A man is using caulk to air seal his windows to increase the energy-efficiency of his home.
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Cost saving projects galore

DIY Home Improvements That Pay for Themselves

Steve Hansen
October 20, 2023

If you’re a do-it-yourself type of person, good for you! Putting some sweat equity into your abode can save you a pile of money, build new skills, and even increase the value of your home. There’s a couple of different ways to think about these projects, too. You can tackle energy-efficiency improvements that will cost you upfront for some hardware, but start paying you back immediately.

Home-remodeling improvements, in contrast, may offer no immediate payback if you’re not selling, other than your enjoyment of the newly upgraded space or feature. But that’s still a smart move. I’ll show you some data on that payback, or “cost recovered,” later on.

Energy-Efficiency Improvements

These improvements will have varying degrees of value for you, depending on your circumstances, of course. But every home has to use light bulbs, and no one wants to pay for leaking water, for example, so chances are some will apply.

Get An Energy Assessment: A good first move is getting a professional energy assessment, which now has a tax credit of up to $150 thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act. Your assessor will analyze your home’s performance and energy bills and prepare a report with suggestions for improvements. You’ll end up with a custom-prepared energy-efficiency roadmap for your home.

LED Light Bulbs: Choosing LED bulbs that use 90% less electricity can save you around $55 per bulb over its lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. These bulbs are available in multiple shapes and the price has really come down. This is definitely the easiest to item on this list but it has a substantial payoff!

A woman screws in a bulb into a light fixture

Air Sealing: Getting a home’s envelope sealed is always one of the first and best tasks. Keeping drafts out and your conditioned air in will start saving you money immediately. You’ll typically find drafts around doors and windows that don’t seal well or shut tightly. But you’ll also find air leakage around kitchen and bath fans; plumbing, dryer, and furnace vents; and where electrical service enters the house. You can handle a lot of tasks on your own with caulking, spray foam, and backer rod. If you’ve gotten a professional energy assessment the thermal imaging will be eye opening and show you exactly where air is moving freely in and out of your house.

Someone adds weather stripping to windows

Smart Thermostat: These handy devices are remarkably easy to install—just two to three wires, typically. Plus, they will help you optimize your heating and cooling systems to keep you comfortable while paying the least possible. You can program them how you like, control them remotely, and integrate some of them with other smart home systems. This one can integrate with OhmConnect. It also includes an air-quality monitoring system, which I would want if I had kids or grandparents living with me. Smart thermostats also qualify for rebates from some local utilities, too! My local utility’s rebate for this particular unit is $75.

A woman adjusts a smart thermostat

Adding Insulation to Exterior Walls and Roof: This tip will pay for itself over time in reduced energy costs, especially if you live in a place with high heating and/or cooling needs. Whether or not it’s a DIY project, though, really depends on your skills. You do definitely get a tax credit through the Inflation Reduction Act, though, so that’s a big bonus either way.

Insulate the Attic Hatch: Not all homes have this feature, but if you do it’s smart to check it out. They often don’t seal well and allow wasteful air transfer. You can buy versions to install in the attic, or you can go the DIY route. Either way, the goal is to get this well sealed as with any other door in the house.

Fix Plumbing Leaks: If your toilet flapper leaks, it could be wasting hundreds of gallons of water per year. This happens a lot as toilets age, but you can fix them easily with a dual-flush kit and drastically cut the waste. Leaky faucets don’t usually waste nearly as much water, so your payback will probably be longer, but it’s still a waste.

Add low-flow plumbing fixtures: You might be surprised at how much water you can save. Here’s a post with more detail, but for example, just replacing inefficient faucets and aerators with WaterSense units, you can save 700 gallons of water annually. Low-flow showerheads will save about four gallons of water per shower, and upgrading from old toilets to new models, though a bit more expensive, will save you so much money they will pay for themselves. Unless you’re on a well or don’t pay for water.

A kitchen faucet that has a low flow water aeration unit on it

Home-Remodeling Improvements

These may be a lot more fun for DIY folks, but just a few really pay off. And just a few are projects that are good DIY candidates. Fortunately, the good folks at the National Association of Realtors and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry have done some real-world research and you can read the report for yourself. It’s called the 2022 Remodeling Impact Report, and here are the top five projects for what they term, “cost recovery,” or how much can homeowners expect to get back after completion of different home-improvement projects.

  • Refinish hardwood floors: 147% return on investment
  • New wood flooring: 118%
  • Upgrade insulation: 100%
  • Converting a basement to a living area: 86%
  • Closet renovation: 83%

My first question was, “Who did the work?”, and they answered that as follows:

  • 35% of owners hired  a professional for the whole job.
  • 28% hired the labor but purchased the materials.
  • 22% did the entire project themselves.
  • 13% contributed some DIY labor.

So my takeaway from that is: do the flooring! That’s a great return on your DIY efforts. I’ve refinished old wood floors as a newbie and installed various other types of flooring. Anyone can learn to do it. I learned with help from other people, hands-on, as YouTube didn’t exist at the time. Today, with so many video tutorials available anytime, most flooring projects are totally DIY-friendly.

So third on that list is upgrading insulation, which I mentioned earlier under energy-efficiency improvements. It’s good to have data that supports its value, whether or not it’s a DIY project in a particular case.

The rest of the options on the list don’t look that great for cost recovery. Converting a basement is quite a lot of work, typically, especially if you want to have bedroom spaces down there. At that point you’re required to have egress windows, which could be a major task with a heavy concrete saw. A closet renovation would be a lot easier for nearly the same return.

Other Potential Winners

If you’re doing these improvements because you’re selling, the main factor you always hear from real estate agents is “curb appeal.” Anything sloppy is a drawback on the market

So on the exterior, DIY tasks could include tidying the landscaping, painting the exterior, and restaining the deck. Updating exterior lighting is simple, and replacing the front door can give the place a whole new look.

On the interior, nothing is as cheap or completely transformative as new paint. For the kitchen and bathrooms, where people tend to really be turned off by outdated styles or a “cheap” feel, new fixtures, knobs, and lighting are quick and easy upgrades.

What’s Next For You?

Whether you’re improving your home for yourself or for maximum selling price, I hope you got some ideas for new projects.

Editor’s note: If you make a purchase through our affiliate partner links, we may receive a commission. This does not impact the recommendations we make.

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