Home improvements that pay for themselves
January 21, 2014 11:41 AM   Subscribe

I recently bought a 1000 square foot condo. I'm starting to think about ways to make it work better and improvements that will pay for themselves over the long term. I've started replacing lighting with LED and have bought a programmable thermostat, just to give some basic examples. I'm also looking for things that will save maybe tiny amounts of time and energy when viewed as single events but will happen over and over again throughout the lifetime of the house. For example, using shelving instead of cabinets or hanging pots and pans on pegboard. I'm basically looking to put up a little more effort/money up front in order to save myself the same over the long term.
posted by mike_bling to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
How strongly do you feel about aesthetics? Ease of cleaning?

Make sure you have in-bathroom storage for cleaning chemicals, sponges, etc.; the bathroom gets cleaned more frequently if you don't have to schlep that from the kitchen or wherever.

I use a magnetic knife block for knives, which saves counter space (or cutting myself on knives in a drawer) and makes the knives easier to access.

If you don't have a dishwasher or in-unit laundry machines, those might be something to consider. If you use ice, you could get a fridge with an ice dispenser plumbed (assuming you don't have one already).

Simple Human makes a lot of products you may like -- I particularly like the in-cabinet trash cans but other options may appeal to you more. There are similar in-cabinet pull-out units for storage of cooking equipment.

Assuming you have a forced hot air heating system, higher-quality furnace filters may cut down on dust and protect your furnace.

On the safety front, make sure you have a working smoke alarm, CO detector, and fire extinguisher. The extinguisher is easy to hang on the wall to save space.

using shelving instead of cabinets

In my experience open kitchen shelving tends to result in a greasy film over whatever is stored on them, which takes time to clean. This builds up even if you have a good externally-vented fan that you use often. If you factor in cleaning time, open shelving may be a wash or even a negative relative to closed cabinets. (The breakeven depends on how frequently you cook and how much you care about removing the grease.)
posted by pie ninja at 11:59 AM on January 21, 2014

My kitchen has drawers instead of cabinets. Everything is nicely concealed, but pulls out when you need it. You never need to reach way in the back behind and underneath something else to find a less-often used utensil or pan. This is the single greatest kitchen innovation I've seen in years.

Also, and this may not apply in a condo, but a tankless water heater is great. Cheaper to run, takes up less space, and you never run out of hot water.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 12:09 PM on January 21, 2014

Install timers for your exterior lights and a landscape watering system.

If your refrigerator and oven are not new, put inexpensive thermometers inside them to assure yourself they are functioning properly.

I agree with pie ninja that open shelving in the kitchen is impractical and not attractive unless you have a designer kitchen and rarely cook, and adding slide-out shelves inside lower cabinets is a great time saver and increases your cabinets' usefulness.
posted by MyTwoCentsToo at 12:12 PM on January 21, 2014

Better insulation and stopping air leaks go a long way to reducing heating and cooling costs. It can be as simple as putting a draft stopper under exterior doors, getting insulated window shades, and drawing blinds during the day in summer. For a bit more money, and provided your condo board allows it, you can get blown-in insulation in your exterior walls.
posted by payoto at 12:13 PM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nthing that shelving in the kitchen is a bad idea.

Having a quality range hood with a real vent will help reduce the grease-spray issue.

Dual flush toilet (uses less water to flush #1).

Ceiling fans.
posted by melissasaurus at 12:45 PM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Better insulation and stopping air leaks go a long way to reducing heating and cooling costs

Better yet, hire someone to do a home energy audit, and use what you learn to prioritize your upgrades. You'll be more comfortable, and in the long run it will save you money. Possible upgrades: new windows (reduced drafts and you won't need to put up plastic sheeting in the winter), mastic-sealing and insulating your HVAC system, wall or attic insulation, plugging leaky spots around outlets, drains, etc., weatherstripping, etc. Also, it may be worth it to have someone who knows about HVAC systems look at your furnace/AC, even if you're not planning to replace anytime soon--don't take it for granted that everything is set up properly. In a perfect world this stuff would all be sorted out during construction, but it almost never is.

a tankless water heater is great

Heartily seconded. Keeping a huge tank of water hot all the time is ridiculous. If this isn't in the cards, you could probably save some money lowering the thermostat setting on your water heater and re-adjusting the mix of water heater temp/cold water that reaches your hot taps. This will also prevent scalds from too hot tap/shower water. In a perfect world I would also have a separate boiling water tap.

Ceiling fans.

Your preferences may vary but if I can help it I will never live without a ceiling fan in the bedroom again. They also help to even out internal air temperature, making your heating and cooling more efficient.

[...] and fire extinguisher. The extinguisher is easy to hang on the wall to save space.

Put a class A/B/C fire extinguisher in the kitchen, too.

Depending on your condo's location within the building and what part of the country you live in, consider a radon detector in addition to CO and fire.

Dual flush toilet (uses less water to flush #1).

If you aren't up for replacing the toilet, consider installing a dual flush knob.

I prefer to dry my clothing on a line or drying rack. This saves gas/electricity and my clothing lasts much longer. Depending on the condo rules I would install a clothesline outside or built-in racks (that's the model I own, may be hard to find in the US but there are plenty of options) inside, eliminating the need for an irritatingly enormous floor model.

I would also consider replacing a couple of outlets with USB wall outlets in strategic locations, eliminating the common power-strip-and-USB-wall-wart configuration.

Check your pipes, and if any of them are in a location which could freeze, do something about it now so you aren't caught unaware during the next cold snap.

I love this style of showerhead and install it before I take my first shower in a new apartment. I also take it with me when I move. It's not the most aggressively low-flow model out there, but I don't tend to take long showers. I also appreciate the cutoff button, and it's easy to de-limescale. Your preferences may vary, but I bet there's a showerhead out there that's both more efficient and more to your tastes than whatever's currently installed.
posted by pullayup at 1:14 PM on January 21, 2014

Is your place brand new, medium new or dated?

If you want to flip it there are the standard changes that definitely increase resale value - re-paint, redo cabinets, redo counters, low-flush toilets. Redo flooring.

To save energy & money: depending on where you live, time of use is essential. Then turn off items when not in use, such as TV, DVR/DVD, microwave etc. You could automate this with a timer as well. Lots of current is leaked when a device is plugged in but not "on."
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:24 PM on January 21, 2014

Deleted suggestion because I was thinking of house stuff.
posted by bonobothegreat at 1:26 PM on January 21, 2014

using shelving instead of cabinets

The shelves will need to be cleaned.
Your things on the shelves won't stay as clean.
If you get mice, they will delight in your open shelves and then things really won't be clean.

If you hire someone to clean, it would probably work to save time to have open shelves.

If you aren't hiring someone, making things easy to clean will save time. Keep in mind that things will need to be cleaned when you are buying things for the house, and don't buy anything that will be difficult to clean.

Roombas are nice to have.
posted by yohko at 1:47 PM on January 21, 2014

Response by poster: The building is about 100 years old, so...it's dated. I'm not looking to flip it. In general, I care more about utility value than resale value. As far as aesthetics go, I find that things that work well have their own aesthetic value. I also like Donald Judd type stuff, but I also recognize you still need a few tools to get by. I prefer light and open spaces to walls and soffits. Good answers so far.
posted by mike_bling at 1:47 PM on January 21, 2014

I just moved back into a house built in 1925 after being away 10 years. Things that NEVER bothered me the first time seemed obvious this time around. It wasn't a big splurge to put recessed lighting with dimmable LEDs in LR, DR, BR (huge, huge improvement, best I've made so far.) Added new Speakman Shower head. Replaced kitchen faucet with new one that has head that pulls out to be hand-held sprayer. Turned up the water heater 15 degrees to allow for longer showers & hot baths - not exactly an improvement or cost saver but makes me happier.

My previous house had a cabinet that was actually a pull-out trash can, but since I can't reconfigure the kitchen now I added one of these . I put new, high-quality 2" blinds in all the windows. And replaced or added weather-stripping to exterior doors.

In my previous condo I replaced carpet with higher quality laminate flooring that looked exactly like bamboo. It was nice to look at and pretty indestructible. If you have Central A/C, invest in the good filters and change them often.
posted by pinkbungalow at 2:48 PM on January 21, 2014

Nineteen years ago I bought an 850sf condo in a vintage apartment building conversion, and an architect friend helped me make some structural changes that, even today, continue to make me happy.

Which is only to say, do give some thought to your unit's layout, because minor construction costs pay for themselves over the years and can totally be recouped if they're well thought out. Some examples:

- My unit came with a pantry off of the kitchen. Behind the back pantry wall was the very small bedroom closet. I had them move the back wall forward, leaving a recess on the kitchen side just big enough to accommodate a fridge, thus creating a walk-in bedroom closet on the other side. (And I had them wire an overhead light fixture and wall switch.) This has been a huge convenience, and I'm pretty sure that when I do eventually sell, this will be a feature that other vintage units don't have.

- The original dining room could be entered via a double-wide doorway space, without doors, off of the living room, AND from the kitchen, with a swinging door in the middle of one wall. I moved the door to face the living room, which made space on the 8' x 11' kitchen side for a dishwasher, and, up top, an uninterrupted line of cupboards. And I added French doors to the living room entry, creating a separate room that I can use for a dining room, office/den and/or guest bedroom. Yes, my desk is a dining room table, which I love. (The dining room was big enough to bring one wall forward to create a closet, and, as it happened, a new closet in the entry hallway.)

- The 5' x 10' bathroom had zero storage space, but also a weird empty space to the right of the door, just large enough to build a storage closet with a lightweight louvered door, making tons of floor-to-ceiling storage space that I use for towels, linen, toiletries, etc.

- There was a header between the entrance hall and the living room that I had removed. It was such a small change but made a noticeable difference in the feeling of open space and the amount of light in the previously very dark entry hall.

- There was a really awkward 3' x 10' closet adjoining the living room that I eliminated, making a "great room" living room. I used the door for the new hall closet, mentioned above, and built in a waist-high shelving unit for books and art display. Plus three ceiling canister spots for lighting interest.

I can appreciate that you probably don't want to embark on a construction project in your brand new space, but do keep in mind for the future that it's well worth considering what moving a wall here and there can accomplish in terms of usability and visual appeal. Both for your present convenience and for future re-sale value.

For easier to implement changes: I replaced the incandescent overhead light fixture in the kitchen with a 4-spot halogen track light. I refinish the hardwood floors every ten years, and repaint the place from stem to stern about every 7 years. (Yes, it's a huge inconvenience, but the payoff in a totally renewed living space is worth it.) To help preserve a sense of space in the living room, I opted for a matching upholstered chair, ottoman and love seat as opposed to a standard sized sofa, adding occasional chairs that can be positioned pretty much anywhere when not needed. I liked the mini-blind window treatments that came with the place, but they get dirty over time, even with dusting, and it isn't that expensive to replace them from time to time.

One last idea that I got from my architect friend: he brought over a roll of tissue paper that he unfurled over the condo layout that came with my prospectus. We spent well over an hour sketching possible furnishing alternatives that really helped me. What if I put a small dining table by the living room bay window? Would there still be room for living room furniture? What's the best place to put the bed in the bedroom? These questions were quickly answered by sketching them on the succeeding "sheets" of the tracing paper.

So, some thoughts. Enjoy your new space!
posted by Short Attention Sp at 4:53 PM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you want to save money on heating/cooling cost and make the place more comfortable, look at Green Building Advisor and the information provided by Building Science Corporation.

In order of priority, if you want comfort and durability, your priorities are:
- to keep the water out
- to keep the air from moving in and out of your house
- to keep vapour from getting in the wrong place
- to keep heat from flowing in and out of your house.
In that order.

I wouldn't do interior insulating blinds; if you're going to do something like that, you really want something to the outside of the window, like rolling shutters, otherwise you could have a fun trip to condensationville.

Kitchen hoods can work well, but they really need to be close to the source (range) and to have baffles. You also need a good, fairly direct duct to the outside.

Drying your clothes inside is generally not a great idea, since it puts a lot of water vapour in the air, which means you can have clampy air, more expensive AC bills and potentially condensation/mould problems (like the people who live below my brother's apartment).

If your ceiling is insulated, you need to make sure it's airtight, otherwise moist air will move through it, again creating a potential moisture problem.

Modern hot water tanks aren't that bad, at least if your hot-water-using appliances are concentrated around your heater so that the pipes are as short as possible and if your pipes are insulated. Consider a heat exchanger for your shower, to warm the incoming water from the water that drains out.

If you have a traditional AC system, consider replacing it with a minisplit unit, possibly a heat pump. Make sure you have an exhaust fan in your bathroom too, and consider a heat recovery ventilator.

Better windows can make quite a difference, but even great windows can suck if they're poorly installed. Make sure whoever installs yours knows their stuff.

If you're responsible for the roof and basement, evaluate their current state and consider the opportunity of redoing or re-insulating them (leaky roofs and moist basements suck). Same with the exterior treatment: if it's time to change the siding, consider the possibility of adding insulation to the exterior and of taking air sealing measures.

And finally, consider accessibility, stuff like wheelchair access and accessible bathrooms. It might not be useful to you immediately, but it may come in handy if you receive an older relative or break a leg. It may be less relevant if you're on an upper floor with no elevator, though.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:07 PM on January 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Drying your clothes inside is generally not a great idea, since it puts a lot of water vapour in the air, which means you can have clampy air, more expensive AC bills and potentially condensation/mould problems (like the people who live below my brother's apartment).

This varies greatly with climate and whether the house has humidified or unhumidified forced air or some kind of radiator heat. I have forced air heat in Chicago, and dry my clothing outside in summer and inside in winter. In the winter, the humidity provided by drying clothing pretty much gives the bedroom humidifier a 12 hour breather, and the clothing is dry in 4-8 hours. Use your best judgement, and maybe a hygrometer.

In general, though, keeping condensation/moisture balance in mind is a good idea, and best practices vary with the particulars of your building's construction and the local climate. Whatever you do, find a local professional who is familiar with how older buildings are constructed, and who knows best practices for updating with energy efficiency and long-term durability in mind. Many of the people doing energy efficiency audits will be making recommendations as if your building dated from 1970-1990, and it's very possible for retrofitted energy-efficiency measures to upset the way your structure was originally designed to handle humidity and temperature changes (in fact, this may have happened in the intervening 100 years).
posted by pullayup at 9:32 PM on January 21, 2014

When we renovated, we thought about living in the space with a physical challenge and made sure that doors had lever handles, the cabinets had built-in pulls rather than stickout knobs, that there were no internal steps, just smooth inclines and lots of details like that. I borrowed a book on retrofitting houses for people with challenges that had lots of small useful details. I went through it with a pad of paper by my side, noting down ideas. Double-use furniture and as much adjustable built-in storage as possible are the best things ever.

We also thought about maintenance for everything. I regret our paint choice because we chose a cheaper type over my original plan of a high-end glossy paint that was easier to clean, but OTOH we're going to paint different colours two years on and I'll use that high-end paint this time. We have a toddler though, so if you're not hard on walls, this is something you can skimp.

I'm also planning to replace our pictures hanging on the wall with narrow picture shelves they rest on so I can rearrange them at will without having to knock holes in the walls and level frames, but that's because we keep pictures to one section only. We're putting shelves into our living room soon and they will have sections for books but we've agreed to make them glass-fronted, not open so we don't have to dust anything.

For almost everything else, we thought about how we could make it easier to clean - cupboards built to the ceiling so no dust gets there, appliances with smooth fronts that can be wiped down, etc. Less cleaning is better.
posted by viggorlijah at 2:00 AM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

And cooking today, I remembered that the lip/profile of the counter matters. We had what our contractor called a roman profile which means it curves upwards, like a gently rounded jar lid. It's very difficult for anything to spill off the counter and makes cleaning up a breeze on the countertop. It was the first time our contractor had ever had it requested, but it didn't cost us anything extra. I think I had seen it in a restaurant kitchen guide once.
posted by viggorlijah at 3:35 AM on January 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

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