Cheap ways to use your tax refund to fix up your home

By Marilyn Kalfus

The Orange County Register

New light fixtures are a good option to catch buyers’ interest.
New light fixtures are a good option to catch buyers’ interest. TNS

If you're looking to spend it on your home, the typical tax refund is no great windfall. It won't cover a kitchen revamp or a solar system installation.

The average refund through early April was $2,851, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

Almost any remodeling job requires more than a paltry $3,700. Even adding a deck can set you back more than $13,000, according to Remodeling's online Cost Vs. Value report.

Still, that refund check could come in handy around the house.

It may not get you a makeover. But it can give you a marketing edge.

It can pay for modest home fixes to spruce up your property before you put it up for sale. Even if you're staying put, it can turn a loathsome eyesore into eye candy. It can help you splurge on a trend.

Here are a few ways to improve — or indulge — on even a skimpy sum.

Bring the bling

The market is hot, home prices are up and interest rates are still low. Thinking of making a move?

"I would focus on increasing the 'bling' in the house to capture the attention of buyers," said Ryan Lundquist, a Sacramento, Calif., real estate appraiser.

He reeled off some smaller-ticket examples: New light fixtures, a few ceiling fans, an updated kitchen faucet, switch plates and some fresh paint in the living room. Even a new mailbox out front.

In all, you'll be giving your home a more polished presentation, said Lundquist, who writes a lively blog to educate consumers about all things related to the housing market.

"In contrast, I could spend $3,700 on brand new insulation," he said in an interview. "But focusing on what buyers can readily see instead is a better way to get higher offers."

However, adding cosmetic improvements to make your home more appealing doesn't mean it will eventually appraise for more, even if it may appear that way on reality TV.

"That's not how the real world works," Lundquist said.

Security check

You'll probably never come anywhere near to affording the James Bond-like set-up at "The Fortress," a seven bedroom house in the Hollywood Hills that recently wowed readers of The Wall Street Journal.

But do you really want to bother with a key fob for every room? And how often would you use a bulletproof plate that slides down from the ceiling?

You can put in a less intensive security system at your average castle for an affordable price.

PC Magazine's Best Smart Home Security Systems of 2017 has an extensive round-up including a wide range of do-it-yourself products, professional services and reviews.

At home improvement stores like Home Depot, video doorbells, motion sensors and security cameras sell for just a few hundred dollars.

Boost curb appeal

Dean Zibas, like Lundquist, cites small fixes that can add up — especially outside your home.

"In general, it is typically best to just do an overall cosmetic improvement if one is looking for the best return," said Zibas, a real estate appraiser based in San Clemente. "Put in some elbow grease. Buy some new plants at the local nursery or home improvement warehouse and spruce up the front landscaping.

"Most homes, I believe, can be repainted for less than $3,000, so perhaps get the house painted," he said.

Install new window screens, and do minor repairs to the hardscape and planters yourself, Zibas added. And don't stop at the curb.

"Carry that effort over to the side and rear yards," he said.

If you think that's too much DIY, or you won't get enough of an ROI, there's always another option.

You can do nothing.

Sock the money away. Add it to other savings to add a room someday or go full-on solar.

Over the years, tax refunds can add up. So can your home equity.