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Software packages help you design a project, but the learning curve is steep.

If you're looking to build your dream house -- or planning to add on or remodel -- software that helps you design the project on your PC may sound like a fun way to streamline the process. But using home-design software is more like getting seriously involved with a hobby. Figure a day to rough out the design of the house with the software, and add in several days to master the tools and techniques needed for the finishing touches. The process requires concentrated learning, not multitasking.

If you're a frustrated architect, this may be a hobby you'll enjoy, and you'll be able to design your perfect home in detail. Otherwise, using the software will just be work -- although the fruits of your labors will at least help clarify your thinking and lay out some possibilities.

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Reality check

Don't expect that your designs will replace a builder's plans. "People think that what they have from this software is construction-ready," says Craig Knott, a designer-builder and member of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI). The reality is that designs must comply with local building codes and requirements, and your plan probably won't consider crucial details. For example, says Jerry Roelofs, a Minneapolis remodeler, "the software takes the wall out, but it doesn't tell you that you're eliminating a structural necessity that carries all the plumbing and electrical work to the floor above."

The range in home software is as wide as the range in price -- from $20 to more than $250. Some programs let you design in three dimensions after you've built the basic structure in two dimensions. Many come with landscaping software and budget-estimating features, as well as a tool to paste digital images into your designs.

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The friendliest programs -- and the best priced -- are Individual Software's Total 3D Home Deluxe 8.0 (www.individualsoftware.com; $40) and Home & Landscape Design Suite 8.0 ($50). Instead of drawing walls, you drag room blocks onto a plan and adjust their size. Your choice of design tools and ability to customize are more limited than with pricier programs, but the software offers easy navigation, a useful video tutorial to get you started and a handy budgeting tool that automatically lists the costs of objects in your plan.

Total 3D Home's other features include a product catalog, a gallery of lavish home-design photos and images of real rooms that you can manipulate by changing colors and materials.

Detail work

For more exacting plans, you'll need a more sophisticated -- and expensive -- program. The devil is in the details, and the ability to control those details makes Punch Software's popular lineup stand out. It includes Professional Home Design Platinum Version 8 and Home Design Architectural Series 4000 (www.punchsoftware.com; $100 and $250, respectively). These include a variety of specifically focused design tools, such as a cabinet wizard for adjusting the wood color, size and angle of cabinetry, and a topography designer for adding precise slopes to your home lot. A free demonstration of Punch's Professional Home Design Platinum is available on the company's Web site. A more detailed "site planner" included in the Architectural Series lets you re-create the exact dimensions of your lot.

For software with a good range of design tools that also comes with decorating and design advice, try the Better Homes and Gardens line of home-design software by Chief Architect. This includes Home Designer Suite 6.0 and Home Designer Deluxe (www.homedesignersoftware.com; $100 and $150, respectively). You'll find a feature comparison on the Web site. These programs have meaty tips sections with decorating advice from Better Homes and Gardens editors. For example, if you want to stick with a country-cottage style, they tell you how. You'll be able to access guidelines, such as the suggested widths of doorways and hallways. Deluxe has a photo gallery for inspiration.