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16 Home Improvement Projects That Help Reduce Homeownership Costs

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The age-old debate over the relative merits of renting or buying a home rages on. In fact, it’s doubtful that a definitive settlement is on the horizon. There are simply too many variables at play, and too many unique factors affecting individual homeowners’ situations, to make a blanket judgment on the matter.

But one thing is for sure: renting and homeownership both come with their fair share of costs. Even if it makes more financial sense for you and your family, you surely know that owning a home isn’t cheap. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that the average household pays $2,127 in real estate taxes, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average homeowner paid $4,808 in mortgage principal and interest in 2013.

All told, the typical household puts a significant chunk of its take-home earnings – often 30% or more in expensive housing markets – toward recurring housing costs such as mortgage principal and interest, private mortgage insurance, and homeowners insurance. Add in utilities, basic upkeep, and other recurring expenses, and the total cost of homeownership rises even further.

The good news is that homeownership costs aren’t fixed. If you’re willing and able to absorb their upfront costs, these home improvement projects will permanently reduce your recurring homeownership expenses. Others obviate costly repair projects, possibly forever – or at least until you’ve moved out of the house.

If you’re not sure that your budget can bear the upfront cost of these projects, know that state and federal tax credits may help defray the cost of efficiency-enhancing projects. Others may be financed with rehabilitation loans or unsecured personal loans from banks, credit unions, and online lenders.

Cost-Effective Home Improvement Projects – Inside the House

1. Do a Home Energy Audit or Professional Assessment

home energy audit

The best way to build and prioritize your list of cost-effective home improvement projects is to conduct a DIY home energy audit or get a professional home energy assessment. Audits and assessments evaluate every major system and component of your home to identify where you’re wasting electricity, losing heat, and otherwise lagging in the efficiency department.

For example, the following areas are checked:

  • Drafts and air leaks emanating from windows, door frames, vents, outlets, and other imperfectly sealed places
  • Insulation in the attic, walls, basement, and crawlspaces
  • Mechanical appliances, such as furnaces, boilers, and water heaters
  • Other appliances and electronics, including refrigerators, oven ranges, dishwashers, laundry machines, and televisions
  • Lighting inside and outside the home

After your audit or assessment, your to-do list may include a host of cost-effective improvements, such as:

  • Swapping out old, inefficient appliances for newer, more efficient ones
  • Adding or replacing substandard insulation
  • Patching drafts and leaks
  • Replacing inefficient lighting
  • Upgrading to smart home systems, such as smart lighting and smart thermostats
  • Replacing windows, roofs, and other inefficient fixtures
  • Other improvement projects listed below

Cost and Time to Break Even
DIY audits carry negligible costs. Professional assessments can cost up to $600, but some utilities and state agencies offer free or reduced-cost assessments. The time needed to break even depends on what the audit reveals and the cost of each fix.

2. Swap Your Window AC for a Swamp Cooler

evaporative swamp cooler

During the warm season throughout the United States – and nearly all year long in southerly states like Florida and Texas – air conditioning adds more than any other single factor to home electricity bills. Turning down the thermostat or exploring air conditioning alternatives can significantly reduce air conditioning bills, but often at the price of indoor comfort.

In areas with consistently dry summer weather, one of the best ways to combat sky-high AC bills is also one of the simplest: swapping the window unit for an evaporative cooler, also known as a swamp cooler. Unfortunately, since swamp coolers cool by evaporation, they don’t work well in humid climates, where the air is already saturated with moisture.

Depending on the model, smaller swamp coolers can be mounted in a window or placed on the floor. Both types are easy for able-bodied homeowners to place or install on their own. In larger homes, it’s more efficient to install a bigger outdoor unit that cools the entire house through its ducts.

Swamp coolers work by fanning warm, dry air over moistened pads, cooling the outflow by up to 40 degrees – just as a stiff breeze cools sweaty skin. This process works best during the warmest parts of the day, and when the relative humidity is below 50%. Unlike central air conditioning systems, which recycle air on a closed loop, swamp coolers continually cycle fresh air through the house, providing much-needed ventilation. Since they blow moist air through the house, they also act as humidifiers.

According to the Department of Energy, swamp coolers cost about half as much to purchase as central air conditioners. To operate, they cost as little as one-quarter as much. However, swamp coolers really only work in the western United States, where persistent low humidity allows for efficient operation. In the eastern half of the country, window and central AC units make more sense. If you’re unsure about evaporative cooling’s potential in your area, check this handy map and guide from Sylvane.

Cost and Time to Break Even
Swamp cooler units cost $200 to more than $1,500, depending on cooler size and coverage. Homes larger than 1,500 square feet are likely to require more than one cooler for complete coverage. According to HomeAdvisor, central evaporative cooling systems cost $1,397 to $3,402 (with installation) on average. Some utilities offer generous rebates on evaporative coolers. For instance, XCel Energy‘s Colorado subsidiary runs a limited-time rebate program that refunds up to $300 for standard systems, $700 for higher-cost “premium” systems, and $1,200 for whole-house systems.

The Department of Energy reports that air conditioning accounts for 22% of the average home’s electricity costs. Based on the average residential electricity bill of $111.67 per month, or $1,340.04 per year (per 2017 EIA data), that’s about $300 per year. Assuming 75% energy savings, the typical homeowner can save around $225 per year by switching to evaporative cooling. Without utility rebates, the breakeven point is therefore less than 18 months on cheap units and upwards of 10 years on central units that require professional installation.

Bear in mind that homeowners who require central units are likely to live in larger homes with higher average electricity bills. With higher absolute annual savings, they’re likely to hit the breakeven point faster.

3. Clean and Change Your Air Conditioner Filters

cleaning dirty air conditioning filter

Cleaning and changing air conditioner filters is well within the capabilities of most able-bodied homeowners. That’s good, because these are very much recurring tasks – more home maintenance than home improvement.

They’re also very much worth your time and effort. According to the Department of Energy, replacing an old, dirty filter with a clean filter can reduce air conditioning costs by 5% to 15%.

In central cooling systems, the filter is generally located in the return duct, within easy reach of a vent. Accessing it may require removing the screws or fasteners that hold the vent plate in place. Larger systems can have multiple filters, so check your system’s specs to ensure you have them all covered. For safety, turn off and unplug the air conditioner before taking out any filters.

Filters come in several different types. Fiberglass filters, which resemble fine-mesh window screens, should be replaced every month during the cooling season, assuming heavy use during that time. Pleated filters, which resemble miniature quilts, need to be replaced every two to three months. Media filters, which are basically ultra-thick pleated filters, need to be replaced every six to eight months. However, these lifespans can be extended somewhat with thorough, regular cleaning every two weeks. To clean each type of filter, take it outside and shake it off, then wipe it down with a damp cloth and allow it to air dry.

In window and wall units, the filter is located immediately behind the cool air vent, which faces into the room. To access, simply snap off the vent panel and remove the filter. Every month, wipe your units’ filters down with a damp cloth and dry thoroughly before replacing, as the filters usually sit close to electrical wires. During heavy operation, window units’ filters should be replaced at least every year – so, if your cooling season lasts for six months of the year, you can go two years between replacements.

Cost and Time to Break Even
There is no cost to clean filters and coils. Filters are generally inexpensive, with fiberglass and pleated options available for less than $6 apiece. Due to the low cost of the project, regular cleanings and filter changes pay for themselves as they’re completed.

4. Buy a Smart or Programmable Thermostat

programmable smart digital thermostat

Manually setting your thermostat to a less-than-comfortable reading can save big bucks. You just have to be okay with sweating it out in the summer and bundling up with sweaters and blankets in the winter. Programmable and smart thermostats can achieve similar results with much less discomfort.

Programmable thermostats let you divide your days into discrete blocks and set desired temperatures for each – for instance, higher settings when you wake up and return home from work, and lower settings overnight and during the workday. Smart thermostats, such as the Nest Learning Thermostat, go even further. They actually adjust to your household routines, temperature preferences, external weather conditions, and your location inside or outside the house (using your phone’s GPS).

According to HouseLogic, a programmable thermostat can save up to $180 per year, depending on baseline heating and cooling costs. According to Nest, the company’s smart thermostat reduces heating costs by 10% to 12% and trims cooling costs by 15%, for average annual savings of up to $145. Provided you follow all instructions carefully, you can probably install a thermostat yourself in an hour or two. If you can’t, HomeAdvisor pegs the average thermostat installation cost at $107 to $250.

Cost and Time to Break Even
Basic programmable thermostats cost $20 to $100. Fancier models, which have more zones and finer-tuned programming options (as well as smartphone integration capabilities), cost up to $400. Smart thermostats cost $150 and up. By HouseLogic’s reckoning, a basic programmable thermostat can pay for itself within a month, while a costlier model can take six months or longer. Smart thermostats take about a year to pay for themselves, depending on baseline climate control costs. With paid installation, the time to break even is longer.

5. Install Low-Flow Fixtures

low-flow toilet

In most places, water isn’t as expensive as electricity, but needless water use can certainly cut into your disposable income over time. Plus, in drought-prone areas, saving water is an excellent idea regardless of monetary price.

Water-conserving fixtures, such as low-flow toilets and shower heads, are cheaper and more reliable now than ever before. As your budget allows, swap out old, wasteful fixtures for modern, efficient alternatives.

According to the EPA, the investment pays for itself many times over. Toilets bearing the WaterSense label (basically the water equivalent of the ENERGY STAR rating) save the average family of four $110 per year and $2,200 over their expected 20-year lifespan. (If you’re worried about performance, consider purchasing a dual-flush toilet, which flushes solid waste with twice as much water.)

Low-flow faucets reduce tap water usage by up to 30%. Low-flow shower heads can reduce shower volume by up to 70% without compromising pressure. They also reduce water heating demands by comparable ratios, cutting electricity or gas bills. All told, low-flow fixtures reduce water usage by 25% to 60%, per the Department of Energy. According to the DOE, the average household spends $400 to $600 on hot water heating per year, so a 60% reduction equates to up to $360 in savings per year ($30 per month).

Cost and Time to Break Even
The cost of low-flow appliances varies widely. Low-flow toilets cost $200 and up. Low-flow shower heads cost anywhere from $10 to $50. Low-flow faucets cost anywhere from $10 to more than $100. In a home with two full bathrooms and one kitchen sink, a project to replace all fixtures with low-flow alternatives would cost at least $450, and would take less than a year to pay for itself after accounting for water and hot water heating savings.

6. Swap Out Wasteful Appliances for High-Efficiency Models

efficient front-loading washing machine

Home appliances and mechanical systems are becoming more efficient by the year. If your furnace, boiler, dishwasher, refrigerator, dryer, or washing machine is more than 10 years old, its late-model counterpart is virtually guaranteed to be more efficient. For instance, efficient front-loading washers use approximately 50% less electricity than traditional top-loading washers in homes with electric water heaters, according to a Reviewed study. New ENERGY STAR-rated dishwashers use approximately 40% less water than older models, according to Lifehacker.

If you’re willing to venture outside your comfort zone, consider swapping old appliances or systems for fundamentally different alternatives. According to Bob Vila, a hydronic radiant floor heating system costs up to 30% less to operate than a traditional forced-air system, though it can cost some 50% more to install (per This Old House). According to the Department of Energy, tankless water heaters can be up to 34% more efficient in households that use relatively little hot water, and up to 50% more efficient when installed at every hot water outlet in the house (though this significantly increases upfront costs). By the Department of Energy’s reckoning, the average household spends $400 to $600 on water heating each year.

Cost and Time to Break Even
New washing machines cost anywhere from $300 to more than $1,000, and new clothes dryers cost anywhere from $200 to more than $1,000. New, full-size refrigerators cost anywhere from $350 to more than $2,000. Small tankless water heaters cost $200 and up, while larger models can cost $500 and up. New radiant floor heating systems cost $5,000 and up, depending on house size.

The breakeven time varies considerably by project and appliance or system selection. In high-demand households that spend $600 to heat water each year, a tankless heater that costs $500 and achieves 15% savings pays for itself in approximately five-and-a-half years.

7. Seal Leaky Windows and Doors

window needs new weatherstripping

Old single-pane windows are up to 25% less efficient than new double-pane windows. Unfortunately, it’s expensive to upgrade. HomeAdvisor pegs the cost of new, double-hung windows at up to $800 apiece. Sliding windows cost even more – up to $1,200 apiece.

For a cheaper DIY fix, you can seal leaky windows (and doors) yourself. According to the Department of Energy, weatherstripping old windows and doors improves their efficiency by 5% to 10%. This type of project is well within reach of the typical homeowner. Before starting, check out online video tutorials to familiarize yourself with the process.

Cost and Time to Break Even
It costs between $3 to $30 to weatherstrip windows and doors, depending on the size of the job and materials used. ($30 worth of materials is enough to weatherstrip several windows.) Lower-cost weatherstripping projects can pay for themselves within weeks, while costlier projects can take more than a year.

8. Insulate Hot Water Pipes

hot water pipes and valves

This is a straightforward DIY project that takes a few hours at most and can reduce your electricity or gas bill by a small but meaningful amount each year – up to $12 annually for the average household, according to the Department of Energy.

Common types of pipe insulation include foam pipe sleeves and fiberglass strips. Start by measuring the total length of pipe you wish to insulate and purchase enough material to finish the job. Then, measure out each discrete pipe segment (for example, from the water heater to the point where the pipe dives into the wall) and cut your insulation to size. Use duct tape, acrylic, or cable ties to secure each segment. Avoid placing insulation within six inches of a gas heater’s flue. When working with fiberglass insulation, wear skin, eye, and mouth protection.

Cost and Time to Break Even
Pipe insulation projects are inexpensive. The only significant cost is an average of $10 to $15 for materials, though possibly more for larger houses. At average cost, the breakeven time is approximately one year.

9. Install New, Efficient Windows and Doors

new windows

DIY window and door seals don’t always cut it – sometimes, you need to install brand-new windows and doors. Fortunately, installing high-efficiency windows and doors is regarded as one of the surest ways to increase your home’s resale value and build equity. If you’re planning to sell soon, this alone could offset your project’s cost.

Wood windows are charming, but unless you feel that they’re essential to preserve your home’s character, vinyl windows are more affordable – $300 to $800 apiece, versus $800 to $1,000 apiece for high-efficiency sliding windows. New doors cost even more – $478 to $1,403, on average, according to HomeAdvisor.

If you’ve installed windows or doors before, you can probably do so again with help from a family member. However, improper installation can greatly compromise efficiency and cause other problems over time, so it may be worthwhile to pay a professional. According to DIY Network, installing a window is an all-day project with eight major steps and a high skill rating.

Cost and Time to Break Even
Given the high cost of efficient replacement windows, replacement projects can take several years to pay for themselves via energy savings. However, high-efficiency windows are attractive to prospective homebuyers, and can therefore offset their initial cost (and perhaps actually make the investment profitable) through higher sale prices.

Tax credits and other efficiency incentives may reduce the total cost of your window and door installation project. For instance, through the end of 2016, the Department of Energy offered a tax credit equal to 10% of new window and door costs, not including installation, up to $200 for windows and $500 for doors. Check with your state energy regulator or revenue department for current rebates and credits in your area.

10. Install a Garbage Disposal in Your Kitchen Sink

garbage disposal installation beneath sink

No matter how advanced your dishwashing skills, it’s impossible to completely avoid sending kitchen waste down the drain. Over time, food particles and other debris build up in your pipes, slowing and in some cases stopping your drains completely. Left untreated, clogged drains can cause serious, costly problems, particularly in homes with older plumbing or septic systems. If an excavation is required to unclog or replace damaged piping or equipment, you’re immediately looking at thousands of dollars in costs not likely to be covered by homeowners insurance.

Garbage disposals aren’t foolproof, but they can definitely reduce the amount of solid waste in your drainage pipes. If you’re handy and no advanced electrical work is required, you can probably install a garbage disposal system on your own, provided you carefully follow the manufacturer’s instructions. However, if you’re not confident in your skills as a plumber, it’s probably worthwhile to hire someone for the job.

Cost and Time to Break Even
New garbage disposal systems cost $60 or more, depending on size and make. Professionally installed systems cost at least $125. More robust and durable systems can cost at least $150 without installation, and at least $225 with installation, depending on size and make.

Since installing a garbage disposal is a proactive move that can delay or even eliminate the eventual need for a costly plumbing intervention, it’s difficult to say how long the typical garbage disposal installation project takes to pay for itself. However, in older homes with shaky plumbing, it’s worth it both for the long-term financial savings and the short-term peace of mind.

Cost-Effective Home Improvement Projects – Outside the House

11. Plant a Large Shade Tree

tree shading a house

If your house is totally exposed to the sun, consider planting a shade tree or two near the structure. Look for species that grow quickly and achieve thick crowns when mature, such as maples, poplars, willows, and birches. Select a planting site that aligns with the summer sun’s angle – likely south-southwest of your house, depending on your latitude. If you’re unsure exactly where to place the tree or trees, walk around your neighborhood with a compass (or compass smartphone app) to measure large trees’ shade angles and coverage.

Fast-Growing-Trees has a good list of climate-appropriate options. If you live in a cold-winter climate, choose trees that lose their leaves in fall, as winter sun exposure can reduce your heating bills.

Cost and Time to Break Even
The cost of a new tree varies widely based on tree size and age. Older, taller trees cost more. Budget at least $50 for a five-foot tree, plus $20 more for optional supplies such as mulch, planting soil, and fertilizer. Fast-Growing-Trees sells a five- to six-foot red maple for $59.95 and a five- to six-foot river birch for $49.95 (though these prices are subject to change by demand, seasonality, and selection). If your home is close to the street, you may be able to get a free street tree from your municipality. Ask your city’s public works department if they honor street tree requests.

This project’s time to break even depends on the tree’s position, growth rate, and mature size, which is why it’s important to look for trees that quickly grow to a large size. Once the tree overshadows the home, it should pay for itself within a year or two.

12. Invest in a Cool Roof

cool white reflective roof

On hot, sunny days, your roof turns into a gigantic heating pad, roasting even the best-insulated attics and upper floors. Much of your AC’s effort is wasted in a futile fight against this simple thermodynamic effect.

A cool roof doesn’t actually cool your house, but it can dramatically reduce upper-floor heat gain. According to the EPA, light-colored, reflective cool roofs stay up to 60 degrees cooler on hot days, providing average net energy savings of $0.50 per square foot, per year – so, if your roof is 1,000 square feet, your net annual energy savings average $500. Though they can cost up to $0.20 more per square foot to install than conventional roofs, they can pay for themselves several times over.

Like any major roofing job, removing a traditional roof and installing a cool roof is best left to professionals, meaning you’ll have to budget for installation and material costs. In warm, sunny climates, including most of the southern United States, cool roofs are clearly cost-effective. In colder climates, cool roofs can take longer to pay for themselves, as their reflectivity limits passive solar heating in winter.

Cost and Time to Break Even
Cool roofs cost anywhere from $0.75 to $3 per square foot, depending on roof slope and material. That amounts to $750 to $3,000 for a 1,000-square-foot roof, not including installation. According to Fixr, roofing contractors’ labor costs typically run about $3 per square foot, or $3,000 for a 1,000-square-foot roof. (However, labor costs can vary widely by market and between individual contractors.) With installation, then, a new cool roof can cost anywhere from $3,750 to $6,000 per 1,000 square feet, on average. At net annual energy savings of $500, the investment pays for itself in approximately seven-and-a-half to twelve years.

13. Set Up Clotheslines or Drying Racks

clothesline drying clothes

According to the California Energy Commission, the average load of laundry costs $0.32 to $0.41 to dry with an electric dryer and $0.15 to $0.33 to dry with a gas dryer. What if you could greatly reduce this laundry expense, or even avoid it completely?

Though not as fast or as powerful as powered dryers, clotheslines and drying racks offer cost-effective solutions, especially for larger families. The simplest type of clothesline is a line-and-pulley system, which can be strung up from two existing points in your basement or yard (such as fence posts or even small trees). Because the rope needs to double back on itself for adjustability, your clothesline must be at least twice as long as the length between the two anchor points. Also, if placed outside, it must be made of material durable enough to withstand high winds and other hazards, and preferably not placed in areas that receive lots of windborne debris (such as dust and leaf particles).

If you’re space-challenged, an umbrella clothesline is probably a better option. To set up an umbrella clothesline, you need a digging implement (ideally a post digger, but a regular shovel will suffice in a pinch), a PVC pipe to hold the base of the clothesline’s pole, concrete mix, and an umbrella clothesline kit. As long as you’re comfortable working with small amounts of concrete, this is a fine DIY project.

Hanging technique varies, but you generally need at least two clothespins for larger clothing items, such as shirts, pants, and dresses. Smaller items, such as socks and underwear, typically need just one clothespin. If your line is exposed to the wind, you may need additional pins for added security.

Depending on weather conditions, clothes need anywhere from a few hours to a full day to fully line dry. In arid climates, drying outdoors during the day is probably the most efficient approach. In more humid climates and during the winter, drying inside (perhaps in a basement with a dehumidifier running) is preferable. Clothes dry quickly in direct sunlight, but repeated sun exposure can lead to bleaching.

Cost and Time to Break Even
Basic line-and-pulley clotheslines cost $20 and up. Small umbrella systems cost $60 and up, but larger systems can exceed $100. The time needed to break even varies widely based on laundry needs. Users who replace 10 dryer loads per month save anywhere from $1.50 to $4.10 per month, or $18 to $49.20 per year. At those rates, line-and-pulley systems pay for themselves within a year, while umbrella systems pay for themselves within two.

14. Set Up a Rainwater Harvesting System

rain barrel collecting rainwater

If you live in a dry region or have a garden that requires supplemental watering, a rainwater collection and storage system can trim your home water bills. The simplest collection systems are known as rain barrels – literally, barrels (usually 55 gallons) that collect water as it runs off your roof and into your gutters.

Commercial rain barrels cost at least $50, but it’s possible to repurpose old, sealed barrels for much less – for example, Future House Farm describes a system that uses old Coca-Cola syrup barrels at $10 a pop (no pun intended). Some towns and cities, especially in drought-prone areas, distribute rain barrels at reduced or no cost (ask your city’s public works department or water authority for information). More complicated systems with below-ground cisterns and pumps can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, but may allow you to replace some or all of your indoor water as well.

Able-bodied homeowners can easily install rain barrels without professional help. Lowe’s has a good primer on the process. In addition to the barrel itself, consider buying a soaker hose leading to your garden or a pump to channel excess water into an auxiliary storage tank. These add-ons can prevent overflow and water loss during heavy downpours.

Cost and Time to Break Even
Commercial rain barrels cost at least $50, but it’s possible to find improvised barrels for much less (and possibly free). Soaker hoses cost $10 and up, and small water pumps cost at least $20. Larger models can be several times as expensive – $60 and up.

The time it takes for a rainwater harvesting system to pay for itself depends on its upfront cost, the amount of water it’s able to save, and the local price of water. On a system that saves 4,000 gallons annually at a per-gallon price of $0.003, a rainwater harvesting system saves $12 per year, paying for itself in less than seven years (assuming material costs on the low end). Systems that save more water can pay for themselves more quickly.

15. Switch to Native or Climate-Appropriate Landscaping

xeriscaped desert front yard

For increased water savings, consider switching to climate-appropriate or native landscaping, which can further reduce or totally eliminate your supplemental watering needs. These types of landscaping are especially useful and cost-effective in arid or drought-prone areas, where “traditional,” water-intensive landscaping options such as turf lawns are not sustainable without lots of supplemental water. Native landscapes incorporate only plants that exist in the region’s natural environments, while climate-appropriate landscapes incorporate plants that hail from similar climates around the world.

Native or climate-appropriate landscaping necessarily varies by location. In very dry climates, xeriscapes – desert landscapes – incorporate rocks, succulents, and super-hardy grasses. In areas with moderate precipitation or well-defined wet and dry seasons, grasses and drought-tolerant shrubs dominate. Before tearing up your lawn, check with local landscaping professionals or consult your state university’s agricultural department for appropriate plants. For instance, the University of Minnesota’s Plant Elements of Design Database is a comprehensive, searchable resource with information about Minnesota-native and cold-tolerant plants.

Cost and Time to Break Even
Native landscaping costs vary widely based on plant selection and labor costs. According to Southern California Public Radio, installation can cost anywhere from $3.75 to $18 per square foot, or $1,875 to $9,000 for a 500-square-foot plot. The piece mentions a municipal demonstration garden in Santa Monica that cost just over $11 per square foot to install.

The time to break even depends on watering needs. A 500-square-foot native landscape that saves 50,000 gallons per year at an average cost of $0.003 per gallon would take approximately 12 years to pay for itself at the low end of the cost scale. However, in drought-prone areas, nonnative landscapes can use significantly more than 50,000 gallons of supplemental water per year, so the savings can be much greater. For example, KQED found that the average Californian home used nearly 70,000 gallons of water for landscaping each year, and homeowners with large properties likely use much more.

16. Periodically Stain and Seal Wood Decks and Siding

deck stain

Staining and sealing wood isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time. However, doing so regularly can greatly increase the lifespan of your home’s natural outdoor wood and stave off costly replacement projects. According to HGTV, it can cost anywhere from $15 to $35 per square foot to replace a wooden deck, or $1,500 to $3,500 for a 10′ x 10′ space. HomeAdvisor pegs the cost of cedar siding at $5,000 per 1,500 square feet, not including installation costs.

By contrast, a one-gallon can of waterproof stain, usually enough to cover 300 square feet or more, sets you back $40 or $50, at most. Wood siding generally needs a fresh coat every three to five years. Decks need to be coated every two to three years, though heavily used decks in harsh climates may require annual applications.

To properly stain a deck or siding, you need a tarp, brush, roller, rags, and a bucket to hold the liquid you’re working with. Before buying your supplies, measure the space and research your wood types to ensure you’re using the proper product.

Cost and Time to Break Even
A one-gallon can of waterproof stain, covering 250 to 400 square feet, typically costs $30 to $50. Budget at least $20 and up for additional supplies, depending what you already have on hand. To cover a 100-square-foot deck and 1,000 square feet of siding, you can expect to spend up to $300. However, that’s far less than the cost of replacing your outdoor wood.

Easy Fixes and Quick Tips

You don’t need to be handy or have loads of extra time to follow these quick, money-saving tips. Each can be done in your spare time or incorporated into your regular routine.

1. Use Lint and Hair Catches in Shower and Laundry Drains

Over time, lint from your laundry appliances and hair from your shower drain can do serious damage to your home’s drainage system, particularly if you have an older home with well-used plumbing. You can stave off or eliminate this risk with catches, which trap lint, hair, and other fibrous debris that can clog your drain. Catches come in a dizzying array of configurations, but shower drain catches generally mold to the shape of your drain, under the stopper, while lint catches resemble mesh socks that fit over your washing machine’s outlet hose. Bathroom and kitchen sink catches generally resemble fine mesh screens that mold to the drains’ shape. Shower and sink catches can last for years with monthly cleaning, but lint catches generally need to be replaced every month or two.

Cost: Lint catches usually cost less than $2 for a two-pack; shower drain catches typically cost $5 to $15; sink catches typically cost less than $10

2. Close Doors to Seldom-Used Rooms and Closets on Exterior Walls

Unless you’re extremely efficient, you likely don’t use all of your home’s livable square footage – or even close to it. Little-used rooms, such as spare bedrooms, can run up your heating and cooling costs with little to show for it. To a lesser degree, so can closets along exterior walls, which have more direct exposure to the outdoors. Reduce the strain on your heating and cooling systems – and your bottom line – by closing doors to extra rooms and exterior-wall closets whenever they’re not in use. Of course, if your home is too big for your needs, you’ll save a lot more in the long term by downsizing.

Cost: Free

3. Power Off and Unplug Idle Electronics

Even when they’re turned off, idle TVs, cable boxes, computers, and other small electronics continue to drain power and drive up your electricity bill. Get in the habit of unplugging your electronics after turning them off, or use a smart power strip, such as a Bits Energy Saving Smart Strip, to cut off power to your devices without physically unplugging them.

Cost: Free to unplug; $30 to $50 for a smart strip.

4. Switch to Efficient Light Bulbs

Every time an old incandescent bulb burns out, replace it with a more efficient CFL or LED light bulb. For maximum cost-effectiveness, purchase a bulk supply (six- or 12-packs, if possible) in advance.

Cost: CFLs and LEDs cost anywhere from $2 to $10 per bulb, depending on manufacturer, type, and whether they’re purchased in bulk

efficient cfl lightbulb

5. Try a Shower Timer

Even with a low-flow shower head, a “dumb” shower timer can help you conserve water further by essentially guilting you into cutting your showers short. Most are equipped with alarms that go off after a set period of time, which you can set yourself. Some come with measuring bags that you can use to measure the exact flow rate of your shower. “Smart” shower timers, such as Shower Manager, automatically reduces the flow, and then shuts off completely, at preset intervals.

Cost: $5 and up for dumb timers; $100 and up for smart timers

6. Service Your Heating Equipment Regularly

It doesn’t feel great to pay an HVAC specialist to tell you there’s basically nothing wrong with your furnace or boiler, but it’s better than the alternative: paying them a lot more to fix a serious problem, or paying a fortune to bring them out in an emergency. Virtually every HVAC company and independent professional offers basic tune-up service for furnaces and boilers, so pricing is competitive. Call around or look online to get a sense of what you can expect to pay and what you’ll receive in return.

Cost: Basic tune-ups, which include part cleaning and lubrication, filter cleaning and changes, pilot and burner adjustments, and combustion efficiency tests, typically cost $100 to $200, but may be cheaper or free as part of a larger service package or if major repairs are required

7. Cancel and Replace Your Landline Phone Service

The vast majority of the U.S. population lives under reliable cell phone coverage. Even if you don’t have good cell service, you can replace your landline with a VoIP system such as MagicJack or BasicTalk, which cost a fraction of legacy landline plans. Both require high-speed Internet service from a local utility. VoIP systems are generally plug-and-play, meaning you can install and configure them without technical expertise in an afternoon. However, it’s best to keep a cell phone plan in reserve, possibly at a lower price point, to avoid total loss of phone service in case of a weather-related Internet outage.

Cost: MagicJack costs less than $40 to set up and $35 per year for unlimited domestic calling thereafter, while BasicTalk costs $9.99 per month

Final Word

You don’t have unlimited time and funds. However, you can stretch your finances and bandwidth a bit further with a compromise approach to home improvement – “buy it yourself,” or BIY.

A BIY project finds you purchasing the materials, and possibly tools, necessary to complete the job, generally in close consultation with your contractor. The contractor then completes the job as usual, charging only for labor and incidental expenses. In other words, you get the materials at cost, avoiding the contractor’s inevitable markup, and save a boatload of time to boot. According to HouseLogic, the BIY approach can reduce the total cost of a major project by 20%. On a tight personal budget, that’s not exactly chump change

What’s on your home improvement to-do list this year?

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci writes about frugal living, entrepreneurship, and innovative ideas. When he’s not interviewing small business owners or investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, he’s probably out exploring a new trail or sampling a novel cuisine. Find him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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