MONEY MAGAZINE Real Estate: Value Added

Makeover your home - for 75% less

Architectural salvage shops offer great deals on unique, high-quality furnishings - if you know how to tell the treasures from the trash.

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By Josh Garskof, Money Magazine contributing writer

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(Money Magazine) -- If you've never set foot in an architectural salvage shop, you're missing out on an amazing world of bargains for house repairs and upgrades. A cross between a home improvement center and an antique store, these cavernous warehouses sell used, or "pre-owned," house parts, from french doors and ornate mantelpieces to like-new commercial-grade appliances.

Discover what you need at one of these emporiums and you'll spend just 25% to 50% as much as you would to buy the equivalent items new - if you could find comparable craftsmanship. The trick is distinguishing between the old stuff that's made with higher-quality materials and workmanship than today's products and the stuff that is truly, well, junk. These strategies will help.

Pick the right shop

There are two breeds of salvage yard. Some operate like high-end collectibles stores with only hand-picked prewar products - and lofty prices (you'll find those listed at bmra.org). And then there are nonprofit recycling centers, which carry materials from any era, including contemporary gear like Jacuzzi tubs and the water heaters needed to fill them. It's in the latter kind of shops - many of which call themselves ReStores - that you can hunt up truly unbelievable deals. To find nonprofit centers in your area, go to habitat.org and redo.org.

Stick with safer stuff

Alas, some of the most appealing older offerings at salvage yards - windows, faucets, toilets - may not meet today's building codes, at least not without modifications that could quickly trump any cost benefit. Safer categories of antique furnishings include light fixtures, bathtubs, radiators, shutters, doors and hardware, notes Brad Guy, a deconstruction expert who teaches demolition crews how to cherry-pick valuable materials from buildings before they're razed.

Get help before you go

If you'll be installing salvaged items as part of a straightforward DIY project, such as replacing a shattered glass door-knob with a perfect match or finding a set of kitchen cabinets to repurpose for a serious garage workshop, it's fine to fly solo. But if you're picking out a claw-foot bathtub, for example, you'll want to consult with your plumber about exactly what you need before heading to the salvage center, suggests Chicago remodeling contractor Ron Cowgill. That way, you know you're getting a tub that will fit in your bathroom - and meet plumbing code.

Be aware of extra costs

Before you grab that fantastic Victorian-era mantelpiece with peeling paint, be aware that the $400 to $800 you'll spend to strip off the old paint will likely strip away the cost savings over buying a new knockoff version. In fact, don't bring home any product with deteriorating paint, since it probably contains lead. If you're in the market for light fixtures, know that you'll also likely need to spend at least another $50 to have them rewired by an electrician or lighting shop.

There's usually no way to connect and test an appliance at the salvage center, so buy these items with the understanding that there's a chance they'll need a tune-up when you get them home. You might pay $2,500 for a pre-owned Viking range and end up shelling out $400 to $500 to get it in working order. But given that you'd probably spend around $6,000 to buy the appliance new, you'll still come out way ahead, notes Steve Feldman, president of Green Demolitions, an appliance resale store in Hawkins, N.Y.

Score a tax break

There's another way to take advantage of the salvage shop: as a supplier. Anytime you remove doors, radiators, vent covers, cabinets, sinks, tubs, patio pavers or other reusable materials from your home, donate the items to your local ReStore, and you'll get a tax deduction in exchange. The store may even pick it up and deconstruct it for free if you make a big enough contribution (at least a few thousand dollars).

As with clothing you bring to Goodwill, you tell the store the fair market value and get a receipt for that amount, which you can then write off as an in-kind charitable donation, says Minneapolis architect Ali Awad. (Many salvage yards display inventory on their websites, so you can gauge ballpark prices by doing a little surfing.) For big remodeling jobs, you may also get a discount from your contractor for needing less Dumpster space. And even the smallest salvage project will make you feel virtuous, since it fulfills all three tenants of being green: reduce, reuse and recycle.

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