Remodels that Make the Best Resale Sense—and the Ones that Don’t

American Kitchens

Most of us live on a budget. How large that budget is may vary, but few Americans live beneath their means. Rather, we tend to live at or even above our income level (thanks—or not—to the magic of credit cards).
So when we start thinking about remodeling our homes, budget and return on investment usually matter. A lot. Americans are becoming more mobile, which means that “forever homes” are tending to come later in life for a lot of people—the family homestead may still exist, but homes passed through families are increasingly rare. The average American, depending on region, buys and sells between two and five homes throughout their lifetime. It’s quite possible that any renovation you do, unless you are reasonably certain you are there to stay, will be relevant to the sale of your home.

Markets differ across the United States, but framed generally, the following five remodeling projects offer the best value for your money:

1) Kitchens: A kitchen remodel is among the smartest uses of your renovation budget. If you’re remodeling with resale in mind, you will want to prioritize return on investment over your own aesthetic. This is not to say that you should create a kitchen you don’t love or make changes that you don’t like and don’t improve your life. It simply means that a kitchen remodel for resale should not involve super-quirky or profoundly personal changes. It means choosing cabinets, fixtures, countertops, appliances, and finishes that will appeal to a variety of buyers in your market.

If you’re remodeling your kitchen for resale—even if it turns out that it’s a gut job because of structural issues or wiring, etc.—you can best use your money by keeping fixtures in the same place when possible and using affordable, durable, cosmetically pleasing materials. Look for sales on appliances (just after the holidays is an ideal time to shop for deals on higher-end appliances at a lower price point).  Ripping out walls, increasing your home’s footprint to gain a few feet, or moving plumbing adds up fast and may not yield a higher home value than a more modest renovation job.

Consulting a designer and a home renovation contractor is a very, very good idea when looking at a kitchen remodel. Checking in with a local realtor familiar with regional buyers’ expectations is a great plan, as well. These experts can help you assess the good, the bad, the ugly, and the strategic about your current kitchen and any renovation you do. Also check out the many Internet sites that offer kitchen remodeling ideas; some choices—like ready-to-assemble cabinets, open shelving, alternative countertop materials, using track lighting rather than recessed lighting, or opting for a cutout rather than ripping out a wall—can save you a lot of money. Again, though, it’s important to know what buyers in your area expect. Any cost-shaving you do should occur in the areas where buyers are open-minded. If, for example, buyers expect at least some granite countertops in a kitchen, consider using granite only on the perimeter counters and then topping the island with marine-varnish-finished wood. If buyers demand tons of storage, don’t remove your upper cabinets, even if you prefer the airier look it gives a room.

2) Adding living space: Adding actual living space, in the form of an entire room, is generally an excellent investment. (A less solid resale investment: bumping out walls to gain a few feet of space.) Regardless of your addition’s square footage, some costs are unavoidable: demolition of exterior walls, a new roof, a new foundation, new windows and doors. While you’re incurring these expenses, you might as well create a space with really useable size and pleasing proportions in order to wring every penny from your home remodeling dollar.

3) Upping your home’s curb appeal: Yeah, yeah, never judge a book by its cover. That’s so true on so many levels, except that in real estate the “cover” that is your front elevation is really important. Buyers assess a house on first glance—and they may very well dismiss a home lacking in aesthetic appeal, even if the interior is great. First impressions are powerful; you want buyers to drive up and say, “What a good-looking house!” Not only that, your front view may be the only impression a buyer has, even with online interior tours becoming increasingly the norm.

Boosting curb appeal may involve exterior home remodeling and a contractor—adding a fence, repairing paths and driveways; replacing your front door or aging windows; adding trim, dormers, or a porch; replacing siding; or building a garage, for example. These costlier projects may very well be worth it for resale purposes.

But there are a number of inexpensive projects that can make a big difference in your home’s appearance—and therefore how long it sits on the market and your final selling price. Simply clearing out overgrown plants and weeds, trimming bushes, edging and mulching beds, and adding a few pretty plantings can make a huge impact. A once-uninviting property shrouded in shrubs can become a welcoming, airy place that beckons people in. Painting your front door a vibrant color can be a great way to make your home “pop.” Bold house numbers are attention-getting (and a nice safety feature in an emergency). Swap out porch lighting or add lights along the front walk. Replace your mailbox. Clean up the side yard and make a nice path to the backyard. Add a touch of red somewhere for its welcoming feel and warm jolt of color. Repainting the body and trim of your house (a job best done by a contractor unless you are a real whiz with tall ladders and exterior paint) is another high-impact, relatively inexpensive way to make a blah house sing.

4) Upgrading or creating a master suite: Yes, all the bedrooms matter, but even (especially?) adults with kids want a retreat where they can feel pampered and at ease, at least occasionally. Either redoing your current suite or carving out space to connect a bathroom with the master bedroom—even if it means adding to your home’s footprint—can be well worth it. Buyers like to envision themselves in the private spaces of a home.

You’ll want to consider location (privacy, flow with the rest of the house, first floor or second, relation to the landscape) when you remodel or add a master bedroom suite. Occasionally you can use roof or attic space to add a master suite—just bear in mind that anything you do is subject to current building codes, meaning updates and upgrades will be needed for any part of a structure affected by an addition or renovation. Also think about windows (ensure that adequate room-darkening measures are in place, especially if you choose large windows or a walk-out sliding or French door), views, and noise. You may wish to add a sitting area (allow at least 150 feet) in the bedroom itself, possibly a large walk-in closet, ceiling interest (where else do you lie down and stare at the ceiling so often?), variable lighting (soft ambient, reading lamps, chandeliers, cove lighting, etc.), and/or a fireplace—a gorgeous focal point.

Adding or remodeling a master suite is definitely a job for a home remodeling contractor—you want solid workmanship, and you’ll be considering not only bedroom amenities but bathroom remodeling as well.

5) Bathrooms: (See our previous blog on bathrooms for tips on bathroom remodeling.) Bathrooms offer a solid return on investment, as long as you create a neutral space with a bit of luxury and, ideally, natural light. Again, this is a project for a professional home renovation team, as so many utilities are involved and the timeline can be so complex. Cosmetic changes are a better resale bet than major renovations and layout changes—unless you are simply short a bathroom relative to other homes in your area, in which case an actual addition may be worth the cost.

Not to end on a negative note, but it’s worth being aware of the least resale-boosting home renovations:

1) Tricked-out kids’ spaces (not everyone wants a spectacular climbing wall or magnificent built-in bunk bed).

2) Wine rooms and other interest-specific spaces with permanent fittings.

3) Pools (maintenance costs and potential dangers and liability turn many buyers off).

4) Removing features like windows or fireplaces (someone else may want that detail in the future!).

All of the above changes may be worth it if you plan to stay in your home or don’t mind narrowing your resale market, but do be aware that these options are either unlikely to recoup their cost or may even become a liability when it comes to resale value.

So—when considering your home’s resale value, do think carefully about the interior and exterior remodeling or cosmetic changes you want to make, both for your own quality of life and for future marketability. A good home renovation contractor, together with a realtor and designer, can help you make smart, financially savvy choices about any changes you make with an eye to the financial future.