The logic is different if you're planning to stick around until the market improves or your family outgrows the house. In this case, the return on your money includes a nice place to live.

For example, when my husband and I moved into our house, we each wanted our own home office, complete with built-in bookcases and cabinets. Now, remodeling one office recovers only 57 percent of its $27,200 average cost—near the bottom of return rates for all projects. There's no telling how much we'll recover for our his-and-hers work spaces. But I don't care. I'm a pack rat, and my husband loves to de-clutter. Having separate offices is an investment in my marriage.

So if you're longing for another bathroom, don't let a lower recoup rate shut the project down. Instead, justify the cost by accounting in hard numbers for your comfort. This is how it works: Adding a 6-by-8-foot full bath, at a national average of about $37,000, repaid only $24,420, or 66 percent, at resale. That works out to $12,580 you'll never see again. But if you stay in the house six more years, you'll get to use a brand new bath for $2,096 a year, or a little less than $6 a day.

Still too expensive? Keep in mind that national averages are sometimes inflated by homeowners who flew in that Italian marble for the bathroom or splurged on a pricey Sub-Zero fridge. You'll likely be able to squeeze out higher margins of return if you economize in every phase of the work. "Whether it's labor or materials—down to the appliances you buy," says HGTV's Designed to Sell co-star Lisa LaPorta, "shop around, compare, and get multiple prices."

Finally, you may also find that a particular project gives back a lot more or less, depending on where you live: According to the Remodeling report, a new deck had a 94 percent payback rate in Los Angeles, where outdoor living is a year-round prospect, but just 57 percent in Columbus, Ohio.


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