To attract buyers in the current real estate market, you've got to look your best. But to protect your interests, you have to spend the least. According to Remodeling magazine's annual "Cost vs. Value Report," the projects that earned back the highest percentage of their expense in 2007, the last year available, were exterior upgrades. Among the top items on Remodeling's list is replacing old or worn siding, which returned 83 percent, or more than $8,200 of an average layout of $9,900. New wood windows did almost as well, boosting the sale price by as much as 81 percent of what they cost.

Still, you may point out, the snappy new siding will have set you back $1,700 when all is said and done. And you'd be right: Even highly recoupable improvements are a bit of a gamble. Remember, however, that the longer your house is on the market, the more likely you are to lose heart and drop your price, or lose that low rate on the mortgage for your new place. If you've already moved out, every month you don't sell is another mortgage payment on an empty house. In such cases, the new siding may reduce the time it takes to find a buyer, saving you that $1,700 and then some.

Not every project with a high rate of return, of course, is the kind that sells a house in a hurry. Take my deck, for instance. A traditional 16-by-20-foot wooden deck will earn back 85 percent of its average cost of $10,300. That beats the new siding. But as an inducement to speed up the sale of a home, experts say, a deck can't compete with a nicely done kitchen or bathroom, or even a purely cosmetic (and much cheaper) upgrade like a paint job.

As a rule, spend the least you think it will take to sell the house. If you feel your dismally outdated kitchen will turn buyers off, don't gut it. Simply swap out the cabinet doors and drawer facings and get back about 83 percent of what they cost.


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