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For two days, as the calendar flipped from May to June, Renee Wallace lived in a tent. She set up camp on a sidewalk in Whitehall, Ohio, and waited.

To be clear, Wallace has a home, which she loves. That’s why she needed to rough it outside the door of the Whitehall municipal building for two days — she was first in line for a first-come, first-served home rehabilitation program, in which Whitehall residents could be reimbursed for up to $7,500 in property improvements. On Monday, June 1, at 8 a.m., Wallace was the first to turn in her application, securing her future reimbursement (pending a few meetings and completion of the project). The money was all spoken for less than 5 minutes later.

“Our waiting list pretty much started at 5 minutes,” said Gail Martineau, a Whitehall spokeswoman. “I told people not to be discouraged, we will work our way down the wait list.”

Renee Wallace's home

Renee Wallace’s home

Applicants must front the money for their remodeling projects and complete them within a year in order to receive their reimbursement. The grants cover half the remodeling expenses, up to $7,500, but the home improvements must fit a specific set of criteria.

“[It’s] all stuff that you can see from the street, because we want to make a visible difference in the community,” Martineau said. Painting, new windows, siding, front landscaping, front porches — work that would improve the curb appeal of the property. This year, applicants could include driveway work in their projects and receive 25% of the cost in reimbursement. Applications are only available to residents whose annual household income does not exceed $125,000.

The program started last year, and Robert Miller’s wife, Linda Powell, was one of the people in line. In fact, she was the last person to submit an application before the wait list started.

“We lucked out,” Miller said. He and Powell were watching the 11 o’clock news (a rare event in their household) one night last summer and heard about the program. “We looked at each other and she said, ‘Do you think I should go down there in the morning?'” Powell got up at 4:30 a.m. the next day, and when she got to the municipal building, she was 25th in line. This year, Martineau estimates the city will fund reimbursements for between 25 and 27 projects.

Putting the Money to Work

Wallace heard about the program too late last year and missed the opportunity. She lives in one of the oldest homes in Whitehall (a fact she attributes to the Whitehall Historical Society). Wallace’s house was built in 1910 and was part of the Underground Railroad, and the history is part of what she loves so much about it, but old homes can take a lot of time and money to fix up and maintain.

Her plan is to replace windows and siding — many of the windows in Wallace’s home are original, leaving her home very cold in the winter.

“Those old houses are so drafty and cold, and I’m looking forward to a warm winter,” Wallace said.

Miller and Powell replaced windows and their front door, in addition to painting the house and landscaping the front. Miller is a school teacher and did most of the work during his summer break. Their renovations took about 2 1/2 months and cost about $11,000 — by November, Miller had turned in the receipts, the city audited the project and Miller and Powell received their reimbursement check for half their expenses.

miller-powell house

Robert Miller & Linda Powell’s home

The couple financed part of the project through the window and door company they used, and they received a six-month 0% financing period. They repaid the costs during that period with their reimbursement, so they didn’t have to pay interest on their materials.

Just as the city program hoped, homeowners near Miller’s house were inspired by his renovations and made some improvements to their properties, too, enhancing the look of the neighborhood. Such renovations tend to increase property values, and by extension, property taxes, but Miller said that hasn’t happened yet.

“Part of the city agreement is that they will do no special assessment,” he said. “We had our three-year review about a month before we started the project so we still have about two years before those will go up.”

While making home improvements is a great way to increase your property value, it’s always important to weigh the costs of renovations against the benefits. It can be quite an undertaking — getting estimates, applying for permits, staying within your budget — so make sure you’re in a place where you feel you can financially absorb the impact of the project. If you need to apply for financing, you’ll want to know where your credit score stands, because the better your credit is, the more likely you’ll be able to secure affordable financing terms. You can get two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com and updated every 14 days to monitor for important changes.

More on Mortgages & Homebuying:

Main image: Renee Wallace; inset images courtesy Renee Wallace & Robert Miller/Linda Powell

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