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How much should you spend on remodeling?

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The housing-bubble debate has served as a full-employment act for economists. It's also left some folks wondering how much they should shell out on remodeling if their as-yet-unfinished hardwood floor is about to drop out from under them.

Irresolute remodelers can get off their picket fence: Projects that make your patch of the American Dream more pleasant usually help sell it -- regardless of where real-estate is headed -- and a lot of the cost can be recouped if you move. How much depends in part on location, with buyers in some of the hottest housing markets willing to pay a premium for fancy fix-ups.

But poorly done, or overly personalized, remodeling works against you at resell: As a conscientious contractor told a couple with a starter home, "You do not want orange tile."

Home-improvement dollars should first go toward jobs that make your pad more livable, if not lovable. These improvements may not boost resale value, but good luck selling the house at market value without them: If the pipes sound like whale-song, the pipes come first, because even the most hapless home inspector will bother to flush the toilet.

Many homeowners fixate on and fret about kitchens and baths. As Martha Stewart might say, that's a good thing, because these rooms count for a lot. Don't touch the rest of the house if you're planning a move within a few years.

"There is a higher return on renovating a kitchen than any other project in the house," says Cory Marks, a Re/Max Realtor in Northern New Jersey. "That can include even a minor kitchen repair. What I've seen people do is keep a lot of existing structures in place."

Elise Haeussler's Baltimore design firm does a lot of Band-Aid work on kitchens, and she tells clients to avoid contractors who default to a tear-down. Provided the room isn't about to burn down, you can get just as much joy from new cabinet fronts, a new sink and similar touch-ups. In a kitchen in a small home in Arlington, Va., Haeussler tiled over "ghastly" linoleum, replaced cabinet hardware and the sink and repainted, but not with bland "contractor's beige." The result? Like a picture postcard from Provence, and it later sold the house.

Not a cook? You spend more time in the kitchen than you think, and house hunters -- be they chefs or eat-out executives -- obsess over it. "I've seen homes sit that are in great shape because the kitchen was not redone," says Marks. "If every other house on the street has a remodeled bath or kitchen, then on resell it's kind of an expected standard."

If every nail you drive is with an eye toward selling, you may as well use the bible the Realtors quote from: Remodeling magazine, whose "Cost vs. Value Report" reveals average costs recouped on major kitchen work are above 90 cents on the dollar, and nearly 100 percent on a minor job. Returns on buff-and-polish work soar to as much as 170 percent in major cities and drop to as low as about 60 percent elsewhere.

Those figures cut both ways. If you live in an economically less buoyant part of the country, your renovation should cost less. Should you need professional help, your contractor likely will show up, which often doesn't happen in towns where overextended "professionals" remodel homes whose values resemble the GDPs of small nations.

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