While signing a boot-high stack of papers that indenture you to faceless finance corporations, you might be tempted to think: "Once I install that tile backsplash behind the kitchen sink, I'll just sit back and watch my net worth tick up." OK, perhaps you're not quite this delusional, but you might believe that your keen eye and your willingness to work hard on a fixer will add up to increased value.

It will, but perhaps not as much as you think. Home values in Portland have been climbing because of big-picture market forces (people want to live here), not because investor-owners are choosing the right shade of marigold for the foyer. Most of the value in your home flows from its location, and the repairs and modifications that consistently add value to a home often require that you plan ahead and spend real money. Handy people with nice tool bags prove utterly useless at boring a subterranean sewer pipe. Other whammies for which you will need only your check-writing hand: underground storage tanks; galvanized lead pipe supply lines; angry, old oil-burning octopus furnaces with asbestos-wrapped ductwork; and sewer pipes that gave up in the Reagan years.

"Deal with the paint, the floors and the landscaping," says Claire Paris of Paris Group Realty. "Those are three relatively easy ways to add value. After that, fix outdated kitchens or add a bathroom, but only if you're willing to do it right. A $5,000 kitchen remodel may end up looking cheap."

Remember that your taste in finish surfaces is your own—the next owner might want to gut your sweat equity, in which case it will have just been sweat.

On the other hand, Portland is busy building a world-class city around us. (Some prefer the term "highly regulated.") You know all of those white city-owned cars with long department names on their doors? These people turn out to be helpful when you agree to do things their way. If you're willing to plunk down real cash on some unsexy upgrades—sound mechanical systems, up-to-date sewers, energy-efficient windows and appliances—you can get ahead of the curve, and your house will be move-in ready for the New York or Los Angeles couple with two kids and no time to abate their own asbestos. It's not the same kind of sweat as is achieved on the business end of a paint roller—but do you think the Donald ever saw a paint roller?

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