NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Countless Americans about to put their homes on the market have shared the same moment of regret. After sprucing up their house in preparation for potential buyers, they stand back and think: “Gee, I wish it was this nice while we were living here.”

That kick-yourself moment passes quickly if you’ve simply tidied up or painted the front hall. But it can be a lasting regret if you’ve finally installed central air conditioning or remodeled the kitchen – which really would have made the home much nicer for you while living there.

So what’s the best time for an upgrade? As soon as you get the urge or as late as possible? Right now, sooner may make more sense.

On a purely financial basis, delay has merits. Most sizeable improvements cost more than they add in resale value, so it may make sense to never do the job, or to let your upgrade fund grow in an investment for as long as possible. After all, by waiting and saving up, you may be able to afford a stunning one-time improvement.

But there’s a case for an early redo, too. It may well be cheaper to fix up or expand the place you are in than to move, especially today, when your home may take forever to sell and fetch a disappointing price.

Some improvements, like insulation, better windows or a new furnace, air conditioner or water heater, will also save energy costs, so the longer you enjoy that savings, the better.

Because the home-building market is in the dumps, you may also find that eager contractors will do your job for less than after the market perks up.

Furthermore, for many jobs, about half the cost is labor. Take that cost away by doing the work yourself and the improvement might well add more resale value than it costs. Since do-it-yourself jobs usually take longer, that’s another reason to start your improvements sooner.

Also, by doing what you can yourself and pacing the jobs over a number of years, you may be able to pay as you go, which is much better than taking on debt for a big, professionally done project that may not add as much value as it costs.

Life’s uncertainty counts in the decision, too. What if you lose your job, are offered a better one out of town or find yourself starting a family earlier than planned? You’ll be glad to have the home in shape to put on the market if you find you have to sell quickly. It’s a buyer’s market today, so the place will need to look its best.

And of course, quality of life is important too, even if it can’t be measured in dollars and cents. Most of us spend a lot of time in our homes, so it should be pleasant for as long as possible.

So which jobs should you do first? A good real estate agent might offer some guidance on what other homes in your area – your competition – offer to buyers, and it could pay to go to a few open houses to see for yourself. Take a look at this list of improvements from Remodeling magazine, which show how much of each project’s cost is typically recovered on resale.

Projects that prevent deterioration should be done immediately, so be sure to fix or replace the leaky roof or plumbing, or the wiring that doesn’t meet today’s code.

If you’re not planning to sell in the immediate future, start your upgrades with the ones that affect your own life the most. The kitchen, family room and bedrooms should probably be improved before you redo a formal dining room that’s used only a few times a year.

Are you looking to make home improvements just to prepare for the cold weather? Check out MainStreet's look at How to Prepare Your Home for the Fall Season!