Tips to upgrade your home, one thing at a time

When it's time to upgrade your old home a or a new purchase, there are items you want and then there are the ones you need. Making the home energy-efficient and safer outweigh the want for brand new furniture or expensive, custom window treatments. The best way to plan your home's upgrades is to make a list of everything you want to upgrade. Then prioritize the list with your partner. Divide the list into "musts" and "nice to have." For each upgrade, write a detailed list and price out the items you need to complete the job.

Put energy first - When we first moved into our new home the first thing we upgraded was the heating system. The existing boiler was old and inefficient. "As much as half of the energy used in your home goes to heating and cooling" according to Energy Star. We used our first-time home buyer credit to invest in a brand new system before we moved in.

* The upgrade included a programmable thermostat. For about $100 we now save "about $180 a year."

* New hot water heater - The other major upgrade before we moved in was replacing the hot water heater.

* We saved our money over the first year and installed baseboard heaters upstairs the second winter we were in the house. Cost for labor and supplies: $800.

Other energy-efficient upgrades to consider include efficiency washers and dryers, new stoves and refrigerators. All of the appliances we moved into our home were less than three years old. These were items we saved for and purchased while living in the house we used to rent.

Massachusetts offers a free home energy assessment, check with your state for a similar program. The advised us to shore up the upstairs ceiling and insulate the attic. Because of the cost of making the ceiling stronger, we put this on the "to do" list for the future.

Practical rules - Before we moved in we knew there were certain jobs that had to be done. The bathroom had to be completely renovated, the kitchen cabinets needed to be replaced and all of the floors had to be done. We could not afford to do all of these before we moved in so we chose the most necessary followed by the easiest and cheapest.

Bathroom renovation - Our old bathroom was crowded with a wall of cabinets attached to the ceiling, an old pedestal sink and a cast iron bath tub in front of a window. For a couple of thousands dollars and many hours of labor, we now have brand new walls, a new bathtub, sink and toilet, space for the washer, and new floors. The investment was worth it because the bathroom as it existed was non-functional. This was also money well-spent because a bathroom upgrade can translate to an "80% return on a bath investment."

Less is more - Removing old carpeting can be an affordable but labor-intensive upgrade. If you have decent, workable floors underneath the carpet, it's worth your time. Even ugly floors can be upgrade with adhesive floor tiles.

Big statements with a small budget - The next major upgrade was to prime and paint all of the ceilings and walls. This was a time-consuming job that completely transformed our home. It's also the one upgrade you can do over and over, to make walls look fresh and clean or to change the ambiance in any room.

Other affordable upgrades you can make that don't take up a lot of time:

New lighting fixtures

New sink hardware

New face plates for electrical outlets and switches

New cabinet hardware

Continuous pricing and window shopping - One way to stay on top of your home upgrading list is to carry the list with you or keep it by your computer. Pay attention to local sales or seasonal deals on the upgrades you want, from carpet or siding installation to ceiling fans and light fixtures.

More by this contributor:

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7 DIY Bathroom Upgrades Under $100