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Free interactive tools and software

If you merely want to try out some fun tools, you don't have to pay for home design software. A number of online applications let you fool around with home design for free.

Google SketchUp is a free program worth checking out since it gets excellent reviews. SketchUp is a free download that lets you draw 3D images. There are plentiful tools, and you can even design a skyscraper. For help, you can pull items like appliances or windows (or entire houses) from a virtual warehouse that other users have added items to. Recent images include a ping-pong table and an antique French mirror. When you're finished, drop your creation into Google Earth to see how it fits into your neighborhood. Video tutorials and user guides help you get going. You can also get information from SketchUp user groups that contain thousands of members. There is a SketchUp version for Mac users, and a professional version is also available: Google SketchUp Pro (*est. $495).

Besides Google SketchUp, more free interactive tools have popped up on the Internet. Many of these have very specific applications, so About.com guide Coral Nafie suggests checking out several options. For example, you can try out different swatches of color in model rooms or estimate the cost of a painting project at Pittsburgh Paints' website.

The Lowe's website has several interactive design tools, including a kitchen designer, a paint visualizer and a room designer. There are also how-to videos, extensive buying guides and a library with step-by-step guides.

At HGTVKitchenDesign.com you can use 3D design tools to drag and drop products like Viking ranges into virtual rooms.

HGTVBathDesign.com also has design tools that you can use online to create a bathroom. There's also a large cache of useful how-to stories on renovating or designing your home as well as cost estimators at both HGTV sites.

SeeMyDesign.com also offers a free set of tools for designing room layouts. You can try out different floor styles, finishes and paints in a room. It's very basic, though, and only features certain name-brand paints.

As for interesting free interior-design software, one title worth checking out is DesignWorkshop Lite from Artifice software. This simple software lets you build any 3D model, and works on both Apple and Windows computers. Artifice does reserve tutorials and help features for its $20 CD-ROM, however.

The Do-It-Yourself cable network (DIY TV) has a free Room Planner tool on its website. As with the tools on the HGTV websites, you don't have to download anything -- you simply work online. You can select from a collection of objects in either rectangular or round shapes, which you can then drag around a square room. The tool can work pretty well if your room is square or rectangular. You can also add structural elements like windows and doors to your floor plan and create about 13 different rooms. However, this is strictly 2D line drawing -- there's no 3D mode.

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