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Originally published Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Web tools for home-improvement projects

There are myriad computer programs for budding home decorators, but can be costly and difficult to master. Fortunately, several free Web-based applications and some relatively inexpensive options are available to help you test home-makeover ideas.

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Interior decorating takes an eye for color, a knack for what makes a space both functional and attractive, and the mental stamina to visualize the seemingly endless ways to stylishly transform a room.

There are myriad computer programs for budding home decorators who might need some help visualizing the possibilities, but they can cost anywhere from under $100 to several hundred dollars for the most sophisticated packages. And mastering them often takes serious time.

Fortunately, several free Web-based applications and some relatively inexpensive options are available to help you test home-makeover ideas.

Make no mistake, these tools fall short compared to professional home-design software, but if you're having trouble picturing how that designer mauve velvet sofa might mix with that ticky-tacky coffee table, these sites might help you visualize the combo, at least on your computer.

Swatchbox Technologies is behind several of these free Web applications, many of which function as marketing tools for manufacturers such as Armstrong (windows), Benjamin Moore (paints) and Kohler (bathroom fixtures).

One of Swatchbox's more comprehensive design tools is the DesignMyRoom application.

Users can select from dozens of images of kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms, dens — all functioning as a canvas for decorating.

Some of the rooms come "furnished" with basic cabinetry or fitted with doors and windows. The tool may not cater to every floor plan, however. The idea is to find a reasonable facsimile.

The tool is fairly straightforward to use. Simply use the computer mouse to select decorative features from a menu and drag them into the virtual room.

DesignMyRoom's decorating palette, by contrast, allows for plenty of virtual options based on real products, with prices conveniently listed. Among them: Kohler faucets and lighting fixtures, KitchenAid appliances, Smith+Noble window treatments, Horchow furniture and even art prints.

Pop-up windows let you select colors and styles for the various products.

When it comes time to deck out the room with virtual accouterment, however, the end result is less 3-D, more pop-up book. A tool for rotating the flat images at different angles doesn't help.

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The Better Homes and Gardens Web site hosts a few home-decorating widgets, including one dubbed Arrange-a-Room.

The interactive application is more powerful as a planning tool than as a means to weigh the aesthetic quality of your decorating scheme because it employs simple illustrations as stand-ins for such design elements as furniture.

Arrange-a-Room users can select from a handful of room shapes and lengthen walls according to specific dimensions, creating a small-scale floor plan.

Furniture, floor coverings and the like can also be sized to get a good idea of how much walking space you might have if you put a king-size bed and a giant TV in the bedroom, for example.

On the site's Color-a-Room widget, you can change hues in furniture, walls, drapes and other elements in still photos. The Try-a-Window-Treatment application is also limited to playing with colors.

Another free application that has potential for room layout planning is SeeMyDesign. It gives users a little more flexibility for creating room shapes.

If you're looking for a powerful yet easy to use alternative to some expensive interior design programs, try Plan3D's design software. It's not free, but it's cheaper than many software programs — but the clock will be ticking.

It costs $15.95 to use for 30 days, or just under $3 a month, or $35.40, for year's subscription.

Plan3D has the look and feel of an animated computer game, like "The Sims," where you can build a virtual home and fill it up with countless pieces of furniture, musical instruments and even people.

Plan3D lets you place dogs and people inside the home, like a virtual but intricate doll house, if you will. The software uses the Web connection to access a trove of 3-D images of furniture, windows, appliances, lighting fixtures and such.

These items can be sized to reflect small-scale dimensions. The interface is a breeze to use and allows for near 360-degree views of their design. You can even open and shut refrigerator and cabinet doors to check for clearance.

I created a mock-up of my living room in about 30 minutes, finding reasonably similar pieces of furniture. A lighting feature helped give some sense of shadows from light fixtures.

The program converted my 3-D virtual room into a blueprint-like rendering with dimensions built in for every feature.

Kristin Kilmer, owner of Kristin Kilmer Design in Los Angeles, says such applications can help, as an exercise in mixing and matching ideas, but shouldn't be relied upon too much because they don't account well, if at all, for key design variables such as lighting and shadows.

Even tools that employ branded swatches of paint, curtains or flooring can be deceiving — how they appear on the computer monitor can vary from one computer to the next.

"You can't get the color of the finish on the computer," Kilmer says. "You need to see the actual finish."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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