What Remodeling is Likely to Show a Profit on Sale?

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My general rule of thumb is "Remodel for your own enjoyment. If you're lucky, you'll get some of your money back when your sell." The remodeling industry has made a very large amount of money seducing people into believing they will recoup their investment, or more than their investment. But as you can see here, it's a rare remodeling project that returns more than the cost. Therefore, don't remodel with the idea of making a profit, because you won't. Not a single one of those multipliers is greater than 1.

But there are times when remodeling to sell makes dollars and sense.

Mostly, it's when the existing stuff is so outdated that Ms. Newlywed takes one look and flees in terror from the Uranium Yellow or Art Deco Pink and Blue that's been out of favor since before her mother was born. Maybe it was fine thirty years ago when you bought it, and you've gotten used to it, but now it's fifty years old and you've just never motivated yourself to do anything about it. If the kitchen is straight out of 1955, and the bathrooms look like they were last decorated when Hawaiian kitsch was the hot new fad (memo to the young: Eisenhower was President), it's probably a good idea to do something about that before you try to sell - "Try" being the important word. Because people looking for their dream home aren't interested, and these properties sit on the market. If they eventually sell, they will sell for way below everything else on the market, first because of the visible age, second because it sat on the market and you had to reduce the price further and further while paying carrying costs for months. These are the sorts of homes rehabbers and flippers look for, because they can make a profit on them. If you have the money, why wouldn't you want that profit for yourself?

For buyers, if you're willing to buy something that's solid but older, you can get one heck of a deal as well as being able to remodel at whatever pace you're comfortable with. Truthfully, most folks I talk to have at least some plans for as soon as they buy, anyway. If you're planning to install new kitchen cabinets and granite counters anyway, what does it matter if what's there is ancient or poorly laid out?

The first level of remodeling is to clean, shine, and repair any surfaces that need it. This is a straightforward extension of the "carpet and paint" principle. New paint and carpet are cheap, and have a great return on investment. If the formica is burned or chipped, if the tile is broken, if it's dull and dingy, make it shine. It always amazes me that people with hardwood floors will leave them looking like they haven't been polished since they were laid down in 1932. Strip them, sand them, polish them - before you put the property on the market. It's a lot cheaper than replacing or laying new carpet. They will look beautiful. They will make people want your house. Not everyone, of course, but how many buyers do you need? If you've got something lots of people see as desirable, flaunt it.

Sometimes, there just isn't any choice but to take it to the next level. Stoves built in to the countertop and cooking ovens in the cabinets are so 1958. If there aren't any good matches for marred, gouged, or broken surfaces, you probably want to re-do the whole surface. Keep in mind that labor costs are pretty much a constant, and the largest expense of most jobs. You want to spend $4500 resurfacing the bathroom in plastic and linoleum, or $5800 resurfacing it in Travertine and nice tile? Add a moderately upscale toilet for a couple hundred bucks, and you've got a bathroom that looks like it comes out of Sunset magazine rather than an episode of the Flintstones. Somebody who flees in terror from the latter is likely to be attracted to the former. Even if they don't flee in terror from the Flintstones bathroom, most folks are going to be much more attracted to the Sunset magazine bathroom.

Keep in mind, also, that the new stuff you put in has to go with whatever you're keeping. If you've got a Mediterranean paint scheme, Art Deco counters are not going to work for most prospective buyers, and they're the ones you're trying to please at this point. Just sayin'. The more vanilla you keep it, the fewer prospective buyers you will alienate.

Don't go overboard. It can be a real temptation to spend $25,000 or more on new kitchen appliances, but you're not going to get your money back. Keep in mind that most appliances are personal property, so (in the absence of the contract specifying otherwise) you can take them with you when you go. However, in cases like that it's more common than not that those appliances remaining will be written into any purchase offer, and if you agree to leave them, you have to. If you don't want to leave them, away goes the purchase offer to no beneficial effect. If two-thirds of the gourmet kitchen that attracted a buyer is going away when you move out, it's not likely to do you much good in selling your property. I always ask my buyers why they're willing to pay more for the kitchen when most of it is going away. There are idiots who insist they don't want a buyer's agent, but betting on that is a bet you don't need to make - and quite often lose.

Poor lighting can kill a sale without the buyers ever realizing why. It's dark, it's cavelike, it feels old - they don't want it. Just leaving the drapes open makes a huge difference. Replacing the lighting - particularly if you use CFL so you don't have to necessarily have to rewire for a bigger load - can be very cost effective.

If you're going to remodel anyway, clean up your lines of sight and floor plan if you can. The longer the uninterrupted lines of sight, the bigger the property "feels". The less complex the floor plan, the more open and larger it will feel. If you have to go through three switchbacks to get through the kitchen, that's a bad thing. Separate but connected "areas" are better than room dividers which are in turn better than walls, at least in the public areas of your property. If you're remodeling anyway, fix it.

One of the overlooked and relatively cheap remodels is the closet. Basic closets from fifty years ago are tiny by modern standards. People today have more stuff, and they want places to put it. People who get very interested in modern new kitchens and beautiful new bathrooms can just as easily get turned off by small closets. If they see a standard post-war closet arrangement (a three foot space between walls of two bedrooms, with half going to one bedroom and half to the other), they'll quite likely think that isn't enough closet space. "Next property! These closets are too small." Put a modern closet design in, with shoe holders drawers and cabinets and half size hanging spaces that efficiently use the space, and for most people, that's a horse of a different color. Closets are a bigger concern with more people than most folks give credence to, and they're way cheaper than most other remodels.

In some cases, remodeling may not get your money back, but it may be the difference between selling quickly and not selling for months, if at all. It's very hard to track this sort of information, and harder still to assign a dollar value to it. Keep in mind that a $200,000 mortgage at 6% costs $1000 per month, and property taxes and homeowner's insurance add to that. Not to mention that the longer it's on the market, the more you have to mark the property down in order to sell. At these prices, four months make a difference of about $6000 in carrying costs alone, never mind what you have to mark the property down to interest people in it with over a hundred days on the market!

Remodeling isn't the license to print money it's been portrayed as - except for the remodeling industry. Small budgets are more likely to recover large fractions of what you spend than larger ones. Unless the property is significantly behind the times, remodel for your own enjoyment, because you won't get as much back as you spend.

Caveat Emptor


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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on June 25, 2008 7:00 AM.

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