Once a person is ready to buy, the industry can be extremely overwhelming. What is your best advice for those looking to buy a home or refinance this year?

In either case, you’ll need to find out about home values in your area. You can learn a lot online at sites such at Trulia, Zillow and Realtor.com. Before refinancing, check your credit score; by law,  anyone can get this information at no charge once a year. Check credit bureau reports carefully for errors — this is your chance to correct any negative information before potential lenders see it.  Do what you can to reduce household debt before talking to lenders. It’s definitely not a good time to get a new car loan.

This year, tighter lending standards and fewer qualifying buyers should keep the market from overheating. It will be more of a buyers’ market in many areas, which means more properties to choose from and less pressure to rush into a deal. Take your time and benefit from today’s favorable interest rates and ample selection.

How important is preparation and education for homebuyers when entering the market?

The more you know going in, the more you can avoid chasing homes that aren’t right for you. First of all, make a list of what you and your family really need in your new home, along with a wish list of non-essentials you’d like to have. Online research is very helpful, but there’s no substitute for exploring actual homes and neighborhoods. Talk to a few real estate agents to find one you’d like to work with,  and drill all of them about the local market. Drive around, go to open houses, talk to area residents about what’s good and not-so-good. How are the schools? The traffic? Access to shops and other amenities? Is crime an issue?

If you’re looking to buy, be sure to get preapproved for financing, not just prequalified.  This will not only tell you how much you can borrow, it will also let you proceed more quickly when you find a home you like, giving you an edge over buyers who are not as prepared.

Renovating your home can be a costly endeavor. What is your advice for those looking to avoid high costs during this process?

Do as much research as possible to determine exactly what you want. You can learn a lot about design and construction from magazines, websites and home renovation shows like ours. Consider your options beforehand and you’ll avoid costly changes later. Anticipate less obvious costs the project may require, such as building permits and improvements beneath the surface — for example, adding insulation, improving structure or upgrading HVAC.

Get at least three bids and remember that the lowest usually isn't the best. Establish a budget and make sure it contains a contingency of at least 10 percent  to allow for unforeseen problems. You can also negotiate incentives for completing the project on time or early. Get everything in writing and ensure your contractor is licensed.

What do you believe are the top home improvement investments that can add value to your home?

Historically, the biggest bang-for-the-buck areas have been the kitchen and the bathroom. These can be big-ticket projects, but sometimes smaller changes have a large impact — for example, giving the kitchen a new tile backsplash and energy-efficient appliances, the bathroom a double-sink vanity and glass shower enclosure and either room fresh fixtures, lighting, counters, or flooring. An attic or basement space with good dimensions and access may make a cost-effective bonus room that can serve as a playroom, studio, or home theater. Anything that cuts energy and water use, from improved insulation to low-flow toilets, will pay for itself over time.

"Consider your options beforehand and you’ll avoid costly changes later."

Look at your home through the eyes of a potential buyer. Removing a wall can create a more attractive flow of space and light. Replace tired carpeting with more contemporary wood flooring. Maximize closet and storage space with well-designed shelving and other built-in organizers. Take advantage of the outdoor living trend by adding or improving a deck or patio, enhancing it with outdoor lighting, latticework walls, and built-in storage that can double as benches or a buffet for dining al fresco.

You are both experts when it comes to turning the average house into a dream home.  What do you recommend for those looking to do a DIY renovation?

Know your abilities and get the right tools and materials for the job. Keep the project small or tackle it in manageable stages, or your DIY dream could turn into a nightmare. Paint is one of the cheapest and most effective ways to freshen up your home. With careful preparation, most of us can handle painting or staining projects, from walls to trim to cabinets. It’s not hard to change light fixtures, faucets, cabinet knobs or window treatments—skills useful to every homeowner. And it’s easy to boost curb appeal with new plants, more attractive entrance lighting, and, for the front door, new paint in a fresh color.

Another prime DIY project: adding attic insulation and weather-stripping around doors and windows. If you’re handy or willing to study the basics, replacing tile or putting in simple bookshelves, baseboards, or crown molding is well within reach. But for anything more complicated, you're best to bring in a professional.