Many of those luxurious touches that make a custom home so beautiful can be applied to your own house, no matter how humble.
Upgrading your home doesn't require a fortune, and you don't need to do it overnight -- but you do need a plan.
"First impressions are made in 30 seconds, so spend your money where it makes the biggest impact," advises Susan Patti, co-owner of Heritage Interiors in Fallston.
Most starter homes, particularly townhouses or tract houses, have what are known as builder-grade fixtures. Every house on the block, for example, has the same bathroom sink and hall light because the builder got them cheap by buying in quantity.
A custom home, on the other hand, is full of distinctive touches such as fancy moldings, unusual painted finishes, brass fixtures and six-panel doors. Most importantly, custom homes have built-in focal points such as a fireplace or dramatic windows.
You can create your own with a little ingenuity. For instance, you could make the living room sofa wall the center of attraction.
To accomplish this, Ms. Patti recommends spending your money on the best sofa you can afford, a big piece of art and some wallpaper and moldings.
Ms. Patti, who teaches a class on customizing non-custom homes through Harford Community College, suggests running a wallpaper border up both sides and along the ceiling. For extra panache, edge the border with a very narrow molding.
The rest of the room can be upgraded as your budget allows.
Floors should be on the bottom of your list. Ms. Patti says one client loathed her dark carpeting so much she was tempted to blow her entire budget to replace it.
Instead, Ms. Patti persuaded her to invest in new draperies and wallpaper. The carpet has since faded into the background.
The crowning touch for many rooms is a beautiful molding at the ceiling or floor. A chair rail can also make an attractive accent.
Molding sales have tripled in the last few years and so have the choices, says Mark McGrath, sales manager of Hechinger Inc.'s Largo Center store.
There's even a line of pre-painted vinyl moldings that are very easy to use and cost about half as much as wood moldings.
If you plan to stain the molding, you will need a good quality hardwood with an attractive grain. If you're going to paint it, a cheaper molding will do just fine, says Mr. McGrath.
Ornate moldings can be custom-ordered but are probably too difficult for the average homeowner to install, he says.
If you add new ceiling and floor moldings, you can keep your existing window and door trim, but they will look better if they're repainted to match the new moldings.
When planning your upgrades, keep in mind that home decorating is a fickle business: Today's "in" colors may well be obsolete in six months.
When interior designer Kathleen Slayton-Berkowitz built her bi-level house about 15 years ago, she outfitted one full bath with lime green tile, basin, toilet and tub and another bathroom in bright baby blue -- two colors she says look woefully dated today.
Mrs. Slayton-Berkowitz, a designer with Alexander Baer Associates, says she was determined not to make the same blunder in her new powder room. The vanity is the only fixture with a strong color: It's laminated in a classic burgundy. The sink, toilet and tile floor are off-white. If styles change, the room can be inexpensively updated by changing wallpaper and repainting the woodwork.
Dated fixtures can be somewhat disguised, however, by pairing them with complementary colors. To reduce the impact of the lime green in the one bathroom, Mrs. Slayton-Berkowitz painted the ceiling a bright red and framed it with a border that went with the new wallpaper she installed.
"The red draws your eye up, it is so unexpected, and detracts from the green," she says. A shower curtain in the same pattern as the wallpaper completes the disguise. In the other bath, the blue will be toned down with peach paint and accessories.
Beware of trendiness not only in bathroom fixtures, but in any big ticket item, says Mrs. Slayton-Berkowitz. Buy the best you can afford and buy it in a neutral color, she says.
Ms. Patti agrees. A sofa in a durable neutral fabric will last longer than one in a trendy patterned chintz. Besides being subject to the whims of fashion, chintz does not always wear well.
Chintz fabric might instead be used to make inexpensive pillows, table cloths and curtains.
Custom window treatments can take a big chunk out of a budget. You can cut costs considerably by combining homemade swags with ready-made sheers. Visit your local fabric store to find a simple swag pattern -- a project that's easy enough for most seamstresses. Shop carefully for sheers -- the very cheapest have an ugly shine that should be avoided at all costs.