Everyone knows this is the biggest bang for your buck. Just think how much time you and your family spend in the kitchen. Even if you are single and eat out of a can standing over the sink, if you plan on selling your house, everyone - and I mean everyone - looks at the kitchen with the most critical eye. The house could have tilted floors and a family of rats could greet you at the door with a list of requirements they need met... but, hey, is that granite?
It's not just the center of the house... but it's become a status symbol. If you don't have the dough for granite (good, I kind of hate granite - the shag carpeting of the 90s) you can find a solid-surface countertop that can look just as top notch, and immediately make your kitchen look amazing. Flooring comes after counters (please no peel-and-stick), and last... cabinet doors. If they are hideous - don't do what those morons on HGTV cite and "paint them!". Unless you hire a pro or really do the work to strip, sand, strip, sand again --- two coats of primer with sanding between, and two coats of high grade paint, sanded between coats -- if you don't want to do that ( and I've done it, and it's HARD )... hire a pro. Frankly, you would save money just buying new doors and hardware. And your kitchen is going to look SO much better for it.
You can go ahead and by new appliances if you have anything left... but honestly, if you spend it all on that new stainless fridge and set it next to your chipped formica counters and on top of the linoleum from the 50s, your kitchen is still going to look like ass. Counters, Floor, Cabinets... then whatevers left. A nice coat of paint you do yourself helps too, and can be done by the layman who is CAREFUL (also: please no painting over wallpaper!).
This is the next most important thing after the kitchen. If your house looks great and feels welcoming from the outside, buyers will be so much more forgiving of flaws on the inside. They are already picturing themselves living there amongst the nice brick walkways and rosebushes. You don't have to call in the Civil Engineering Corps to build you an elaborate system of concrete and flagstone hardscape, either. Paint (done right, for goddsakes - if you are lazy, please don't think you can do this yourself), cutting back the Black Forest that's grown up around your mailbox, pulling up that brick that's been patiently waiting to kill someone for the past year, and updating small things like porch lights. If you have the money... put it into hardscape first. Retaining walls done right in concrete. Brick laid by the pros. A couple of bigger ticket plants or shrubs. Replacing rotten materials like wood decks or planters... anything that might make someone driving by think that Hobos were squatting inside.
People can be slightly more forgiving of bathrooms as long as they don't look inherently dirty. It happens to all bathrooms.. they just look dingy after a few decades. Outdated tile can still be pretty (when it's still pretty, its called "vintage"!) if its been taken care of. However, this room in the house is a real pitfall when it comes to remodelling. People don't touch their bathroom for decades for a reason. It's called H2O. And it does bad, nasty things when it get into the walls and floors (many of which are built out of something called "wood"). Pulling out that shower wall full of ugly pink tile might seem like a good idea at first. Until you learn that all the studs are rotten and now need to be replaced. Or the plumbing was one more full bathtub away from creating an international incident. All bathroom remodels need to come with WARNING signs. If you want to remodel it without taking those kinds of risks (and following the rule of "lalalalalala - if I don't know about it its not real!") then bleach the crap out your grout and try and work with the tile colors if possible. Change out the fixtures, the bathroom vanity, medicine cabinet and the toilet. And, if you are feeling lucky, the floor. Because the floor is, indeed, one of those power surfaces in a bathroom. If you can find something neutral enough to make the tile seem not-so-bad, perfect. It will be new, you won't have opened those scary, scary walls... and you can leave the next person to go "Well, this isn't so bad in here. We just need to update the shower tile is all".
At this point, please refrain from cackling, rubbing your hands together and twirling your mustache. You're welcome.
Putting wood floors throughout your house is very expensive. And it's possible, always possible, that a buyer likes carpeting in the bedrooms (I know! What?!). So think carefully before spending that kind of money on your house. Carpet vs wood flooring is something that needs to be determined by what part of the country you live in and what the market is asking for. If your carpet is very bad and has a visual history of every college student since 1977... you might want to consider pulling it up -- or ...and this is a big or... leaving it for the buyer to deal with. Often this can be a dealbreaker, but if you need to put your money into the kitchen upgrade, that is where it should go. Carpet is a personal choice for a lot of people, and you can sometimes risk NOT putting money into flooring if your floors are terrible.
One area, however, you should deal with flooring in all cases, is the kitchen. Everyone hates bad, worn linoleum... across the board. Pull it up and lay tile. Real tile, not press-on pieces of vinyl. That stuff only looks good on HGTV shows where they have 12 hours to redo a kitchen. Trust me, they aren't showing what that s**t looks like in real life. It's NOT pretty.
This is an area of home remodelling that can be easy and cheap to deal with. Fixtures go out of style quickly, make sure you buy something timeless... and by that I don't mean that it looks like it was made in the 1800s. That's not timeless, that's just something you buy if you are opening a restaurant in Disneyland. Go for simple, with few extra lines and bevels and scrolly crap all over it, something that a buyer can imagine in any style or setting. Preferrably, something the buyer won't notice at all. Nice door handles, sleek wall sconces, brushed nickel faucets... these small touches feel expensive without the buyer even noticing why.
This goes without saying. How many times have you felt oppressed or disgusted by the paint choices in a house? It's nice to want to express yourself, but only do that if you have no plans to move. I'm not advocating bland, boring neutral tones...but I am suggesting that colors be chosen that do not shout. No jewel tones, no bright tones, no dark tones... stick to middle tones... only darkening if the room has a lot of natural light and windows. If you want a vibrant color, stick to one wall only and accent an existing color. Walls with doors in them, or walls broken by large paintings or openings are good for these kinds of accents.
Materials & Installation
This applies throughout your house. Good paint, good wood, good tile, good fabric choices... these things can be used in small doses for large effect. Spend the extra money on a strip of gorgeous $45/sqft glass tile and accent the cheaper $3/sqft subway tile from the bargain bin at Home Depot with it. Choose one section (perhaps just behind your stovetop) of your kitchen backsplash and use something stunning and beautiful to juice up a plainer, ordinary tile that you could afford. When you do a countertop, you don't have to have granite... but don't waste money on formica or some pre-formed material that simply LOOKS cheap. Cheap materials drag your whole house down. Linoleum and astroturf start looking bad almost immediately - no matter how bad your house looked before. These materials do not leave a good impression, and even a buyer on the lowest budget will not want to buy something that makes them feel like is beneath them.
This may be more important in places where you can spend a lot of time outdoors (the warmer states), but everyone wants their home to have a front or backyard that they would want to spend time in. Entertaining areas like patios or decks add enormous value to a home when they are done right. Adequate square footage and materials that do not look like they were stolen from a junk lot near the railroad tracks make all the difference. Do not be stingy on materials when it comes to the outdoors, and trust me when I tell you: do it right. The outdoors has a way of pushing up bricks, bowing wood that hasn't been treated, knocking down walls that have inadequate foundations and peeling/stripping/cupping/bowing cheap wood decks. Good materials are expensive, but if you can't do it right, don't. A bad, spare, uneven concrete patio will devalue your home, not increase it.
Have you ever watched House Hunters? I'm not even gonna start on how many times I've seen a couple walk into a house with a ton of potential (great SQFTG, great open floor plan, great yard), look at the drapes and wrinkle their noses. It's insane, I know. Same with the paint. But emotional responses when it comes to a large ticket purchase like a home? People look at the drapes. Put some money into window treatments. Plantation shutters are expensive, and they look every inch of it. They elevate a home. Bowed, crappy looking curtain rods or dirty, office-building-style blinds? Nothing says "college students lived here" like bad window treatments.
Where NOT to Spend Money
It sounds awful, but if you have a limited budget and you are thinking of selling your house soon... don't spend your money on improvements that cannot be seen by a potential buyer. Things like bolting your foundation or getting a gas-shut-off valve in California HAVE to be done, but if you want to switch your house over to HVAC, don't. Even buyers who want these under-the-hood features in their house will be more emotionally invested in an open floor plan with an updated kitchen. If they love the countertops or the paint color makes them feel warm and cozy, they will be more likely think "we can just add HVAC in ourselves" and buy the house. That is far more likely than a buyer thinking about purchasing a home that has a kitchen they hate. Updating the plumbing with copper or upgrading the electrical is all well and good for someone who lives there, but it matters a lot less to someone who is pulling out their checkbook on a property they think is ugly.