As a real estate agent, I've seen homes in many price ranges. But whether a house has a market value of $50,000 or $500,000, it's not the price tag but the personal touches that turn four sheetrock walls into a warm, welcoming room. If your kitchen needs some kick, or you want to make your boudoir more bewitching, we've found three excellent books to help you define and design your own distinctive spaces.

Decorating dilemmas For the economically minded or anyone else who wants a creative challenge, Trade Secrets from Use What You Have Decorating by Lauri Ward (Putnam, $27.95, 256 pages, ISBN 0399148094) is a delightful foray into inexpensive ideas and treatments that yield dramatic, room-changing results. Ward, who has her own decorating Web site ( and appears regularly in the national media as a design expert, shares her extensive knowledge in this unintimidating, "brass tacks" book. Having worked with hundreds of homeowners, she offers their real-life decorating dilemmas as examples of transformations that can be readily accomplished without great investments of time or money. And she offers tons of tips, like using unconventional curtain rods a hockey stick or a golf club in a sport fan's room, or a bamboo pole or dried tree branch in nature-oriented settings. But Ward's Trade Secrets is more than a list of decorating tips and tricks; there are solid chapters on basic fundamentals such as "Home Offices," "The Bottom Line on Flooring" and "Decorating with Paint and Paper." The illustrations are not lavish; they are simple black and white drawings, but they fit the thrifty tone and complement the simple, "you can do this too" approach for which Ward is known.

A sense of adventure If you need more visual appeal before you can be inspired to create, Tracy Porter's Home Style: Creative and Livable Decorating Ideas for Everyone by Tracy Porter contains enough sensuous, eye-catching photographs to stimulate even the most neutral-toned imagination. Still, plenty of space is left (whole pages) for Porter's ample lists of tips on topics like "Display Ideas," "Decorating Your Mantels" or (another of my favorites surprise, surprise) "Decorating with Books." Like Ward, Porter encourages you to take interesting pieces you may already have and use them in new and adventuresome ways. For example, she proposes hanging an heirloom chandelier in an unconventional spot in a nursery or over a bathtub or using a vintage screen door as an interior door, where an airy, inviting and unusual feature would say "Welcome!" An added bonus to this book is the final section that gives how-to instructions on many of the exquisite little treasures found in the earlier pages, like her "Make and Create" drawerpulls, lampshades or switch plates, most of which can be accomplished with your own household "finds" and a hot-glue gun.

Achieving real style Straight Talk on Decorating by Lynette Jennings (Meredith, $34.95, 240 pages, ISBN 0696211084) is angled toward a more "mature" budget, but Jennings, host of Discovery Channel's Lynette Jennings Design, brings her warm, witty, conversational tone to the pages of this practical, unpretentious "production." Her own homes in Toronto and Atlanta are featured in sumptuous photos, as she explains why each room works to satisfy both the elements of pleasing design and the living requirements of real people. "Real style," she admonishes, "means being sure of who you are, how you want to live, and what you want for your loved ones." One of the most provocative portions of this book is Jennings' treatment of color. In debunking decorating myths, she encourages homeowners to go against traditional real estate wisdom and boldly paint those safe, white "easy sell" walls. She argues that a beautiful home, "a home full of colorful personality. . . will be the most memorable, intriguing, and valuable to a prospective buyer." And, I have to admit the photographs in this book make a mighty good case for her "go ahead and give it some color" arguments. In fact, real estate agents take note any of these books would make great house-warming gifts to pass to your clients at closing, along with the keys to their new homes!

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