(This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Read Part 2, “Buying cheaper fridge, floors makes financial sense.”)

As anyone who’s remodeled will know, there’s practically no limit to how much you can spend on a building project. Now, for people with money to burn — and judging by the traffic in high-end design showrooms, there are plenty of them — it may seem perfectly reasonable to blow a few thousand dollars on a Scandinavian dishwasher or a hand-painted Majolica toilet with gold hardware. For the rest of us, though, there are more cost-effective places to invest remodeling dollars.

This makes it all the more puzzling when I come across projects in which budget-conscious homeowners pinched pennies on basic building materials, yet happily shelled out serious money for the latest fluff in countertops or exotic appliances. While this approach may provide instant gratification, it makes little sense in the long run.

If you’re portioning out a tight budget, work that’s permanent and integral to the quality of the house should take precedence over superficial features that can easily be upgraded later on. Some examples:

  • Windows are among the most conspicuous features of any project, and the standard of quality they set — whether for good or bad — carries over to everything else. Therefore, regardless of what kind you choose — wood, metal or plastic, sliding, casement, or whatever — buy the very best quality you can afford. Your windows ought to last the life of your house, and given their paramount importance to style, function and energy efficiency, they’re a lousy place to cut corners.

  • Roofs are another in-your-face indicator of quality, not to mention that little matter of keeping out the rain. Despite this, Americans — unlike almost everyone else on the planet — still tend to think of roofs as disposable. We choose relatively shoddy roofing materials and then resign ourselves to replacing them every 15 years or so at substantial cost. That’s a pity, because in addition to the usual suspects of shingle, shake or tar-and-gravel, there are many kinds of roofing — concrete tile, clay tile, metal, and natural and artificial stone — that will last the life of the building. Only you can determine which roofing type will be most appropriate for your project, but don’t base your choice on cost alone.

  • Exterior finishes, like windows, make a very conspicuous statement about your home’s style and quality. You can guess the rest of the story: If you’re using stucco, invest in a first-rate plastering contractor — there’s a huge range of quality among them. If you’ve chosen to use siding, invest in genuine wood rather than plastic or composition wannabes. For wood shingle exteriors, choose the best grade available.

Likewise, use top-quality lumber at exterior window and door trim, bargeboards and fascias. These areas take a real beating from the weather, and economy grades just won’t hold up. If you feel guilty about using natural resources such as redwood, as I often do, remember that a quality product installed once is a far better use of resources than a cheap one that has to be replaced again and again.

Now, having blown a big chunk of your budget on topnotch windows, roofing and exterior finishes, where can you save some money without permanently ruining your house? We’ll look into that next time.

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