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SPRING CLEANING AND HOME REPAIR

Small changes add up to quality improvements

New knobs, lighting can make an impression

The second-floor kitchen at the Ermilio home. The windows were shifted to the left to create better lines. The second-floor kitchen at the Ermilio home. The windows were shifted to the left to create better lines. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / March 13, 2011

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The kitchen doesn’t flow, there’s nowhere in the back for coats and boots, the upstairs bathroom is too small, and the master bedroom is kind of plain. Sounds like a typical old New England home.

And if you own one, and you’d like to bring your home into the modern world, it may seem you don’t know where to start. If the big projects appear overwhelming — an addition attaching a family room to a kitchen, for example — then think small first: cabinet knobs and handles or lighting fixtures. Piecemeal remodeling, according to many architects and designers, offers different opportunities to improve the quality of your living environment without gutting rooms to the studs.

“Each client has his own agenda,’’ said Adolfo Perez, an architect based in Newton. “We usually tell people, unless this is strictly an investment, think about it first. You want to be smart about your budget. With the depressed values of housing, more people are going to stay where they are.’’

Perez suggested homeowners focus on the textures of those things they touch or use every day, probably without noticing — bathroom faucets, doors and knobs, handrails. Consider replacing them with higher-quality hardware, he advises. For example, he often recommends clients spend a little extra on oversized doors, which can make an immediate impression.

“The difference between an off-the-shelf handrail or bracket and something of a little higher quality is like wearing a custom-made shoe,’’ Perez said.

That may sound like an extravagance, but in the scheme of things, such creature comforts are small expenditures home owners will enjoy over and over again.

“The tub fills quicker, the shower’s better, better lighting and heating — [these are] the things you appreciate every day,’’ said Perez.

The real estate collapse has done a lot to remind homeowners that their houses are not merely investments to be flipped at the first sign of a big profit, but places to live and make their own. It’s at least as important to enjoy it while you live there.

With the economy slowly improving, homeowners are growing more comfortable putting money into their homes. Spending on home improvement rose around 3 percent last year, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, which predicts that growth will double this year.

Kermit Baker, director of the Remodeling Futures program at the housing studies center, said the really extravagant home projects — fitness rooms and media centers, for example — are yesterday’s projects, as homeowners focus more on the practical and prosaic. Home office conversions remain popular, he added, as more people telecommute or pursue outside employment.

Piecemeal remodeling has another virtue, of course: It’s less expensive than full-blown additions.

New buyers would do well to live in the home for some time before deciding what needs to be renovated or replaced. But even if you’ve been in your home for a while, it could be a benefit to slow down and think about how you use the house before deciding where to spend your money.

Jeff Klug, cofounder of the Boston design firm Butz + Klug, said there are critical questions homeowners should ask themselves before deciding on what to change: “What disturbs them? What can they live with? Where is it nice in the morning and the evening in the house?’’

Klug and his partner, Pam Butz, recently converted a two-family townhouse in the South End into a five-floor home for attorney Jim Ermilio, and his wife, Sharon. Among other features, they created a street-level living room and den separated by a wet bar and a kitchen with pantry shelves that give a library feel, in homage to the floor’s original function as a study.

Before the work began, Ermilio said, Klug + Butz “asked us to write a lengthy note describing who we are — our family, our lifestyle, our likes and dislikes. They were trying to get a feeling for us as people, not only with respect to architecture. We were impressed.’’

If, like the Ermilios, you are ready for the big project, one that will require professional help, Klug suggested that homeowners try to hire an architect or designer and a builder early on in the process, instead of drawing up plans and then looking for a contractor.

“That can create a dialogue that helps set priorities about design related to actual cost,’’ he said. “That’s really valuable to everyone on the team.’’