- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 18, 2010

Remember last winter, when the phrase “stuck at home” took on a whole new - and ominous - meaning? Now, with a new nip of cold in the air, the possibility of spending days on end trapped inside your house can be a bit off-putting. It shouldn’t have to be.

“You can make your home shine,” says Cathie Gill of Cathie Gill Inc., a District-based real estate agency.

While Ms. Gill likes to remind potential home sellers to downsize their possessions so possible buyers can see the lines of the house, any homeowner can benefit from a few strategic removals, well-placed improvements or updated equipment.

Meanwhile, today’s tighter market means many homeowners anticipate spending even more time in their homes than they did previously, when it was easy to upgrade to a home close by and turn a profit on the existing one.

“People are staying put and optimizing their space,” says Jim Kannar, owner of Home Design Elements, a home-improvement contractor that operates in the Greater Washington area. Mr. Kannar and his firm have constructed built-ins and Murphy beds for people in some of the District’s tightest spaces.

And they want any improvements to be affordable.

“People are looking for the biggest bang for the buck,” says Jay Ratcliffe, store manager of Lowe’s in Alexandria, Va. “You want what is going to give you the most impact.”

Whether you are getting ready to put your home on the market, anticipating holiday guests or planning for a snow day - or three - now is the time to get ready for the colder weather. With just a bit of advance preparation and a few easy fixes, you can have a home that’s prepped and ready for just about anyone or anything (including a week without snowplows).

Here are 10 easy tips, some cosmetic, some structural, to set you on your way.

  • Get rid of the clutter. Those little things you started noticing last winter, such as the pile of old magazines in the corner or the jumble of computer cables under the desk, will drive you just as crazy this year. And if you’re planning on having guests, whether they are friends stopping by for the holidays or strangers stopping in with an eye toward buying the place, getting rid of clutter is key. Their eyes won’t be able to appreciate your new paint if they can’t get past the clutter.

“Make it simple, neutral and not ornate,” Ms.Gill says. “You want things to look in pristine condition.”

  • Check the furnace. It’s OK being stuck in the house when the weather outside is frightful, so long as you are warm and cozy inside. Prevent those horror stories of failed furnaces and frigid days and nights. Many local furnace-repair companies offer “tuneup” specials this time of year.
  • Spruce up the guest bathroom. If holiday guests are coming your way or if potential homebuyers will be checking out your house, the guest bathroom is likely a place they’ll spend some time, if only for a quick look-see. Just a few affordable fixes can make the room look a whole lot better.

“Paint is easy and affordable,” Mr. Ratcliffe says. “You’ll only need a small amount, and it doesn’t take much labor to paint a bathroom.”

If you don’t feel like painting, even a different shower curtain can make a difference.

Other quick and inexpensive improvements include replacing the faucets and other fixtures or buying an “ensemble” of soap dishes and lotion containers. Together, these small improvements can cost less than $100.

You also can get an inexpensive basket and fill it with personal care items. Even a small rug can pack a powerful punch. In a small space like a powder room, a little effort can go a long way toward making the space seem special.

If you’re willing to spend a bit more, consider updating the lighting, a quick do-it-yourself upgrade.

  • Clean the gutters. Those out-of-town guests or potential homebuyers may well notice the dead leaves and gunk in your gutters before you do. A clogged gutter can lead to water damage later on, too, something homeowners - and homebuyers - want to avoid.

“Sleek and clean is the way to go for that quick first impression,” Ms. Gill says. “Clean the gutters and spruce up the grounds.”

  • Insulate, insulate, insulate. Even if you can’t afford to replace the insulation in your attic, you still can wrap your pipes, particularly those exposed to the open air. Most home-improvement and hardware stores offer pre-fitted insulation that can be trimmed easily. After all, if you’re stuck at home, you’ll want plenty of running water to make that hot tea and cocoa that will help you snuggle in.
  • Re-up the kitchen. Regardless of the size of your home, just about everyone ends up in the kitchen, Mr. Ratcliffe says.

“Guests always seem to follow the cook,” he says. “They’re 10 feet from a couch, but there they are leaning up against a countertop.”

Without replacing your major appliances or even your kitchen cabinets, you still can create a space that is warm, cozy and so inviting it practically spells “home.” Start with the paint, suggests Mr. Ratcliffe, who notes that today’s kitchens, while larger, don’t necessarily come with a lot of paintable wall space. That can be a boon for the creative soul.

“This is one area where you can go a little bolder because you have so many things to break it up,” he says. “You can get paint colors based on spice colors, or contrast with your cabinets or floors.”

Mr. Ratcliffe also recommends updating kitchen lighting. New pendant lamps provide a softer, cozier look than the old track lighting.

From there, move on to the cabinet hardware, an inexpensive adjustment that can help tie the space together.

“We call it kitchen bling,” Mr. Ratcliffe says. “It’s surprising that something so small could have such a large effect.”

Still feeling creative? Try installing a backsplash. It’s a simple and inexpensive way to make a statement. With the array of materials available from stone and tile to peel-and-stick faux metal, you easily can find a project to fit your budget and occupy some colder-weather hours.

  • Work on your windows. If you are looking to save money this winter, windows are often a prime source of drafts and heat loss. Simply replacing cracked weather stripping and making sure your windows are tightly sealed when closed can help reduce your heating costs. But if you are looking to drastically slash your heating budget down the road, consider replacing your older windows with vinyl ones.

“They are much more energy-efficient,” Mr. Ratcliffe says, “and they’ll add a whole lot of benefit, particularly in older homes.”

  • Sweep the chimney. Shades of Mary Poppins aside, you may want to light a fire in the fireplace this winter. (If the furnace fails, you may have to.) Avail yourself of one of the specials offered by local sweeping companies this year and ensure a safe and fault-free fire. If you’re not planning on using your fireplace this season, consider sealing it off to save on heating costs.
  • Don’t forget the foyer. As the first thing your visitors see when they walk in the front door, the entryway is a natural focal point, not just a place to hang your hat and flip off your boots. It also is a small enough space that a few improvements can go a long way toward establishing the “feel” of your home.

“It’s a space that’s often neglected, but it really helps to set the mood for your style and personality,” Mr. Ratcliffe says.

Homeowners interested in saving time and money can purchase console table-and-mirror combinations for the entryway that often come complete with matching lamps or candleholders. If your budget is really tight, just updating the switch plates can make a clear difference.

  • Go green, or even greener. It may be last on this list, but according to Mr. Kannar, going green is the No. 1 preoccupation of many homeowners these days, regardless of the season. If you are using the colder-weather period to redo the kitchen or replace your flooring, consider using greener products that will help save the environment and also keep your costs down.

“People are using more energy-efficient materials,” Mr. Kannar says. “They’re using things not shipped from overseas or [using] reclaimed and recycled materials.”

Popular now are concrete countertops, which, unlike their granite counterparts, don’t have to be shipped from far away. And in the spirit of everything old being new again, homeowners are showcasing bits and pieces salvaged from older structures for their own spaces.

“They used better materials than today,” says Mr. Kannar, who often purchases old properties with an eye to stripping them of everything from joists to doorknobs and other hardware.

“We’re really seeing a reverse from 10 or five years ago,” he says. “Bigger isn’t necessarily better. People are getting what they need, not just showing off what they can afford.”

And just a little showing off can do a lot, for both you and your visitors.

So don’t fear getting “stuck in the house” this winter. Take just a few of the tips above and see “stuck in the house” transformed into “cozy at home.”

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