Crimson walls, worn carpeting, outdated light fixtures. Prospective home buyers may balk when a home they're touring isn't picture perfect. But don't be put off by overgrown shrubbery or an avocado range. Such flaws can be easily, and cheaply, fixed and by accepting the house as is you may be able to bargain down the price and spend what you save to realize its true potential.
Wacky walls. Don't be blinded by floral wallpaper or a splashy paint job. A coat or two of paint can brighten a room and make it more to your liking. A number of the interior paints in Consumer Reports' paint tests were excellent at covering. In fact, almost half of our two dozen top picks are made to go on over old finishes or even bare wood and wallboard without the usual prime coat. You can buy a gallon of good paint for $30 or less although some brands cost more. For best results. match the sheen to the area. Low-luster satin and eggshell paints are ideal for most surfaces because they combine easy hiding and durability.
Frightening flooring. Carpeting that's seen better days doesn't have to trip you up, especially if the floor or subfloor is in good condition. Before settling on new flooring, spend a few dollars on two or three samples. That way you won't wind up with flooring that looks great in a catalog or on a website but awful in your home. Manufacturers generally match most wood or engineered-wood flooring for color and grain. But variations can occur from one batch to the next, so buy all the flooring you'll need at once. Consumer Reports' floor tests include solid and engineered wood, linoleum, vinyl and plastic laminate. Prices for our recommended flooring range from $1 per square foot for plastic laminate to $6.30 for prefinished solid wood.
Lackluster lights. Tacky chandeliers and fussy ceiling fans can be a turnoff. If the fixtures are more than a few years old, your choice of lighting has greatly expanded since they were installed. Take advantage of the many energy-saving lightbulbs on the market but make sure you install fixtures that will provide the type of lighting you want. Not every energy-saving lightbulb can be used in every fixture. (Here's a guide.) Check our Ratings of CFL, LED and halogen bulbs to make sure you get the right incandescent replacement. The CFLs we recommend cost between $6 and $10. LEDs can be two or three times that but have been decreasing in price as more come on the market.
Kitschy kitchen. If the layout of the kitchen works for you, many other upgrades can be done on a shoestring. You can paint the cabinets, replace the hardware or install a new faucet. And if it's the appliances that need updating, you can find many top performers in our Ratings that are affordable too. Our five Best Buy bottom-freezer, French-door refrigerators, one of the most popular choices, range in price from $1,500 to $1,700. Dishwashers and ranges can be had for much less. Our dishwasher Best Buys range from $500 to $700 and Best Buy ranges are $700 for electric and $775 for gas.
Unenticing entry. Don't knock a battered door or overgrown holly bush. Put out the welcome mat with a new coat of paint and new locks or hardware. Mow the lawn and trim the plants and bushes that are encroaching on your entryway. Our string trimmer tests show you don't have to mess with a gas-powered model if you don't want to. The best corded machines can trim, edge, and even tackle the tall stuff nearly as well--and some cost as little as $30. And while cordless, battery-powered trimmers still aren't ideal for hacking away tall grass and weeds, the best do a creditable job although they cost a bit more than corded.
The real red flags
Once you've overlooked the small things, you can pay attention to the real red flags. Hire a home inspector before making an offer and do a thorough visual inspection yourself. Here are some things that can be signs of serious trouble that'll take more than a can of paint to fix.
—Mary H.J. Farrell