If, like the Ringelsteins, you're eager to put your house on the market now, don't get too carried away. Focus on three areas that, with some smart upgrades, will make your house stand out among a legion of competitors, maximize your sale price–and can be completed quickly enough to get your place out there in time for the busy summer selling season.

Make your home more energy efficient. Last December, a Yahoo Real Estate Horizons survey found that half of all potential homebuyers said their next home must be energy efficient. That was the top-ranked attribute in the survey, above such niceties as water views, woodland settings, and gated communities. (Primary attributes like school quality and property taxes were not included.)

So make some quick, fairly inexpensive green changes that can help you–and the next owner of your home–save money. A programmable thermostat, for instance, stands out on a listing sheet and is relatively easy to install. "People shopping for value recognize it as a good thing to have," says Laura Reedy Stukel, an agent at her family's L. W. Reedy Real Estate in Elmhurst.

Green value analysis

Here are the costs and resulting savings for six common energy-saving improvements, starting with the one that offers the biggest payback.

Improvement Cost Yearly savings
Add a programmable thermostat $50 $131
Insulate attic/roof $1,000 $300
Install high-efficiency gas furnace $1,000 $66-$180
Install more efficient central air conditioning $1,400 $40-$70
Insulate exterior walls $2,500 $90-$350
Install solar panels $12,000 $259-$863

Energy Impact Illinois, an alliance of municipalities and gas companies that have partnered with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, says you can buy such a thermostat for as little as $50–and then enjoy annual energy savings of $131. Spend another $25 to wrap your water heater or upgrade to a low-flow showerhead; those purchases will pay for themselves in about a year. (For more green improvements that can reduce your energy bill and help sell your home, visit energyimpactillinois.org.)

The Ringelsteins took their quest to go green to the next level by hiring Naperville's Effortless Efficiency to conduct a thorough audit of their energy use. Following the company's advice, the couple plugged small gaps in walls and foundations and added insulation to basement walls, the attic, and around every pipe coming into the home. Expect to pay about $3,000 for those upgrades, says Beau D'Arcy of Effortless Efficiency. (Because it was a pilot run for his company, the Ringelsteins didn't pay that much.) The improvements, says D'Arcy, should cut the home's energy bills by several hundred dollars a year, which would mean they would pay for themselves in five or six years–the likely tenure of the next owners. "That should sound really good to a young couple looking at this house versus some others," says Rich Ringelstein.

Refresh, don't remodel. Remember, you're not looking to completely overhaul your home. Our experts advocated self-restraint, especially when it comes to kitchens and baths. Make select changes that have an immediate impact. "New kitchen countertops do the trick," says Floss, "but you don't need the expensive materials." That's not what people are looking for. Ian Bayne, a Chicago home appraiser, concurs, adding that it's better to invest in new countertops than new cabinets. "You can refinish those [for the cost of sanding and staining supplies] and they look just as good," he says.

As for appliances, make sure they are uniform. For instance, if everything is stainless steel except the white dishwasher, replace it with a stainless steel model (starting at about $400). Don't feel that you have to buy the high-end one (upward of $1,500). "Stainless steel is expected now, but all the bells and whistles aren't," says Floss, who adds that he doesn't see appliances getting name-checked in listing sheets as often now as five years ago.

Opt for inexpensive fixes in bathrooms as well. Certain cosmetic changes–such as new towel racks, toilet seats, and light fixtures–can instantly brighten up those spaces. And don't worry about painting the whole interior of the house in a neutral color, says Jonathan Rubenstein, a painting and remodeling contractor based in Highland Park. (Disclosure: Rubenstein is a friend of mine.) Instead, he suggests repainting only those walls that look dingy or have eccentric colors. Another quick fix, adds Bayne, is plugging old cable holes and other dings with putty and then painting over the patches. "That goes a long way on the quality-of-construction notes–for about $10," he says.

Ratchet up the curb appeal. "When you get a showing, you want to maximize the entire experience," says Stukel–and that begins at the front door. A sales agent "will spend a couple minutes there looking for the keys," she says. "That's a time when [potential buyers] will be looking around. What do they see?" What they should see, she adds, is a freshly stained or painted door and some potted plants.

Pay close attention to your yard; attractive landscaping can add up to 10 percent to the value of your home. "But don't make it look like it's high maintenance," warns Floss. That will only cause would-be buyers to wonder what a landscape service will cost them.

Treat the lawn with a reliable weed killer and a healthy dose of fertilizer, trim any grass that encroaches on the sidewalk or driveway, and get shrubs and trees professionally trimmed (typically, a small job can be done for about $300). Spruce up the deck by power-washing and restaining it. "It looks brand-new for a few hundred dollars," Floss says, and the ultimate payoff can be a quick sale. "The better your house shows," he concludes, "the less money buyers think they have to put into it when they move in."