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13 small home improvements that pay back

Content Courtesy of:

By Christopher Solomon of MSN Real Estate

Everybody wants to find ways to save money around the house — but who can afford to break the bank on pricey improvements just to save a few dollars, right?

Wrong. These days there are plenty of small home improvements you can make that pay for themselves (or nearly so).

We’ve asked the experts to tell us some of their favorites. Flip through these, then get busy … and watch the dollars and cents start adding up.

1. Programmable thermostat

“A programmable thermostat can save you a couple of hundred dollars a year on your heating and cooling costs,” says Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman, deputy home editor for Consumer Reports. You can program it to, say, lower the temp in the house while you sleep, and warm up the house just before you wake. “The only catch there is that you actually have to program the thing,” Kuperszmid Lehrman says. That’s why Consumer Reports liked Lux’s Smart Temp Touch Screen TX9000TS. “It was especially easy to operate, and it was only $80. You’re going to make that back in the first year.”

2. Compact fluorescent bulbs

Light bulbs are the little addition that could. “In our tests, you can save about $56 over the life of each bulb,” says Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman, deputy home editor for Consumer Reports. Now multiply that by 40 bulbs — the number of bulbs in an average home — and that’s big savings. And the bulbs last for years. One of Consumer Reports’ top-rated bulbs is the Home Depot EcoSmart spiral CFL (about $1.50  per bulb). Consumer Reports has some info on how to choose the best bulb for your fixtures, though a subscription to the magazine is required to see most of the info.

3. Low-flow showerhead

Showerheads spew a lot of water. You can still get a great shower — and save water — with a low-flow showerhead, however. The testers at Consumer Reports really liked the American Standard FloWise showerheads, which can provide up to 40% water savings, the company says. Installed throughout the house, they can save a family as much as 8,000 gallons of water use a year, the company says. Cost: $65 to $105, depending on the finish.

4. Low-flow toilet

Toilets gulp a lot of water. Buy a low-flow toilet and watch your bill drop. Consumer Reports’ Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman says the Kohler Cimarron Comfort Height toilet (K3609) “did very well in our tests,” swallowing just 1.6 gallons per flush. And with a retail price of $369, it won’t break the bank.

5. Insulation

Heat loss through walls, floors and the roof accounts for about 45% of heat loss (or cooling loss, in summer) in a typical home, says Amanda Lowenberger, researcher for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. Attics are often the easiest thing to insulate, and rolling out some Owens Corning fiberglass is often a DIY weekend project. Need more incentive? There’s a significant federal tax credit for installing insulation — 30% (up to $1,500) of the cost of materials.

6. D’Mand System water circulation systems

Why should all that water go down the drain while you’re waiting for the shower or bath to heat up? Though every family is different, about 25 to 30 gallons of water daily can be wasted this way — that’s 10,000 to 14,000 gallons annually, says Doug Bird, product manager for water circulation for Taco Inc. Taco makes the D’Mand System, which automatically recirculates colder water back to your water heater until it’s hot enough for use.  The cost: $500 to $750, depending on the system.

7. Smart switches

Outdoor lighting can be pretty — but it’s easy to leave the lights on all day. Photo-sensitive sensors, meanwhile, can get thrown off by the brightness of urban areas. With Intermatic’s “smart switches” installed in the switch plate, you tell the control where you live and what day it is — and you never set it again. The mini-computer figures out sunrise and sunset and when to turn the lights on and off. The cost: $30 and up.

8. Insulated ducts

“If you’ve got a forced-air heating system, make sure that you have your ducts insulated,” says Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman, deputy home editor for Consumer Reports.Why? Lots of hot air (and air-conditioned air in summer) is lost through uninsulated metal tubes, or through gaps in the ducts. “It costs around $500 or so (to wrap the ducts), but you can save around $400 or so a year,” she says. “It’s not exactly a fun, sexy thing, but it’s really a gift for yourself. It’s the kind of thing that pays for itself year after year after year.” Web sites such as have insulation you can install yourself.

9. An energy audit

A home energy audit is like a physical for your house — it pinpoints all the ways it’s using, and losing, energy. You can perform a simple energy audit yourself, but a pro will use more advanced techniques and tools to really help you identify your home’s weak spots — and help you fix them. Cost for an audit can be as little as, well, zilch at many utilities, says Rick Giles of Conservation Services Group, which does audits for utilities. Or it can be $350 or more for some private contractors, says Heather Rae of Maine Home Performance, so it’s really worth calling to find out what’s available — and what you get for your money. Find an approved auditor in your state — and learn what to look for in one — here.

10. Washing machine

Old washing machines are big water hogs. But the newest front-loading ones like this Amana have changed the game: Though they cost more ($649) at the register, front-loading washers can save you about $100 a year in water and electricity costs, estimates Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman, deputy home editor for Consumer Reports. There’s also a Cash for Clunkers-type program taking shape for appliances with estimated rebates of $50 to $200, she says. “That would really shorten the payback period.”

11. Tankless water heaters

Tankless or “on-demand” water heaters like the ones made by Rinnai provide hot water only when it’s needed, and so they remove the need for a big tank of hot water waiting in the basement (and the energy use that comes with that). The tankless heaters are anywhere from 8% to 50% more efficient than old-school tanks, depending on a home’s needs, the government says. Read more about their pros and cons in Mother Earth News. The cost: $800 and up.

12. Geothermal heat pumps

Geothermal heat pumps like those by Ingram’s Water and Air or Econar GeoSystems are a lot like regular heat pumps, but instead use the heat of the ground (instead of the air outside) to provide heating, air conditioning and sometimes hot water. Because of that, they’re really efficient. But they’re not always cheap: The California Energy Commission’s Consumer Energy Center estimates that a so-called “closed loop” system for a typical-sized home would cost about $7,500 — twice the amount of a regular heat pump, not counting drilling. But the investment can be recouped in five to 10 years. (Ingram’s “open loop” systems, which pull water out of a well, circulate it, then put it back into a stream, cost about half that. But then, not everybody has a well … or a stream.)

13. Energy-efficient windows

New, energy-efficient windows like this ThermaStar window by Pella are a great way to save money over time, and they do it in lots of ways: They stem unwanted heat and cooling loss in winter and summer, respectively; they block harmful UV rays that fade carpets and furniture; and they even can reduce the size of the heating/cooling system you need. Recently, several energy-efficient homes were built that included good windows, resulting in a 30% reduction in the size of the air-conditioning system needed, according to the Efficient Windows Collaborative. Cost for energy-efficient windows varies widely based on size, number of windows and location. Many companies do free in-home estimates.