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Five dirt-cheap kitchen upgrades that pay

Consumer Reports News: July 06, 2011 04:35 PM

The fed's big retreat from the mortgage market is the latest argument for smaller-but-smarter home upgrades, especially in the kitchen. As of this October, the biggest home loans that Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and federal agencies will guarantee drops from more than $700,000 to as low as $271,050, according to The Wall Street Journal. That’s likely to give an added boost to lower-priced homes—and another reason to spend wisely when it comes to remodeling your kitchen.

The good news: Consumer Reports’ latest tests yields a tantalizing menu of value-priced kitchen upgrades that cost as little as $1,000. Besides paying off now in improved looks and convenience, these smaller upgrades are likelier to pay bigger dividends later as home prices rebound. Here’s the list:

Add fresh paint. If cabinets are structurally sound but shabby, spruce them up with a coat of paint. Paying a pro costs as little as $50 per door, less if you tackle the prepping and painting yourself. One pick from our tests is the self-priming Behr Premium Plus Ultra Satin Enamel, $33 per gallon at Home Depot. Check out our buying advice for paints.

Improve convenience. For about $200 or less, you can improve cabinet storage with pull-out shelves and retractable trash bins.

Update the countertops. Designers’ views are mixed between granite and quartz (about $40 to $100 per square foot), which mimics granite and other stone. Quartz topped our gauntlet of tests, and it never needs sealing. Want to spend less? Laminate costs just $10 to $40 per square foot and resisted stains and impact even better (but be careful about cuts). Want more guidance? See our countertop buying advice.

Beautify the backsplash. Durable ceramic-tile starts at about $10 per square foot installed. And even high-maintenance materials like glass are smart options, since they don't get the wear and tear of a countertop. Whatever you use for the backsplash, caulking between the backsplash and countertop is a must.

Fix up your flooring. Tile or wood may impress realtors, but some top-rated vinyl and laminate floors also look sharp, resist wear significantly better, and cost far less when the work is done. Examples from our latest tests include the vinyl-tile Congoleum DuraCeramic Sierra Slate SI-74 Golden Greig, $5 per square foot, and the laminate Armstrong Coastal Living L3051 White Wash Walnut, $3.50 per square foot. We also found a CR Best Buy among laminates for just $1 per square foot. Our buying advice for flooring helps you weigh your options.

Feeling more ambitious? Check out these videos for kitchen improvements you can do for a total of $5,000, $15,000, or even $50,000.

Ed Perratore

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