(Money Magazine) -- You probably know that boosting your home's curb appeal is one of the most important ways to maximize its value. But that doesn't mean you need to take on a pricey job like replacing the windows or installing a blue-stone walk. In fact, you'll probably get a bigger bang for your buck with upkeep that costs a few hundred dollars at most -- like touching up the paint, mulching planting beds, and staining fences and decks. "A lot of buyers expect to invest in big projects to customize the house, but no one wants to deal with deferred maintenance," says Rick Wohlfarth, a realtor in Cundy's Harbor, Maine.
Another advantage of these maintenance projects: Since they generally involve grunt work rather than serious expertise, you can save some cash by doing them on your own. Or if sweat equity isn't your thing, it's easy to find someone to handle the project at a very reasonable cost. The key is knowing what supplies to use and how to get the work done right, whether you're doing it yourself or farming it out.
Touch up the paint outside
Why now: Aside from making a home look a tad, well, neglected, peeling paint lets moisture and ultra-violet light get at the wood siding. That means more paint is going to come off and, after a couple of seasons of exposure, your house won't hold new paint well either, making a full paint job a pricier proposition.
What do buy: Go for the most expensive paint in the store ($30 to $45 a gallon). While it may be tempting to buy the cheap stuff instead ($15 to $20 a gallon), the high-quality pigments and binders in top-drawer paint make it last five or more years longer than economy products, according to Bud Jenkins, professor of paint chemistry at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona. Take a chip of existing paint to the store, and an optical computer will match the color. Ask for water-based paint, which is easier to use and more environmentally friendly than oil-based products. One gallon will be plenty. You'll also need to spend another $40 for a gallon of premium oil-based primer, which will make the paint stick better.
Get it right: Don't try to touch up more than a few isolated spots that are peeling -- if your exterior has more than that, you'll need a full-blown paint job, which should be done by a professional and typically runs $3,000 to $6,000 and up. Otherwise, simply remove any loose paint in the troubled areas with a scraper, and then use a polyester brush to apply one coat of primer to any raw wood followed by two coats of paint.
If you want to hire: House-painters generally won't do touchups unless they're fixing a previous paint job of their own -- in which case, they may not charge you at all if the job was under warranty and it's been only a couple of years since it was done. Failing that, your best bet is to hire an experienced handyman, who will cost you about $100 to $400.
Mulch the yard
Why now: A fresh layer of mulch provides visual contrast to the plants in your landscape, giving foliage and flowers eye-catching pop. Mulch also promotes healthier plants all year round because it keeps water in the soil and provides nutrients as it breaks down.
What to buy: Skip the bags of mulch at the home center ($3 to $4 each) because you need more than can fit in even the biggest SUV. Instead, spend $35 to $60 per "yard" (including delivery) for mulch at a landscape supply yard; it will be a local product, which is less likely to introduce invasive diseases or insects into your garden (a risk with bagged mulch that has been trucked hundreds of miles from its source). Cedar, pine, cypress, and hardwood are all equally good, so pick the look you like. But make sure to get 100% bark, since whole-log mulch can release plant-damaging compounds into the soil. Expect to use five to 10 yards of mulch for the typical lot, says landscape contractor Joseph Hillenmeyer of Lexington, Ky.
Get it right: Use a garden spade to cut a nice clean edge in the lawn around the beds. Then use a pitchfork, wheelbarrow, and rake to lay a two-inch thick mulch bed. It'll take a weekend of hard labor to complete the job in an average half-acre yard.
If you want to hire: Since there's little skill involved, a handy-man or even a laborer can handle this job. You'll pay around $500 to $1,500 for mulch and labor on a half-acre lot -- or up to twice as much if your yard is heavily planted.
Seal the decks and fences
Why now: Unless it's a tropical hardwood like teak, all outdoor woodwork needs protection from the elements. Otherwise you'll be shelling out $1,000 to $2,000 for new decking in a few years.
What to buy: Seal with stain, not paint, which would require you to scrape and sand every time you need to refresh the job. Use oil-based stain, which will soak into the wood and minimize the prep work for the next coat, says Ernie Sears, a Manassas, Va., deck and outdoor product manufacturer. Expect to spend $20 to $35 for a gallon of premium oil-based stain; choose a solid stain for a painted look or a clear stain for a natural look. Make sure the clear stain contains chemical UV-blockers to prevent wood degradation from the sun. You'll also need wood cleaner ($25 a gallon) and a soft-bristled scrub brush or a power washer ($50 to $100 for a one-day rental) to remove dirt, mildew, and any remaining finish before staining.
Get it right: Good news for the home-improvement-challenged: Staining a fence is one of the most DIY-friendly jobs out there. Drips or spills land on the ground, where you can just scoop some soil over them.
If you want to hire: Some painters specialize in this job -- and just about any handyman will tackle it. Either way, you'll pay $500 to $1,000 for a typical deck or fence -- unless you can use Tom Sawyer's trick to get the kids to do it for free.
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