Homeowners used to worry about whether they could get their money back if they remodeled their house. No more. Now remodeling is a lifestyle choice rather than an investment decision.

"We've seen a major shift in the homeowner's thinking process," said Mark Richardson, president of Case Remodeling, the Washington area's largest remodeler. "People are now making remodeling decisions based on 'What's in it for me?' more than 'What will my return on this investment be?' "

"Following the general trend that 'this is my home, not just an investment,' people are investing more in projects that square with that thinking," Richardson said. Thus, master bedroom suites have become very popular, up from fourth or fifth in popularity just five years ago, he said. Luxury bathroom projects also are big, as are family-room additions with kitchen re-dos.

"People are remodeling their homes in ways that are better suited to their modern, informal lifestyle," said Bruce Wentworth, the architect half of Wentworth-Levine Architect Builder Inc. in Silver Spring. "Kitchens are being opened, the family room is very important. People are not so concerned with formal living rooms and dining rooms anymore."

In the kitchen, high-end appliances are becoming the norm. "Sub-Zero fridges, Viking stoves, Sub-Zero drawers in the cabinets," Wentworth said. "It's these choices that are driving prices up."

Wentworth said clients often want granite countertops in the kitchen, even in modest houses where the stone seems ostentatious, he said. He said homeowners also are choosing stainless-steel fronts on dishwashers and stoves.

"They say they want these things because they're easy to care for and are very low-maintenance," Wentworth said. "But a lot of it is status."

"In years past, the bulk of the money spent for a kitchen remodel was on the cabinetry, perhaps 50 to 60 percent of the cost of the kitchen," Richardson said. "Now the cabinetry might be only 20 to 25 percent of the job. More money is going into countertops, appliances and flooring than ever before."

Preferences in kitchen cabinetry also are increasing costs, Wentworth said. "People are choosing more natural woods for their cabinets. Not just white, but also stained cherry, maple or bird's-eye maple for their cabinets."

Basements have also become a much more popular renovation, since it's the most economical way to gain square footage in an older house, remodelers said. "It's being looked at as a ground floor rather than a cellar nowadays," Richardson said. "It's much less expensive to finish a basement than put an addition on. And you're not eating up your yard."

Lots of money is being spent on changing the detailing of the front of older houses. Columns, railings and pickets are all being added in an effort to increase curb appeal, remodelers report.

Whatever the project, one thing is certain: Billions of dollars are being spent daily fixing up older houses around the nation.

"It's always more expensive than people realize," Wentworth said. "And it takes longer than they ever realized."

CAPTION: Jerry Levine, left, and Bruce Wentworth of the firm Wentworth-Levine at a job site in Vienna.