Where do I get information on housing market stats?
A real estate agent is a good source for finding out the status of the local housing market. So is your statewide association of Realtors, most of which are continuously compiling such statistics from local real estate boards. For overall housing statistics, U.S. Housing Markets regularly publishes quarterly reports on home building and home buying. Your local builders association probably gets this report. If not, the housing research firm is located in Canton, Mich.; call (800) 755-6269 for information; the firm also maintains an Internet site. Finally, check with the U.S. Bureau of the Census in Washington, D.C.; (301) 763-2422. The census bureau also maintains a site on the Internet. The Chicago Title company also has published a pamphlet, "Who's Buying Homes in America." Write Chicago Title and Trust Family of Title Insurers, 171 North Clark St., Chicago, IL 60601-3294.

How do you increase the value of your property?
The biggest factor that can affect property value -- market conditions -- are outside of your control. But other factors -- including the condition of the property, certain home improvements and neighborhood stability and safety -- are not. For example, specific home improvements can increase your property value above the cost of the improvements themselves, such as remodeling a kitchen, adding a bathroom, finishing a basement or upgrading landscaping. Just be sure that quality pays with remodeling. A bad remodeling job will do little to boost your property value. If you live in a high-crime area, an organized community watch program not only will lower the crime rate but can enhance property values, too. It also helps to live in an area where other homeowners are upgrading their homes, which can help pull up your property value, too. The bottom line is to measure the cost of any improvements you want to make against the overall values in your neighborhood. If you over improve for the neighborhood, you may not necessarily recover your costs or boost your property value significantly.

What are the standard ways of finding out how much a home is worth?
A comparative market analysis and an appraisal are the standard methods for determining a home's value. Your real estate agent will be happy to provide a comparative market analysis, an informal estimate of value based on comparable sales in the neighborhood. Be sure you get listing prices of current homes on the market as well as those that have sold. You also can research this yourself by checking on recent sales in public records. Be sure that you are researching properties that are similar in size, construction and location. This information is not only available at your local recorder's or assessor's office but also through private companies and on the Internet. An appraisal, which generally costs $200 to $300 to perform, is a certified appraiser's opinion of the value of a home at any given time. Appraisers review numerous factors including recent comparable sales, location, square footage and construction quality.

What is the difference between market value and appraised value?
The appraised value of a house is a certified appraiser's opinion of the worth of a home at a given point in time. Lenders require appraisals as part of the loan application process; fees range from $200 to $300. Market value is what price the house will bring at a given point in time. A comparative market analysis is an informal estimate of market value, based on sales of comparable properties, performed by a real estate agent or broker. Either an appraisal or a comparative market analysis is the most accurate way to determine what your home is worth.

How can I improve the value of my property?
The biggest factor outside of a homeowners control is market conditions. But other issues -- including the condition of the property, specific home improvements and neighborhood stability and safety -- can influence property values. The greatest rise in home prices occurs when the economy is strong and the number of home sales is increasing. Though markets vary, that has occurred several times in recent history -- including the early 1970s, late 1980s and late 1990s. Specific home improvements can increase the value above the cost of the improvements. According to Remodeling magazine, which publishes an annual "Cost vs. Value" remodeling report, a remodeled bathroom returns 81 percent to the owner, a bathroom addition, 89 percent and a master bedroom suite, 82 percent. Remember, quality pays. Well-planned and well-executed remodeling jobs are a good investment while bad work seldom enhances value or livability. The safety and security of a neighborhood can affect property values, too. If you live in a high-crime area, an organized community watch program not only will lower the crime rate but give home values a boost, too.

Should I add on or buy a bigger home?
Consider these questions before making a choice between adding on to an existing home or moving up in the market to a bigger house:
* How much money is available, either from cash reserves or through a home improvement loan, to remodel the current house?
* How much additional space is required? Would the foundation support a second floor or does the lot have room to expand on the ground level?
* What do local zoning and building ordinances permit?
* How much equity already exists in the property?
* Are there affordable properties for sale that would satisfy housing needs?
Ultimately, the decision should be based on individual needs, the extent of work involved and what will add the most value.

What kind of return is there on remodeling jobs?
Remodeling magazine produces an annual "Cost vs. Value Report'' that answers just that question. The most important point to remember is that remodeling a home not only improves its livability for you but its curb appeal with a potential buyer down the road.
Most recently, the highest remodeling paybacks have come from updating kitchens and baths, home-office additions and extra amenities in older homes. While home offices are a relatively new remodeling trend, for example, you could expect to recoup 58 percent of the cost of adding a home office, according to the survey.