Creating a memorable first impression with home improvements pays off, according to Remodeling magazine’s 2010-11 Cost vs. Value Report. And most of the top projects don’t require a major investment.
By G. M. Filisko
In cooperation with Remodeling magazine, we bring you the average cost recouped for 35 home improvement projects.
TOP 5 PROJECTS
Get tips from experts on how to execute the projects that bring the greatest return.
Find detailed information on how projects fared in 80 U.S. cities. Plus, download PDFs of individual city reports and use a data comparison tool to see how returns differ from year to year.
Go to www.costvsvalue.com.
How We Get the Numbers
Construction cost estimates are generated by HomeTech Information Systems (http://www.hometechonline.com) of Bethesda, Md., which takes into account construction commodity data and labor cost information from a nationwide network of remodeling contractors. The company prepares a detailed construction estimate for each project and then adjusts this baseline cost for each city to account for regional pricing variations. However, project costs are based on estimates for hypothetical projects, with no reliable way to accommodate local and short-term fluctuations in supply and demand. Resale value data for each project are aggregated from estimates provided by REALTORS®. E-mail surveys were sent to some 150,000 appraisers, sales agents, and brokers in the summer of 2010, and more than 3,000 participated. Respondents were instructed not to make judgments about the motivation of the home owner in the decision to undertake the remodeling project or to sell the house.
Using the Data
The Cost vs. Value Report provides an accurate snapshot of the national housing market, but it can’t be applied accurately to an individual remodeling project for a particular address. Resale value is one factor among many that a home owner must take into account when making the decision to remodel. Although the costs used in the report are based on itemized estimates, the projects are hypothetical. When comparing the data to actual remodeling costs in your area, small differences in the scope of a project or quality of finishes and accessories can dramatically affect the price. Although the distinction between “midrange” and “upscale” projects provides a range of pricing, it can’t account for extreme variations in pricing that many markets experienced in 2010.
Slumping home values pulled the overall cost-to-value ratio down to its lowest level this decade, extending the downward trend that began in 2006. In fact, the slide from 63.8 percent to 60.0 percent in costs recouped is a slightly greater than last year’s 3.5-point drop. Projects were more affordable to complete, with construction costs down 10.4 percent overall, but those lower costs were overmatched by a 15.8 percent drop in estimated resale values, the biggest decline in the last eight years.
TOP 5: First Impressions Matter
Looking to convince dubious sellers that smart upgrades are worth it? This year’s Cost vs. Value Report, by Remodeling magazine, provides ample support. The annual survey uses input from REALTORS® in 80 cities to rank home remodeling projects according to those that bring the greatest cost recovered at resale. And looking at the five projects that topped the list, it’s clear that first impressions really do matter when sellers list their home.
Big-bang projects can make or break a sale from the moment potential buyers exit their car. A midrange entry door replacement brings the highest payback at a national average of 102.1 percent, followed by a midrange garage door replacement, at 83.9 percent, and an upscale redo of the siding at 80 percent of the cost. Step into the home, and a midrange kitchen remodel recoups an average 72.8 percent. Gaze into the backyard, where a wood deck addition also generates a 72.8 percent return.
Also noteworthy in this slow-growing economy is that four of the top five projects are “midrange” projects aimed at budget-conscious sellers. If sellers still balk at the price tag, take note of our tips for completing the projects on a tidy budget.
PROJECT 1: Entry Door Replacement (Steel)
Resale value $1,243
Cost recouped 102.1%
What this project entails: Remove an existing 3-foot-by-6-foot-8-inch entry door and jambs and replace it with a new 20-gauge steel unit, including a clear dual-pane half-glass panel, jambs, and an aluminum threshold with a composite stop. The door is factory finished with the same color on both sides. Exterior brick-mold and 2.5-inch interior colonial or ranch casings in poplar or an equal choice are prefinished to match the door color. Replace the existing lock set with a new bored lock with a brass or antique brass finish.
A new entry door can make a big splash, but only if it complements the style of the house. “The biggest mistake people make is to choose a door that doesn’t match the neighborhood or home,” says Donnie Worley, broker at RE/MAX Real Estate Service in Sanford, N.C. “You won’t recoup the money at resale, and it might look funny. For high-end homes, leaded glass may be appropriate. But in a more moderately priced home, a regular steel door painted in a color that complements the home’s trim will make a bigger impact.”
Sellers can get their money’s worth with online research before a purchase, says Peter McCluskey, owner of McCluskey Construction, Realty, and Loans in San Francisco. “Identify the type of steel, whether the door has been primed with a rust inhibitor, how many coats of finish paint have been added, and whether it’s insulated and if so with what insulation rating,” McCluskey says. “An alternative to finish paint is powder coating. It’s more like glue than paint and generally better than nonpowder coating.”
Finally, thoroughly inspect the door before buying and installing it. “Steel doors can dent easily, and you can’t fix dents,” says Taylor Joe Goldsmith, vice president of marketing and sales at Joe Goldsmith Construction Inc. in Lakeland, Fla. “Make sure the door is in good condition before you purchase it.”
Replacement projects have always performed better in resale value than other types of remodeling projects, partly because they’re among the least expensive.
PROJECT 2: Garage Door Replacement
Resale value $1,083
Cost recouped 83.9%
What this project entails: Remove and dispose of the existing 16-by-7-foot garage door and tracks. Install a new 4-section garage door on new galvanized steel tracks; reuse the existing motorized opener. The new door is uninsulated, single-layer, embossed steel with two coats of baked-on paint, galvanized steel hinges, and nylon rollers. 10-year limited warranty.
Home owners should be careful when choosing a garage door because it’s easy to buy a more expensive product than what’s necessary. In many cases, a basic door will do the job, McCluskey says. “There are a few standard garage doors priced around $600, and installed they might be twice that,” he says. “If you want something that looks like a carriage door, expect to pay three times as much.”
Sellers should also consider how potential buyers might use the garage. A selling point for garage tinkerers might be windows or upgraded insulation. “Lots of people don’t even park vehicles in their garage but instead use it as their workshop,” says Goldsmith. “In the winter, an insulated door will knock the edge off of the cold and will also keep the garage cool in the summer.”
Windows allow in natural light. “That’s pretty important and often overlooked,” McCluskey says. “Windows aren’t typically a large extra expense, costing about $100 extra. But they make an enormous difference in the usability of your garage. If it’s dark inside, you can’t do anything without opening the door.”
Another potential selling point is a belt-driven garage door opener, which costs about $100 more than a chain-driven model. “A chain drive is really noisy,” McCluskey says. “With a belt, you can hardly hear the door move.”
This project is a new addition for the 2010–11 report, in recognition that curb appeal continues to play a strong role in a home’s resale value.
PROJECT 3: Siding Replacement
Resale value $10,707
Cost recouped 80.0%
What this project entails: Replace 1,250 square feet of existing siding with new fiber-cement siding, factory primed and factory painted. Include all 4/4 (1-inch) and 5/4 (1.25-inch) trim using either fiber-cement boards or cellular PVC.
“Siding materials can vary widely, so home owners should be sure they’re getting actual cement siding, rather than pressboard or other composite materials,” says McCluskey. “Look on the Internet at the specifications on the various cement siding products. There are no standard materials, so you have to know what materials are being used so you can compare apples to apples.”
Home owners should also ask siding contractors how much of an overlap, called the “lap,” there will be on each board. “This is one of these ‘duh’ things,” says Goldsmith. “I live in a historic district, and I’ve seen homes in which the lap is three inches, which gives siding a wood look, instead of the maximum lap of six inches. Those home owners are wasting materials. Ask how big a lap contractors will use and whether it would save on materials and lower the cost to increase the lap.”
Finally, home owners should consider prepainted siding, which they can then tout to potential buyers. “That can save home owners money,” says McCluskey. “They won’t have to have the siding repainted every few years.”
Since it was added to the survey in 2005, fiber-cement siding replacement has ranked first among projects costing $5,000 or more.
PROJECT 4: Kitchen Remodel (Minor)
Resale value $15,790
Cost recouped 72.8%
What this project entails: In a functional but dated 200-square-foot kitchen with 30 linear feet of cabinetry and countertops, leave cabinet boxes in place but replace the fronts with new raised-panel wood doors and drawers, including new hardware. Replace the wall oven and cooktop with new energy-efficient models. Replace laminate countertops; install a mid-priced sink and faucet. Repaint the trim, add wall covering, and remove and replace resilient flooring.
“Too often, home owners overimprove their kitchen,” says Adam Bosworth, a sales associate at Peggy Parker Real Estate LLC in Norwich, N.Y. “That’s not cost-effective unless they’ll stay in the house a long time.”
To save a good chunk of money on a kitchen remodel, keep your existing electrical wiring and plumbing in place, Bosworth says.
Another idea: Considering painting your cabinets instead of buying new ones, advises Jude Herr, broker-owner of Boulder Area Realty in Boulder, Colo. And while many home owners opt for laminate flooring that resembles wood, Herr says ceramic tile is a smarter option. “With a laminate, you may get a negative reaction,” she says. “You can buy nice ceramic tile for the same amount of money as wood laminates.”
However, do consider a laminate countertop. “The most cost-effective way to give a kitchen a better look is with a laminate,” says Jeff Carbone, a general contractor and sales associate at Coldwell Banker Premiere, REALTORS®, in Southington, Conn. “The selections today are very impressive, with many mimicking quite well the look of marble, granite, or other natural stones.”
Finally, to save money, do some of the work yourself. For example, tell your contractor that you’ll remove the cabinets, advises Bosworth. “Ask your contractor to let you know when he’s done with the drywall,” adds Herr. “Then do the painting yourself before cabinets are installed, patching nail holes or scratch marks later. That will save you the cost of painting, and it’s easier than painting afterward, when you have to work around the cabinets.”
The minor kitchen remodel may carry a high price tag, but it’s a relatively inexpensive face-lift to what many buyers consider the most important room in the home.
PROJECT 5: Deck Addition (Wood)
Resale value $7,986
Cost recouped 72.8%
What this project entails: Add a 16-by-20-foot deck using pressure-treated joists supported by 4-by-4-foot posts anchored to concrete piers. Install pressure-treated deck boards in a simple linear pattern. Include a built-in bench and planter of the same decking material. Include stairs, assuming three steps to grade. Provide a complete railing system using pressure-treated wood posts, railings, and balusters.
A new wood deck can look stunning, but if not done correctly it could turn into a drawback to buyers. Home owners should also be sure a new deck isn’t too big or small. “Home owners can add an 8-by-8-foot wood deck, but it’s so small the space seems useless,” says Bosworth. “Or they can put on a deck that spans the length of the home. That’s great for entertaining, but they’ll never recoup the cost.”
Bosworth also recommends that sellers who need to save money choose a contractor who’ll let them do some of the work. “Have the footings poured by a professional and maybe the frame put together by one, too,” he says. “But anybody who knows how to use a screw gun can put in the floorboards and railings.”
Adding a natural stain can be a final selling point. “I hear constant complaints from home owners about having to stain the deck every year,” says Bosworth. “Colored stains like darker browns and reds wear very unevenly. Natural stains wear more evenly.”
Before any work begins on the new deck, make sure that permits are in place. “Home owners should check with their local code enforcement department,” Worley says. “People who work [in the department] will often give them free advice to help owners avoid mistakes. They may even provide copies of building codes so home owners can be sure railings are the correct height and vertical slats aren’t too far apart or close together, potentially dangerous for children or pets.”
This project is considered essential rather than discretionary in many markets, particularly in neighborhoods where every home has an outdoor living space.
G.M. Filisko is a freelance writer for REALTOR® magazine.