You're thinking of selling - but not just yet. Let's say you've got a five-year plan to prepare an older, lived-in house for sale.
Maybe you're faced with tattered carpets, battered appliances and dingy paint. Or maybe we're talking about truly scary problems, such as asbestos, underground oil tanks or leaking roofs.
What should you take care of first? What can wait? What can be ignored altogether? And how do you keep costs under control?
"Basically what we're talking about is good, solid preventive maintenance on your home," said Barbara Weissmann of Friedberg Properties in River Vale, N.J. She recommends that homeowners looking at a sale down the road hire a home inspector to check out the house. "You're looking to discover defects that you can fix over time," she said.
She and other experts say it's possible to get a house ready for market without spending a fortune, especially if you have time on your side. And if you're going to fix up the property anyway, Weissmann said, "why not do it several years in advance so you can enjoy it?"
The first jobs to tackle: anything that's a danger to your health or the house's future.
If the roof is leaking, for example, that will damage the ceiling, walls and floors below. Funky wiring or leaky plumbing? Deal with it sooner, not later. "The biggest killer of a home's value is no maintenance," Weissmann said.
If there's flaking asbestos insulation on the pipes, that's a health hazard, and can also delay or kill a sale down the line. Don't try to remove it yourself; get a licensed contractor.
You should also make sure you have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Check with your town; some require that at the time of sale, the alarms must be wired into the home's electrical system, a job that requires an electrician. Other municipalities will accept battery-operated alarms. Either way, you also want these in place for your own safety, along with a fire extinguisher in the kitchen.
Next, the deal-breakers: When you're ready to sell, the buyer will generally require that certain major issues be addressed. Better to handle them now than risk delaying or losing a deal later.
Aside from asbestos, another big environmental concern is an underground oil tank, which can leak. Jeana Cowie, a Re/Max agent in Oradell, N.J., recently advised a couple who plan to sell in a few years to deal with the tank now.
"I felt that buyers will skip looking at the home because of oil heat," Cowie said. "And a new gas furnace is a huge positive for all homes."
Maybe you've already dealt with the oil tank. But if it was only abandoned in place, be prepared: A buyer will often seek to have it taken out because of concerns that the job was not done properly, said Louis Chapman, a real estate lawyer in Wayne and Teaneck, N.J. You might want to have it removed before putting the house up for sale.
Check for radon gas and deal with it if it's there; this is something a buyer will also insist on. Try your state department of environmental protection for testing and correction companies.
Basement moisture often is an issue in home sales, said Dominick Laurita of Interstate Home Inspections in Califon, N.J. It can lead to mold, which can scare buyers away. The most common cause: gutters that aren't draining rainwater away from the house.
"It's a simple fix," said Laurita.
A termite problem also could derail a sale, so you want to act quickly if you find evidence of that. Though inspectors can't see termite damage hidden behind walls, the insects sometimes leave visible trails.
Keep the paperwork on all these jobs to show an eventual buyer.
The spruce-ups: Once you get past the most pressing projects, there are a cluster of jobs where you have to weigh the benefits against the costs. In general, home sellers get back only 60 percent to 80 percent of the money spent on home improvements, according to Remodeling magazine.
"You're not getting a dollar back for every dollar you spend," Weissmann said.
"Don't do any remodeling whatsoever, but anything that has to be replaced should be replaced," said Dick O'Connor, a Dumont, N.J., real estate broker. "You can spend $50,000 to remodel and get only $30,000 back. Just be sure everything is in working order."
Michael Fitzpatrick, a Hackensack, N.J., real estate lawyer, said it's OK to leave some issues to be handled in a negotiation between the seller and buyer, rather than spend a lot to upgrade the house before you even put it on the market.
Most experts recommend against major kitchen or bath renovations. But less ambitious upgrades, such as replacing scratched countertops or outdated appliances, could make sense, they said.
"You've got to make it look good," said Maria Rini, a Re/Max agent in Oradell. "But the spruce-up bill can be a lot less than you imagine."
When it comes to cost-effective fix-ups, most housing experts have three favorites: clear out clutter, paint the walls and rip up old carpet. If the wood floors under the carpet are in good shape, great; otherwise, they can be refinished at a cost that typically ranges from $1.50 to $3 a square foot.
Bob Olson, a contractor with Home Resources in Ridgefield Park, N.J., said updating doors, moldings and trim can give a home "a fresh new look" at a reasonable cost.
Improving the landscaping, especially the front yard, is crucial. But it doesn't have to look like a manicured estate.
"Clean up the flower beds and trim back the bushes to expose the house," Rini said. Plant flowers, especially in the front, for curb appeal, advised Barbara Ostroth, a Coldwell Banker agent in Oradell. In winter, you can plant cabbage plants with colorful leaves.
The big-ticket items: If your furnace or hot water heater dies, obviously you must replace it. If those items are old but still working, however, most real estate experts advise that you leave them in place and adjust the home price to reflect their age.
"If the heating system is old but works, don't touch it," O'Connor said.
One option is to buy a home warranty when you're ready to sell. A warranty "is a great way to overcome buyers' objections to older appliances, pipes, electric systems, furnaces and hot water heaters," Ostroth said.
New, energy-efficient windows? That's a costly job that many sellers would rather just leave to the buyers, even it means getting a lower price for the property. "If you're getting out of the house, you would almost never redo the windows, unless they're rotted through," Rini said.
If you decide to renovate a kitchen or bath for your own enjoyment, keep resale in mind.
"Try to pick something that is salable. Keep it neutral; don't put in a green countertop," said Margrit Vogler of Margrit Vogler Properties in Oradell.
Finishing a basement could be worthwhile if the house is small and there's no other family room or play space for the kids. But otherwise, most real estate advisers recommend just tidying up instead, by throwing out clutter and painting the walls and floor.