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.
I briefly addressed the issue of remodeling to sell in my first blog post, but I think it would be a good way to launch a discussion of the kinds of renovation projects that bring the best long-term lifestyle and financial benefits.
I devoted a chapter of my first book, What No One Ever Tells You About Renovating Your Home, in 2005, to this topic, but 15 years is a long time between thoughts. I am also am looking at it from a different perspective as a real estate agent, even though the answer is still an emphatic NO.
Let’s start by clarifying what I mean by “remodeling to sell” by telling you what I DON’T mean: repairing, painting, and cleaning to make your house show its best at sale time.
What I DO mean is shelling out $60,000 for a state-of-the-art kitchen because you think you will get all that back when you sell.
Wrong. You are making two big mistakes here.
The first is focusing on the unnecessary instead of the necessary, such as painting, or repairing the things that were broken before you bought the house that you should have fixed long ago.
The second mistake is assuming that the target buyers for your house share your tastes.
“Not all of us have such deep pockets, so we need to be aware of the pitfalls of spending great gobs of money when there is no point to it.“
I’ve dealt with homeowners for more than 30 years as a real estate columnist and a Realtor, and the number of sellers who believe last-minute, over-the-top remodeling projects will reap great and immediate rewards would fill Lincoln Financial Field.
“Prospective sellers bring this up a lot,” said veteran Realtor Travis Rodgers of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach. “It is usually not a good idea.”
Here’s a rather extreme exception to the rule.
My office has a sales meeting every other Tuesday. One of our top agents who deals exclusively with the luxury-home market was talking about the difficulties in her market, specifically one high-end, high-rise in which units sell for $5 million to $12 million.
The units on the market were just sitting there until she recommended to her puzzled clients that they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to “depersonalize” their condo homes.
Her clients had bought their units as raw space more than a decade before and had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to reflect their personal tastes. But entire walls of blue and white tiles in the living room isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. The result: The units lingered on the market after everyone in the target income bracket had seen it.
I am happy to report that the clients who took the agent’s advice saw their units sell pretty much at the original asking prices.
Not all of us have such deep pockets, so we need to be aware of the pitfalls of spending great gobs of money when there is no point to it.
I think most Realtors and remodelers would place the blame for this on HGTV and the false impression of real estate that it gives. When you start looking at a home as a cash cow and not as a place to live, financial difficulties are bound to result.
Americans spend more than $400 billion a year on residential renovations and repairs, according to the Joint Center for Housing at Harvard, which tracks the industry.
Using data from 2017 – there is always lag time in data – the 2019 report that came out in July showed that 47.9 percent of all expenditures, or $111 billion of the total $424 billion, was spent on “overall replacements” — both exterior and interior.
“Replacements” in this case were improvements to roofing, siding, windows, doors, HVAC systems, and insulation — all projects that have the potential to generate large home-energy savings.
About $74 billion, or 31.8 percent of the total, was for “discretionary” projects, such as room additions, bathrooms, kitchens and “outside attachments” – decks and patios.
What does this mean? Fix the stuff that needs fixing first, then spend on what will make living in your house much nicer.
Remodeling spending varies greatly among metropolitan areas, according to the Joint Centers’ study. For example, in our region, 461,000 homeowners reported spending an average of $3,150 each on remodeling projects in 2017, for a total of $5 billion.
About 54 percent of that $5 billion was spent on repairs and replacement, which makes sense in an area with older housing stock, while 34 percent fell into the discretionary-spending category.
One category was titled “recent movers” – those who recently moved into a new home or have lived there for six months to a year. This category accounted for 12.6 percent of the $5 billion spent in the Delaware Valley during 2017, the Joint Centers study showed.
That’s $630 million in spending. I wonder how much of that was spent to undo sellers’ misguided, last-minute renovation projects?
I’m sort of half-joking, although I want to make the point that if you have money left over after all the expenses of buying a house — from down payment to closing costs — you should live there about six months to a year to see what kinds of changes you need or want to make.
My advice doesn’t include painting, which you can do before you’ve moved in the furniture, if possible, and having the floors sanded – even though this can be done almost “dustlessly” these days after you have moved in.
Let’s talk a minute about financing these remodeling projects.
With a median project cost of just $1,200 nationally, homeowners used cash from savings to pay for 77 percent of individual home-improvement projects in 2017. However, as project scope increases, owners are more likely to tap home equity or other forms of financing to cover the costs.
When owners pay for improvements with savings or credit cards, average spending is about $3,300 per project, but almost double that amount for projects with contractor-arranged financing at $6,500.
And if owners tap their equity for funds, project spending increases to almost $7,500 if the source of funding is a cash-out refinance and $9,300 if it is a home equity loan or line of credit, according to the Joint Centers study.
Although I’ll emphasize that you should never renovate to sell, you also need to pick projects that will help you when you do put your house on the market somewhere down the road.
For example, if your roof is old, and there is a better-than-average chance that it will begin leaking at some point, I would recommend replacement now rather than waiting until some home inspector picks up the problem when the house is under agreement of sale.
In addition to preventing greater damage, such as mold, because of the leaks, having a sound roof reduces the chance that you will need to reduce your net on the sale by giving money back to the buyer to pay for repair or replacement.
The Joint Centers study showed that older owners continue to dominate the remodeling market, with households age 55 and over accounting for fully half of all homeowner improvement spending.
The number of homeowners age 55 and over surged 60 percent to 42 million from 1997, and their average improvement spending also grew 57 percent in real terms to $2,800.
In combination, these changes have meant that real aggregate spending among older owners grew more than 150 percent over the decades, to $117 billion.
Older homeowners making accessibility improvements spend about 40 percent more on average for all types of projects than same-age owners who do not cite accessibility as a motivation for their projects, the Joint Centers study shows.
Keep that last paragraph in mind, because in my next blog post, I’ll be talking about how older homeowners who wish to continue to live independently in their current homes can make that happen.
It is called “aging in place.”
If you have any questions or need advice, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.