Al Heavens is a Haddonfield, N.J.- based, nationally syndicated, home-improvement writer and author whose newspaper columns, magazine articles and books have been the first word on remodeling for 50 million readers for more than three decades. He is the author of What No One Ever Tells You About Renovating Your Home and Remodeling On The Money: Fifteen Innovative Projects Designed to Add Value to Your Home, and was “The Gadgeteer” on Discovery Channel’s Home Matters program.

You are thinking about making improvements to your house, but you don’t want to waste time and money on projects that will subtract rather than add value.

Your first thought is to check out what others are doing, so you turn to the Internet for an expert opinion. What you discover, however, is that no two experts seem to agree on what the most popular remodeling projects are.

Example: Money magazine says the No. 1 home-improvement project, which costs less than $4,000, is “floors and ceilings.”

Let me say that much of what I will cover in this post is a couple of years old. Many of the sources I’ll be quoting use an analysis of two-year-old data from the Census Bureau by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies in its “Improving America’s Housing” reports.

The Money story, published in 2020, uses the Joint Center’s 2019 report, based on 2017 Census Bureau data, for example.

Floors and ceilings? This improvement project, undertaken by 5.2 million homeowners, involves replacing carpeting, flooring, paneling or ceiling tiles, for an average cost of $3,283.

In the last 20 years, I have installed a ceramic-tile floor in a bathroom, a vinyl-tile floor in a kitchen, and an engineered-wood floor in my home office. These flooring jobs were part of larger and, in my opinion, more popular projects.

In order, the next nine most-popular projects according to Money are sinks and other fixtures (first-floor bathroom, 2011); time-saving kitchen appliances (Bosch dishwasher, 2018); windows and doors (home office pre-hung, 2011); water heater (if I had my way, our 50-gallon tank would be replaced by a gas-fired on-demand—just saying); roofing; lawn and landscape projects (built a new herb garden, installed a wood fence, 2017; rebuilt the greenhouse and added two raised beds, 2018); minor bathroom remodels (back to the first-floor bathroom), and electrical work (home office, 2011).

Comparing Money’s list and my house since 2011, I can safely say that I was ahead of the curve a couple of times, behind it a couple of times, and – forgive me – on the money the rest. Just FYI: I do clean the gutters and valleys and walk around the roof several times a year.

 Two years ago, my homeowners’ insurance carrier threatened to cancel my policy unless I removed moss from what turned out to be a four-by-six-foot patch of roof under one of my trees. I treated it with Wet and Forget. In a few weeks, the moss was a memory.

 I sent a photo to the insurer.

Inman.com, a real estate news site piloted by my friend Brad Inman, puts bathroom remodeling at the top, followed by kitchen projects, whole-house remodeling, other room additions, and door replacement.

That was in 2018, and it was based on a survey by the National Association of Home Builders. In previous years, kitchens had occupied the top spot.

The survey stated that people were more likely to remodel one or two rooms before starting any major projects, with small renovations becoming “just as popular as larger projects.”

There also was a trend among remodelers to install environmentally friendly appliances such as high-efficiency thermostats, reflective windows and new HVAC systems, according to a follow-up study by the builders’ group, Inman reported.

Although I would consider remodeling one or two rooms a major project, the builders’ survey does bear out some long-term statistics I have reported on over the years, based on what I’ve picked up at remodelers’ and builders’ shows.

Realtor magazine, the monthly publication of the National Association of Realtors, adds to the Inman list of projects from the same builders’ group survey.

The list continues with finished basements, repairing property damage; decks; bathroom additions; roofing; enclosed/added porch; handyman services; siding; second-story additions; enclosed/added garages; historic preservation, and finished attics.

Except for handyman services, the rest of the list seems pretty much on the mark. There have been at least two roofs replaced in our neighborhood in the last year; my neighbor had his garage sided in February because he just couldn’t keep up with painting it; finished attics are wonderful storage spaces as well as great for an extra bedroom or home office if the air is properly conditioned (heating and cooling), and garages are perfect for storage if not so much for parking your car.

Question: Why do people flock the home center to buy a snow shovel just before the first winter storm?

Answer: They cannot find the one they already own among all that junk in the garage.

One thing COVID-19 and sheltering in place may push to the top of the remodeling list is fitness rooms. The pandemic has exiled us from the gym. Fortunately, we have a designated place in our basement that I built three years ago, in the event snow or schedule kept us from the gym.

Since the start of the pandemic, our gym is offering Zoom and Facebook Live workouts. Fortunately, our fitness room has a place for a computer screen, as well as a wall of mirrors so we can keep an eye on how close we are following the instructors’ queues.

COVID-19 also has exiled me from the tennis court and the driving range, but there is not much I can do about it.

Unfortunately, Remodeling magazine’s Top 10 list is similar to Money’s list. Remodeling provided a link to a 2017 New York Times’ piece referencing the Joint Center study, which noted that homeowners 55 and over were becoming a major force behind home-improvement spending.

This spending pattern was attributed by the Joint Center, in part, to a shortage of new construction and a reliance on aging housing stock requiring upkeep and repair. Also contributing to the trend were increased home equity for improvement loans and a growing population of older homeowners who are financially equipped to pay for renovations as we’ve recovered from the 2008 financial meltdown.

Aging homeowners were responsible for half of all remodeling spending in 2017 – 25 percent by those between 55 and 64, and an additional 25 percent by those 65 and older.

On what are aging homeowners spending their money? The Joint Center study lists plumbing, built-in dishwashers and garage disposals; windows and doors; water heaters; roofing; bathrooms; landscaping and sprinkler systems; central air conditioning, and electrical wiring, fuse and breaker boxes. Some of this I noted earlier, but the Joint Center study gets even more specific on what these home-improvement projects entail.

I have always maintained that one should renovate to make homes more liveable and comfortable, rather than with an eye to making it hand over fist at sale time.  Although cost versus value should always be at the back of your mind when you are deciding on a project, lifestyle improvement must be at the forefront.

Some of the items on these various lists are things a prospective buyer expects your home to have, such as a problem-free roof, or an electrical system that can easily handle modern conveniences.

For instance, knob and tube wiring. Knob and tube is first-generation electrical wiring, originally located on the outside of interior walls in houses at the turn of the 20th century. (My father’s father was an electrician; consider that if your house has knob and tube, it would have been installed by someone who, if he were alive, would be 131 years old).

Knob and tube eventually moved inside walls, strung along rafters in the attic and floor joists in basements. If it is not compromised, the wiring is fine for lights or some appliances, such as toasters, irons and ceiling fans. Yet, a lot of it has, over the years, been chewed by squirrels and mice, and is considered a fire hazard in addition to being inadequate in meeting modern demands.

What is more, many insurers either will refuse to write new policies for homes with knob and tube or will charge higher premiums to cover it.

Getting rid of the knob and tube not only benefits you as a homeowner needing reliable electrical service, but also as a home seller hoping for a smooth, low-angst transaction.

The venerable Bob Vila quotes conversations at this year’s Home Improvement Research Institute summit suggesting that “wellness-focused improvements” are on the increase. Nontoxic materials are a big selling point for millennial homeowners, as are water and air purification systems, and circadian lighting to improve sleep.

Your circadian rhythm is a 24-hour internal clock that is running in the background of your brain and cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Circadian lighting is designed to improve health and well-being, and manufacturers are creating products that are attuned to a circadian rhythm. Primarily, they are trying to mimic natural light, since daylight is the ideal source for regulating the circadian rhythm, says Architecture magazine.

New-age terminology aside, the need for big doses of natural light is easy to understand. We feel much more energetic and healthier from mid-spring through early fall, when the days are long. That is why being confined to our homes by the pandemic at this time of the year is so hard for most of us to deal with. We want to be out and about. That is why having outdoor spaces such as decks, patios and porches will probably be at the top of the home-improvement list as the pandemic lasts.

If we are going to have to spend more time at home, a wellness-focused improvement at the top of the list should be air quality. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the concentration of some pollutants are often two to five times higher indoors than outdoors.

Some newer houses have been over-insulated, a problem created when builders in the mid-1970s tried to reduce home-energy use in response to the oil shortages and price spikes early and late in the decade. If a house is too tight, there can be little air exchange between indoors and outdoors.

Re-doing the insulation and adding an air exchanger to bring in fresh air without opening the doors and windows is a valuable and healthy improvement that you should consider with your home-improvement contractor.

If you have any questions or suggestions, let me know at alanjheavens@gmail.com.