Home improvements can make dollars and sense. That's the moral of a story told by real estate appraiser Greg Glover, whose clients are in Frederick, Howard, Carroll and Upper Montgomery counties.

In a community where houses go for $280,000, he appraised one that was near-perfect, he says. Only rotting wooden shutters marred the picture-book appearance. The owner didn't seem to mind, and didn't want to replace them. Buyers, however, didn't warm up to the house; it eventually sold for about $250,000.

"It should have gone for more," says Mr. Glover, an officer of the Washington/Suburban Maryland chapter of the National Association of Real Estate Appraisers. "The 'curb appeal,' the landscaping, the first impression, that can affect the value," he says.

The lesson must be familiar to most Maryland homeowners. Last year, despite economic slowdown, many Marylanders redid kitchens, replaced old windows and spruced up bathrooms. In 1989, the region including Washington and its Maryland suburbs ranked second in the nation for the number of home remodeling permits issued. Baltimore ranked 10th, according to the U.S. Bureau of Census numbers analyzed by the National Remodelors Council.

By year's end, as the housing market stalled, industry watchers saw a drop-off in the number of additions being built. But smaller-scale projects seem to have suffered less. It appears that many families are still willing to put their money where they spend most of their free time -- home.

Naturally, today's economy prompts caution. But times like these also may be good for undertaking home improvements, if you can afford them. It's a buyers market, according to Robert Sheehan II. He's vice president of Regis J. Sheehan & Associates Construction/Real Estate Market Newsletter, a Virginia-based publication. "The market has started to slow down because home prices aren't increasing; that makes this a good time to look at a remodeling project," he says.

Consumers may find that contractors are more likely to bid competitively when times get tight, he says. To get the best price, choose a company to create a design for your project. Then use the design to obtain estimates from contractors; don't simply accept the contractor recommended by the designer, he says.

When the market is slow, a sensible home improvement can set a house apart others of like size and price, says Edward A. Brockmeyer, a real estate appraiser and broker in Baltimore. In recessionary times, he

says, "Go right back to the basics."

"Today we are not getting dollars back threefold" on remodeling and rehab, he says. He believes it's wisest to sink our limited dollars into improving the house's essentials and lifeblood systems: plumbing, wiring, heating, cooling, solid doors, roof, insulation, windows. These aren't the glamour jobs, he says. "If I had to choose between storm windows vs. a clubroom, I'd go for storm windows."

How can a homeowner decide whether a home improvement project is a good investment? Many shelter magazines try annually to assign a dollar value to different types of home improvements. Baltimore and surrounding counties, with diverse neighborhoods and housing stock, often defy these generalizations, say remodeling contractors, appraisers and real estate agents. Your own block is the place to begin looking for clues to good-value home improvements.

"There are no formulas," says Georgiana Simmel, president of the Maryland Association of Realtors and an associate broker at ERA Caton Realty in Howard County. First, sit down with family members and find out their needs, tastes and priorities, she says.

In Howard County, for example, "They tend to go for the things that are representative of a more relaxed lifestyle: terraces, decks, finishing off a lower level." In older Baltimore houses, she says, the priorities may be fix-ups.

Think not only about today, but about the next few years. If you are a baby-boomer, for example, consider whether you may become caretaker for elderly parents. Will the house have to accommodate an office? An infant? A student returning home from school? Then consider:

*The size, value and amenities of your house and houses surrounding it.

*How long you plan to stay put.

*The type of buyer likely to want the house when you move on.

*How far your budget will go.

The project that balances these considerations will probably have the best value for you.

For some homeowners, an additional concern will be fuel savings.

The bottom line for most people who are considering home improvements, say industry watchers, is not energy savings or investment value. It's the family's perception of its castle, be it ever so humble.

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