and if you’re smart about it, says Kerrie Kelly, founder of Kerrie Kelly Home Design Lab, they’ll boost curb appeal without breaking your budget.

“Whether it’s something you leave on a list for a handyman to do or you do it yourself, which is always gratifying,” she says. Here are few of her favorites.

1. Switch the Hardware

Sometimes it’s easiest to begin with the front of the house rather than what’s inside, Kelly says, especially if you’re on a tight budget. To that end, changing the front doorknob and lock is a quick update that only takes a few minutes and can compliment the style of the house. Add a kick plate for a touch of glam or go gold for a traditional feel.

2. Brighten the Lights

Another quick, simple way to brighten your home is by changing the lights in the front yard. Feel free to purchase new ones, or better yet, clean the ones you already have. Your home will look far less spooky at night and you’ll actually see where you’re walking.

3. Paint the Door

If scrubbing bug-infested front yard lights isn’t your thing, put a new coat of paint on your front door to freshen it up. Go for something that complements the house’s exterior or be bold and opt for a pop of color, Kelly says, which will set the right tone.

4. Upgrade Your House Numbers

House numbers and address plaques are another quick update that can make a big difference. With the proper placement, they can make your house easier to find — not a bad thing when trying to sell — and the right style of numbers can help play up its architecture.

Need more inspiration? Read on for other Home Improvement Projects You Can Do in a Day.

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MONEY home improvement

How to Beat the High Cost of Replacement Windows

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I don’t want to replace the gorgeous hundred-year-old windows in my house (especially not for the $1,500 each my contractor quoted me!), but the triple-track storms are another story. What would I have to spend to upgrade those?

A: You’ll be happy to know that new storm windows will produce nearly as much energy savings as full replacement windows at less than a quarter of the price—and they’ll reduce your house’s long-term window maintenance needs too.

Many of the same technologies used in replacement windows, such as weatherproof gaskets to stop drafts and low-emissivity glass that blocks the flow of heat through the pane, are standard in today’s storm windows too. And the storms will keep water away from the windowsill, which helps prevent rot in what is generally the most rot-prone spot on any old house.

“Your existing triple-tracks are probably decades old,” says contractor Les Fossel, of Restoration Resources in Alna, Maine, “which means they’re bare aluminum color, the rubber holding the glass is dried out and cracked, and the panes rattle in their tracks every time the wind blows.”

Here are four options that Fossel recommends to his clients. Any of them will upgrade both the appearance and effectiveness of your current storm windows.

Triple-tracks (about $200 per window, installed): These are the same traditional format you already have, with two glass panes and a screen, each set in its own track so it can be raised and lowered with the seasons and removed for cleaning. Factory made to your window sizes, today’s products are far more efficient than your aging units and will also be less noticeable because you can order them to match your house’s trim color.

Double-tracks (about $350 per window, installed): These factory-made storms also have two panes and a screen that you position up or down, but the three components live in only two channels. Rather than sliding them up and down, you remove the screen and/or window from their shared channel, then rearrange and reinstall them. This takes slightly more effort at the change of seasons, but it makes the storm about 1/4-inch thinner and therefore a bit less noticeable on your house.

Wood exterior storms ($500 per window, installed): A single pane of glass inside a contractor-built wood frame that’s painted to match the trim, this type of storm hangs from hooks mounted on the window trim and sits flush with the exterior trim for a nearly invisible look. You’ll want to also have a few screens made in the same fashion so you can swap them onto a few key windows seasonally to allow fresh air into the house.

Interior storms: ($150 per window, installed): These whole-window storms cover the window from the inside, maintaining the antique, stormless look of an old house. Factory made with thin aluminum frames painted to match your interior trim, they simply press tight inside the window opening. They won’t protect the sill from weather damage, but they look a whole lot better than those plastic shrink-wrap window insulation kits.

MONEY home improvement

5 Fantastic Fire Pits for When You Have Money to Burn

You can buy your own portable fire pit for as little as $100 or hire a pro to create custom designs like these, starting at $2600.

  • Modern Fire Pit Vessel

    Melissa Jones

    An outdoor living area designed by Phil Kean Designs in Winter Park, FL connects the main home to the guest home with a center garden sanctuary. A $2,225 black granite saturn fire vessel from Stone Forest, with lava rock and a separate natural gas kit for $390 is the main feature of this landscaping project. To create a garden sanctuary to use day or night, the design objective of this outdoor living area was accomplished with a raised seating area surrounding the stone fire pit. If you like to move your outdoor space around and don’t want to commit to a permanent fire pit, portable fire pits like the saturn fire vessel may be just what you’re looking for. You can buy a portable fire pit from your local hardware store that has individual character and a unique appeal, ranging from $100-$400 depending on the style and size.

  • Concrete and Copper Fire Bowls

    Giovanni Photography

    If you want to save yourself from the hassle of building your own fire pit, add a unique enhancement to your landscape design with a decorative fire bowl. Similar to a fire pit vessel, a fire bowl is a high quality natural gas or propane fire pit that typically comes in copper or concrete and can be operated remotely from your home or pool operated system. This home in Quail West in Naples, FL designed by Marc-Michaels Interior Design, includes multiple fire bowls around the pool and a circular fire pit made by Grand Effects set in front of lounge chairs in the private courtyard. Easy to install on any deck or patio, you can get your own modern fire feature for your landscaping starting at $2,800, depending on the size, shape, and style.

  • Gas Fire Pit Table

    AAA Landscape Specialists

    A modern twist in landscaping, this San Diego outdoor living project for a single-family residence features a spectacular fire pit in the corner of this backyard retreat. Installed by AAA Landscape Specialists for $3,200, this home’s gas fire pit table was made from relatively inexpensive and long-lasting concrete masonry blocks that are typically used for building retaining walls. While firebrick forms the flame retardant interior wall of the fire pit, the exterior is finished with travertine noche veneer stone for an elegant aesthetic appeal. Bring a piece of paradise to your backyard by adding the elegant touch of colorful fire pit glass rocks, to make you feel as if you’re in a fancy restaurant or luxury hotel while in the seat of your home. Many homes build a fire pit in an outdoor table for extra space to hold food or rest drinks while you entertain and relax.

  • Permanent Stone Fire Pit

    Alderwood Landscaping

    Blending effortlessly with nature, this large fire pit project brings the natural northwest environment to life. Built by Alderwood Landscaping in Sammamish, WA, the $7500 backyard fire pit features basalt boulders and natural stone veneers to produce a backyard escape for the ultimate relaxation. Without the extra landscaping and plumbing, building a masonry fire pit can cost you less than $500 depending on the size of pit and type of stone you choose. Whether you’re starting your landscaping from scratch or only adding a fire pit, hire a professional to make sure your backyard addition abides by all fire codes and regulations in your local neighborhood.

  • Round Stone Fire Pit

    Create a focal point on your patio or in your backyard with a round stone fire pit that is simple, but still makes a statement. This fire pit in Aurora, Ohio is the perfect place for a crowd of friends to gather and socialize or roast marshmallows. For $12,000, the professionals of House of L designed an affordable luxury fire pit fit for extravagant living. The fire pit features a custom blend of stone with limestone cap and a chipped edge detail. The fire pit has a gas start for easy light up, bringing the ultimate comfort to this home’s backyard. One of the more popular fire pits to DIY, you can make your own stone fire pit in the ground by digging a hole about ten inches deep, setting and layering stones with masonry adhesive, and then adding a fire ring and gravel inside.

    Get more gardening and home improvement ideas at Porch.com.

     

MONEY home improvement

8 Home Upgrades That Are Worth the Splurge

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Peter Zoeller—Getty Images

Whether strictly for resale value or for your own enhanced quality of life, these home features pay off.

In the real estate game, there are home features that always win (a great kitchen, a gorgeous master bath) and others that … well, don’t. (Almost anyone who’s owned an in-ground pool will regale you with the costly horrors.)

When you start thinking about home upgrades, these are the eight features that are worth the splurge, whether strictly for resale value or for your own enhanced quality of life.

1. A fancy new front door

Location, location, location is certainly important, but also: curb appeal, curb appeal, curb appeal. One of the quickest and least expensive ways to change the look of your abode is to switch up your front door.

Remove that rusty storm door and swap in a new steel-reinforced model in a bright, contrasting color; high-gloss hues are especially appealing. If your home is a lighter color, consider stripping the paint off your existing door and then staining it dark ebony for a dramatic contrast.

2. Professional landscaping

A serious landscaping upgrade is almost always worth the cost. Front plantings significantly improve initial impressions of your home, especially when they’re installed by a professional. Landscape architects not only know how to maximize planting space and choose appropriate foliage based on your soil type, but they also can put in lighting, pathways, and fencing for extra flair. (Rule of thumb: More is often more, as long as it doesn’t obscure your home’s exterior.)

And black thumbs, rest assured: Landscape architects will leave you with long-term strategies on maintaining and pruning your newfound greenery.

3. High-quality wood deck

Speaking of outdoor space: Think of a new back deck as a lower-cost expansion of your home. In warmer months, a new deck can add hundreds of extra square feet to your living area. You don’t need elaborate patio furniture or decor to make an outside space feel alluring; throw rugs, floor pillows, and string lighting do the job nicely.

And potential buyers are always fans of nice outdoor spaces — the ROI on a deck or patio is higher than on many other home improvements.

4. Extra bedrooms

Sure, it’s fun to think creatively about that empty attic space. (A recording studio, perhaps?) But when it comes time to list your place, an extra bedroom is a surefire draw.

Buyers always covet extra rooms, whether for future children or houseguests, and you’ll instantly attract those shopping in a higher budget range. Strange man caves, on the other hand, can turn off prospective buyers; even home offices prove unappealing to many, especially those who don’t work remotely and don’t want to redo the space.

5. Kitchen refresh

Well-appointed, newer kitchens are a guaranteed hit among buyers. Here’s the trick: Keep the renovations on the lower-cost side — a huge remodel rarely pays out in the ways you hope.

Instead, paint or replace the cabinet fronts, swap in higher-end drawer pulls, replace the countertops, upgrade an appliance or two, and replace or refinish any worn-out flooring. If you add detailing like a backsplash, keep it as neutral as possible, lest your design preferences turn off future buyers.

6. A bold garage door

Here’s another upgrade you might not have considered. Changing your garage door can change the look of your whole house.

If your car is one you’re proud of, think about swapping in a glass-paneled door; even minimalist windows help break up the lines of your home. A bold accent color can also add to your home’s aesthetic appeal.

7. New siding

There’s a twofold effect here. First, by updating your home’s siding, you’ll improve the home’s appearance, especially if the old siding is worn or warped, while avoiding the future maintenance costs of repainting.

Today’s siding options are far improved over those of previous generations: They’re fade-resistant and low-gloss, and some varieties even come with a grain pattern so as to more closely resemble natural wood. New siding can also improve the energy efficiency of your home, saving you money over the long term — and you can always document those energy upgrades for prospective buyers down the line.

8. Hardware, paint, and fixtures

You don’t need a five-figure budget to subtly upgrade the look and feel of your home. Instead, swap out the ceiling lights, upgrade your bath fixtures, change the doorknobs, and replace your mirrors; even changing the light bulbs will alter the ambiance. It can be worth it to splurge on the little things that buyers notice.

And of course, repainting rooms can refresh your home’s color palette. But when it comes time to sell, consider choosing neutral shades so potential future owners can project their own visions onto the space.

Read next: 5 Home Upgrades That Just Aren’t Worth It

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MONEY home improvement

5 Home Upgrades That Just Aren’t Worth It

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Nick David—Getty Images You might be able to recoup the cost of a kitchen backsplash, but the specific type of tile won't matter as much to buyers.

You may love your new pool, sunroom or kitchen tile, but none are likely to drastically increase your home’s overall value.

Myth: All upgrades will add value to your home.

Fact: You may never recoup the full cost of some home upgrades.

If you’re hoping to increase your home’s value (above and beyond the cost of an upgrade itself), you should know that some updates that are valuable to you may not be valuable to potential buyers.

Here are five of the most common upgrades that cause homeowners to lose money.

1. Putting in a pool

Pools can be hit-or-miss when it comes to added value. You may see some return, but often it’s not enough to pay for the pool itself.

In fact, adding a pool to your home could be a major turnoff to some buyers. Buyers with small children may be concerned about safety risks, those looking for a low-maintenance yard won’t want to deal with the hassle and upkeep of cleaning a pool, and buyers who are on a tight budget may not have the extra cash to deal with the added expense.

If you live in a warm-weather climate where people are inclined to use a pool year-round, you’re more likely to get a favorable response from buyers.

If you’re looking to add a pool, don’t forget that you’ll need to operate and maintain the pool yourself, and this comes with a sizable extra cost. Your likelihood of recouping the money you spent on maintenance, in addition to the installation costs, is pretty low.

2. Highly custom design decisions

Your idea of a dream kitchen probably isn’t everyone’s idea of a dream kitchen. Unless you plan to stay in your house for many years to come, think twice about renovations that are too personalized.

If you install a kitchen backsplash, you might recoup the cost, because the difference between “no backsplash” and “backsplash” is noticeable. But the specific type of tile might not matter to buyers. Similarly, choosing a beveled countertop edge that’s complex and ornate, rather than a basic beveled edge, can turn off buyers whose tastes don’t align with yours.

In fact, these custom features may wind up costing you come listing time, as many buyers will factor in the money they’ll need to spend to change the house to suit their own tastes. If you’re going to upgrade your kitchen just for the sake of selling, stick with neutral, builder-grade design decisions.

3. Room conversions

Buyers will be looking for certain basic staples when they tour your home: typically, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a garage. Getting rid of these expected spaces (or altering them into something unusual) may harm your resale value.

Every bedroom, for instance, is coveted space that can bump your listing up into the next bracket. Buyers are looking for a two-bedroom, three-bedroom, or four-or-more-bedroom home.

You might not need that extra room and dream of knocking down a wall to create a giant walk-in closet. Or perhaps you’d prefer to cover the walls with soundproof foam and convert it into a recording studio.

Unfortunately, most buyers likely won’t share your interests. Instead, they prefer an extra bedroom for children or guests.

4. Incremental square footage gains

Sizable square footage gains — like finishing your dingy basement so it becomes an additional livable floor — can be a boon in buyers’ minds. But tiny, incremental changes may not give you much of a return on your investment. (You may love your new sunroom, but it’s not likely to drastically increase your home’s overall value.)

Adding square footage in a way that doesn’t flow well with the floor plan can also backfire. Sure, a half bath on the first floor would be useful, but if buyers have to pass through the kitchen to get to it, the half bath loses some of its appeal.

5. Overimproving

No one wants to buy a megamansion on a block full of split-levels. When your upgrades feel overboard for your neighborhood, you alienate buyers on two fronts: buyers who are drawn to your neighborhood won’t be able to afford your home, and buyers who can afford a home of your caliber will prefer to be in a ritzier area.

Keep the “base level” of your neighborhood in mind. Tour some open houses on your block to see how your neighbors’ kitchens look before you invest a small fortune in granite countertops and high-end fixtures. Being a little nicer than the other houses around you can be a selling point, but being vastly more luxurious is not.

Pursue these upgrades for your own enjoyment — but don’t trick yourself into believing you’ll more than recoup the cost of the improvement in the form of additional home value. You can always opt for the projects that have the best potential to draw in a buyer instead!

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MONEY Ask the Expert

The Best Landscape Lighting to Showcase Your Yard

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I’ve always loved the dramatic look of landscape lighting shining up on a house and its trees, and I see solar-powered do-it-yourself lights that look affordable and easy. Are they a good option?

A: While DIY solar lights are unquestionably affordable and easy to install (just press them into the dirt like a tent stake), they probably won’t deliver the dramatic results you’re seeking.

Solar-powered path lights, fence-post-toppers, step lights, and spotlights get their energy from the sun by day then come on automatically by night. No wiring or professional installation is required, and you’ll pay only about $10 to $30 per light, depending on the style.

But these products tend to provide only dim illumination and generally don’t have enough power supply to shine all through the night (especially after a cloudy day or if they’re located in a spot that doesn’t get all-day sun).

Stepping up to the next grade of do-it-yourself outdoor lighting means spending $20 to $40 per fixture—and several hours connecting and burying the wires. These lights use low-voltage wiring, meaning you don’t need an electrician to install them as long as you have exterior outlets you can plug into.

You connect the wires by crimping them together and bury them either under your mulch or several inches underground, according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Look for a product that uses LED lights, which are brighter and use less power than halogens so they last longer into the night. Also, check the bulbs’ color temperature: “Aim for 2700 kelvin, or something close,” says Michael Potucek, of Artistic Outdoor Lighting, in Lombard, Illinois. “Once you get up to 4000 or 5000 kelvin, the light is very stark and cold.”

Better yet, hire a specialist—or your landscaper—to install a pro-grade lighting system. You’ll get the 2700k light of traditional incandescent bulbs, plus higher-grade electronics, buried in deep trenches with protective conduit in locations where you’re likely to dig (like mulch beds). That means no cut wires from gardening projects or short-outs from water that seeps into the wire connections.

You’ll pay around $3,000 to $4,000 for the full package—pathway lights, uplights on the house and trees, step lights on the stoop.

And you’ll get more than just a higher quality product. A good lighting specialist will bring professional design techniques to your lighting plan, not just by placing the lights for the best results but also using a variety of different lenses on the fixtures and wattages for the bulbs to create a pleasing scene.

“There’s an art to getting it right, almost like lighting a stage,” says Potucek. A professional job will fully illuminate your path rather than just its edges, for example, your trees will look dramatic whether their leafed out in summer or bare branches in winter, and every part of your house will be equally bright, from its highest peak to the lowest.

MONEY home improvement

3 Money-Smart Ways to Boost Your Home’s Curb Appeal

yellow victorian style house
Stewart Cohen—Dream Pictures Dallas, TX

Cosmetic fixes can put a prettier face on a plain-Jane home, and the bill doesn't have to hurt.

Just as every mother believes her son is a handsome devil, we homeowners tend to see the best in our houses—or at least we become comfortably familiar with the way they look.

But let’s face it, to the objective eye, not every man is George Clooney and not every house is a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece. There are a lot of drab, even downright gloomy façades out there, especially among homes that were built shortly after World War II, when many builders abandoned traditional architectural styling to streamline costs and mass-produce housing.

Thankfully, the cosmetic surgery required to put a beautiful face on your home doesn’t require a big-ticket construction job. “Creating curb appeal isn’t about trying to transform the house from a plain-Jane ranch into a grand Victorian,” says Charlotte, Vt., architect Ted Montgomery. “Just changing one or two little details is all it takes.” It’s an investment that will boost your home pride, endear you to the neighbors, and generate a lot more interest from buyers someday.

To find inspiration, you can hire an architect (about $100 an hour) to offer ideas and maybe sketch a plan (expect these to take a few hours each). Or look at similar homes in your area while keeping the following strategies in mind.

Subtract Flaws

Assuming the house and yard are already well maintained, job one is to get rid of blemishes left by a penny-pinching builder or the misguided efforts of previous owners:

Replace the garage doors. The most prominent facial feature of many homes is a pair of big garage doors, which all too often are flat, lackluster slabs of steel or vinyl. Trade them for more visually appealing doors with moldings, windows, or an old-fashioned carriage-house look ($3,000 to $8,000 a door, including labor). See DesignerDoors and ClopayDoor for examples.

Remove siding. Sometimes ugliness is only skin deep. “Peek under dreary aluminum, vinyl, or asbestos siding and you may find well-preserved wood clapboards,” says Asheville, N.C., architect Jane Mathews. If so, remove the siding, repair the old wood, and give the house an attractive paint job ($10,000 to $20,000). If not, you could paint the siding or replace it with fiber cement siding, a no-maintenance product that looks like real wood ($15,000 to $25,000).

Lose the funky railings. Swap out bad porch or stoop railings, such as black iron bars or chunky pressure-treated decking components, for visually interesting banisters and spindles that are worthy of their prominent placement ($1,000 to $10,000).

Add Character

Like a dimple or a cleft chin, the addition of an interesting architectural element can give your house some distinctiveness.

Install a salvaged door. The typical post- war front door is decidedly dull, but the entry should be your home’s focal point, says Corvallis, Ore., architect Lori Stephens. For interesting replacements, look in an architectural salvage yard (see page 26). Consider a recycled mission-style oak door, a six-panel Colonial with blown-glass windows, or arch top French doors ($400 to $1,600; more if you’re converting a standard opening to an arch top).

Add moldings. Many newer homes lack exterior trim; the siding just butts up against the windows and doors. A contractor can give the house a more sophisticated, traditional look by cutting back that siding and slipping in wide, flat moldings around the openings and possibly at the corners of the house and between its stories ($3,000 to $4,000). It’s best to use a synthetic product like cellular PVC for your new moldings, since it looks like wood but will never rot.

Enhance the roof. A straight, unadorned roofline makes a house look about as interesting as a shipping container. So consider adding windowed dormers (a.k.a. gabled peaks) or extending the eaves (the roof overhangs) a few feet beyond the front of the house with detailed moldings on the underside ($2,500 to $10,000 per dormer or eaves extension). This is major surgery, though; do not attempt it without first getting an architect’s input.

Enhance the Effect

Invasive procedures aren’t always necessary. Just adding the right accents can transform your home’s outer look—not unlike a pair of stylish new specs or a good haircut.

Replace light fixtures and hardware. Lose generic shiny brass or black house numbers and mailbox and porch lights (especially bare-bulb fixtures) and substitute something unique and substantial, perhaps made of antiqued copper, bronze, or brushed nickel. For ideas, see Rejuvenation and Restoration Hardware.

Plan for a nonstop flower show. Most of the flowers in your yard probably bloom in the late spring, which makes for a beautiful May—or whenever the big show happens in your climate—but leaves you with a bland yard for the other 10 or 11 months of the year. A local nursery can help you choose and plant additional bulbs, shrubs, and trees with different bloom times (as well as plants with colorful autumn foliage and winter berries), so there will always be something performing ($50 to $250 a shrub, $500 to $1,500 a tree).

Add color. A paint job ($2,000 to $10,000) in pleasing hues can make any structure appealing. “But don’t choose a bright, high-contrast color scheme—that only exaggerates a house’s flaws,” Montgomery warns. For subtler suggestions, check out the book House Colors by Susan Hershman ($26 at Amazon) or go for the colors of nature—muted greens, deep reds, and pale yellows—and keep the body and trim close in color. That will give your home a friendly, peaceful look rather than make it say, “Hey, look at me!” Sort of like an average-looking guy choosing a simple charcoal suit instead of a flashy powder-blue one that only a Hollywood star could pull off.

For more on money-smart home upgrades, check out The Money Guide to Home Improvements, available on newsstands June 12.

MONEY home improvement

How to Never Buy Another Propane Tank for Your Grill

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I just ran out of barbecue gas midway through cooking for a backyard party, and I am so done with the hassle of propane tanks. What would I have to pay to connect my grill to my household gas line?

A: If you have a gas-burning heating system or range in your house, you can connect your grill to the supply line—probably even the grill you already have—and never have to go out and fill up another propane tank again.

“It’s the best $300 or $400 you’ll ever spend,” says Dan Marguerite, owner of the Backyard Barbecue Store in Wilmette, Illinois.

You will need to hire a licensed plumber to open up and connect to the gas line in your house or near the meter (about $150), then run a new line over to your grill, using rigid pipe inside and buried flexible hose outside (about $7 per foot in both cases).

If your house uses propane (meaning you already have a large supply tank that gets refilled regularly by a delivery truck), your plumber will just remove the regulator on your grill, and you’re ready to start cooking. If your house uses natural gas (the kind that comes in through a meter from the street) you’ll need to install a conversion kit on the grill, which essentially makes the burner orifices larger to account for lower gas pressure. Most grills can be converted, with the kit running $75 to $100, plus perhaps another $50 if you hire your plumber to install it, which is a good idea, Marguerite says.

You will experience no difference in the temperature or operation of the grill using the new connection, he says. “The larger orifices and the different regulator on the gas line mean you’re still getting the same BTUs and the same cooking feel.”

Of course, if your particular grill doesn’t offer a conversion kit—or if the inside is so covered with charred barbecue sauce that you don’t even want to try—this is also a perfect excuse to buy a new grill, maybe one with lighting, rotisserie attachment, and built-in smoker ($1,800 to $3,000 and up).

MONEY home improvement

Should You DIY These 5 Home Improvements?

cleaning pool
Getty Images

The right choice can save you big.

For many, summer’s arrival signals the end of school, summer Fridays at the office, and, of course, a chance to kick back at the beach.

But for ambitious homeowners, it means just one thing: It’s time to tackle those outdoor home-improvement projects that have been waiting in the wings all winter.

Just one question remains: When should you save some green and tackle a project yourself—and when is it smarter (and safer) to call in the big guns?

To find out, we tapped contractor Danny Lipford, a nationally syndicated TV and radio host based in Mobile, Ala., and Rory McCreesh, a master builder and founder of Duce Construction in New York City, to offer their sage advice for getting the job done right.

Summer Project #1: Pool Cleaning

Your husband’s 8th annual water polo tournament. The kids’ birthday parties. Your pool is poised to get plenty of use this summer—which means it will need to be properly cleaned and treated for safe swimming.

And while you’re equipped with mesh skimmers and brushes galore to remove leaves and algae, when it comes to shocking the water with chemicals, that’s where you could use some help.

DIY or Hire a Pro? This surprisingly simple chore is all yours.

Getting the Job Done “[Maintaining your pool] is a great DIY project,” Lipford says. “Retail pool supply stores, like Leslie’s, are very helpful in analyzing your pool’s condition and recommending the needed chemicals to have a summer-ready pool.”

All you have to do is take a sample of pool water to the supply store in a sanitized container. Once you tell the clerk your pool’s dimensions, they can calculate the proper ratio for agents like chlorine and cyanuric acid, and provide detailed instructions on how—and when—to add them to your pool.

All in all, Lipford says regular chemical maintenance can run you between $25 and $75 a month, depending on the size and type of pool you have—compared to about$165 for once-a-week pro cleaners.

Summer Project #2: Landscaping

From planting petunias to installing a flagstone path to your front door, a little landscaping can go a long way when it comes to beautifying your property.

But with so many types of flora to choose from and the perplexing science of soil to contend with, you might be wondering whether you need a landscape architect to make your yard really sing.

DIY or Hire a Pro? For the most part, small-scale tasks—mulching beds, shrub pruning, and weeding—can easily be successful DIY projects. “The beauty of minor landscaping is that it requires few yard tools, very little skill, and, in most cases, little time to achieve fantastic results,” Lipford says.

The only exception: breaking out the chainsaw and going to work on that overgrown oak in the front yard.

“Pruning large trees should be done by a reputable, experienced tree-care company or arborist,” McCreesh says. “Not only is it a skill that requires talent and expertise, but it also poses safety hazards, as the work entails ladders and sharp tools.”

Getting the Job Done If gardening is one of the top landscaping projects on your list this summer, Lipford recommends first researching your location on the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map to ensure you’re working with the right plants for your region of the country, climate and sun exposure.

For example, flowers like geraniums and oleander perform best in full sun, while plants like hydrangea and dogwood thrive in shadier areas. The same goes for your sod or grass selection, Lipford says. St. Augustine grows best in the shade, while centipedegrass performs better in full sun.

Regardless of the type of plant you pick, Lipford says they all have one thing in common when it comes to successful care. “All plants need proper irrigation.Installing a soaker hose is an easy DIY way of providing a constant stream of water,” he says. “A soaker hose will run about $15–$20, can be partially buried, and can even be attached to a simple timer for another $15.”

Ready to hire someone to help you with that tree-trimming project? Lipford issues one word of caution: “Never let anyone work in or around your home without having proper insurance, like general liability and workman’s comp. This is important because it protects you in the event of an accident.”

Summer Project #3: Pest Control

From mosquito bites to chewed-through vegetable plants, creepy-crawlies are an unwanted reality of the warm-weather months.

Sure, you can load up on citronella candles and DEET for the season, but how much sweeter would it be to enjoy a bug-free summer—for your family and your prized tomato plants?

DIY or Hire a Pro? Call in the experts.

“Typical services include pest control for termites, ants, spiders, cockroaches, beetles, biting and stinging insects, rodents and wildlife control,” McCreesh says. “Most homeowners do not have the necessary chemicals on hand or the knowledge required to effectively and safely manage this task.”

Getting the Job Done Just how much you’ll shell out varies based on the size of your yard, whether the interior of your home is included in the work, and if there are any issues to address—such as a termite infestation, McCreesh says.

But regardless of the pest control you’re soliciting, he recommends seeking out a seasonal contract, as opposed to a one-time treatment. Good pest control companies providing longer-term services will monitor their work and re-treat as necessary.

Just confirm the fee structure for follow-up appointments. “It should be very clear if there is an additional charge or if it is included in the plan,” McCreesh says.

Summer Project #4: Gutter Repairs

Clean, secure gutters keep wastewater, leaves and other natural nuisances from weighing down your roof.

So unless you want stagnant, rotting debris hanging out like a ticking time bomb overhead, it’s important to repair and patch any holes, seal leaky joints and secure any part of the gutter that’s pulled away from the house as soon as you notice it.

DIY or Hire a Pro? Go with the pro.

“Even though [certain types of] gutter repair can be easy to do yourself, this type of project can frequently result in injury from falls,” Lipford says. “Gutter specialists have unique equipment to create custom gutter sections and links on-site for a home, and can do it inexpensively for about $75 to $180. It’ll give you a better result than using gutter repair materials from a big-box store.”

Getting the Job Done When it comes to seeking out a qualified, licensed and insured gutter repair company, Lipford suggests relying on references from friends, family or a list of recommends from your local chapter of the National Association of Home Builders.

“You might get a cheaper price by taking a chance [on a random company], but you also take a risk with the possibility of further damage, or someone not performing the work that was agreed upon,” Lipford cautions. “It can cost you peace of mind and additional expenses if you need to have work re-done or get damage repaired.”

Summer Project #5: Deck Work

One of the greatest pleasures of summer is spending a warm evening on the back deck, under the starry sky.

But thanks to the wrath of winter—especially this last one—you may have some repair work cut out for you first.

DIY or Hire a Pro? It depends on the scale of the project.

“Deck repairs that involve replacing or securing loose or damaged wood and stainingare all manageable DIY projects,” Lipford says. “But if a deck is in need of structural repair or needs to be completely replaced, it would be better to bring in an experienced carpenter or decking company.”

Getting the Job Done DIY deck projects can be a pretty easy and satisfying feat—with the right equipment.

“I recommend using a pressure washer for cleaning,” Lipford says, adding that renting one from a hardware store, like Home Depot, could run about $100 per day, depending on your location. “It does not require experience or great skill, but take care not to get the tip too close to the surface of the deck boards, which can cause damage.”

If the thought of wielding a pressure washer is too intimidating, try a deck brightener, which Lipford says you can easily snag at a home center in one-gallon cans. “Apply it to the deck’s surface, and wait 15 minutes,” he says. “Then lightly scrub the deck with a nylon brush, and rinse away grime with a regular hose.”

But if you’re leaning toward a project that’s larger in scale or more labor-intensive than a simple cleaning and staining, do your homework.

“It’s important that the homeowner check local requirements for any permits needed, and that all necessary code is followed when planning and building,” McCreesh says. “If you don’t follow local foundation, steps, landings and railing codes, you could be faced with a ‘stop work order’ from the Building Department, or you may have to undo work that’s already in place.”

As for what you can expect to pay a pro, McCreesh says it varies based on square footage, complexity and wood species. So put in the effort to get the best quotes.

“Solicit bids from two to three professionals,” Lipford says. “And get everything in writing, including the scope of the work and total cost. Taking the time to make the right selection for someone working in your home is time well spent.”

Read next: Should You DIY These 5 Home Improvements?

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5 Affordable Ways to Get Your Yard Looking Great

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Julian Wass

Get the best yard on the block without spending a lot

A high-end landscaping contractor will charge at least $5,000 to “remodel” a typical compact suburban front yard. But if you can handle a shovel, hose, and wheelbarrow, you have the physical skills to tackle the task yourself. The tricky part is getting the design right. Here’s how to achieve a lush, upscale look all on your own.

Broaden The Beds

A single-file row of plants along the foundation and the property lines looks generic at best. Widen the beds to four to six feet so there’s room for more flora, and to make the plants really pop, use mulch that’s the color of soil, says Newport, R.I., landscape architect Kate Field. That means the fine, dark, compost-like material that costs about 25% more than basic wood chips, or about $120 to $150 (for a small front yard), and that lasts only one year.

Focus on Foliage

Arrange shrubs and perennials two or three deep, with smaller plants placed in front of larger ones (check the mature size listed on the label). “Don’t get hung up on picking flowers,” says Portland, Ore., garden designer Darcy Daniels. Blooms are short-lived; it’s the foliage that you’ll see most of the time. Look for plants with red, purple, or multicolored leaves, as well as a variety of textures and shapes. You’ll pay $20 to $100 per plant, de- pending on type and size.

Do More With Less

A lot of do-it-yourself gardeners make the mistake of figuring more is better. They might buy as many different types of shrubs and perennials as their budget allows, and opt for a rainbow of bloom colors. But you’ll actually get a greater impact by buying three to five of each plant type you choose and then grouping them together in the yard, and by selecting just one or two bloom colors for the flowers. The garden will look intentional, sophisticated, and professional.

Accent the Architecture

Create a focal point using a dwarf tree or a large shrub. Don’t just plunk it in the middle of the yard. Instead, place it in line with a structural element of the property, such as a corner of the house, garage, or lot. Japanese maples ($100 to $400) and crepe myrtles ($35 to $140) are two good choices that look attractive in all seasons, says Severna Park, Md., nursery owner Gary Blondell.

Trim With Technique

When it comes to caring for your plants, ditch the electric clippers, which carve bushes into geometric shapes. “That look is passé,” says Field. Unless you’re trimming a hedge, always cut the branches to slightly varied lengths one by one using a hand tool, such as Felco’s Classic Pruner (about $50 at Amazon.com). You’ll get a more natural, flattering yard.

For more on money-smart home upgrades, check out The Money Guide to Home Improvements, available on newsstands June 12.

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