Home Improvements Don't All Pay Off

Generally speaking, there are two ways to go when you are thinking about home improvements. Either you splurge for something purely for the sybaritic pleasure of having it -- that Italian marble bathroom you've dreamed about; that skylight that your spouse has been hinting at for the last six years -- or you take a pragmatic approach, putting in such amenities as a new kitchen or a redwood deck because you want to increase your home's market value.
Don't ever expect to score on both counts. "Just because you pour $20,000 into your home doesn't mean that your house is worth $20,000 more," says Frank Dell'Accio, a real estate broker in Lindenhurst, N.Y. "I had a guy who invested $100,000 in a $130,000 home after he lived there for four years. He put it on the market at $225,000. He was offered $170,000." His mistake: spending money on amenities that were only peripheral to the value of the house. "He wanted phones in the bathroom," says Dell'Accio, "but [who else is] going to pay for them?" This section details those improvements that pay off more often than not. We also point out those that rarely make a difference when it comes time to sell your home.
Time and time again, repainting proves to be the most basic, and the most bankable, of fix-ups. There's almost nothing a coat of paint won't fix, at least if you plan to sell within a year or two. "People don't like buying other people's problems," says Rhode Island broker William Eccleston, "and a coat of paint can cover a lot of problems." According to the National Association of Realtors, professionally painting the exterior of a house costs an average of $3,250 and recoups 81% of its cost. "A clean, neat, orderly fresh coat of paint, that's what sells," says New Jersey broker Steve Krawse. "In the short term, changing floors, cabinetry, fixtures and sinks only counts when your house is so functionally outdated that a $4,000 investment adds $14,000 to the value. Most of the time, you're better off fixing the cracked front steps and painting the front door."
Even a few basic improvements to your kitchen can pay handsome dividends, says real estate agent Michael Murphy in his book, How to Sell Your Home in Good or Bad Times. Murphy writes: "For most buyers, [the kitchen] is the heart of the house. Paint, wallpaper, even refloor the room if necessary. Consider sanding, staining or painting dingy-looking cabinets. Replace old cabinet hardware -- a low-cost improvement that makes a big difference in appearance."
According to a recent survey done by Remodeling magazine, the average spent on a major kitchen remodeling job in the U.S. is $21,262; refinishing an outdated one averaged $8,507. The all-out kitchen makeover nationally recouped 90% of its cost, the more moderate overhaul was valued at 94%.
Creating New Space
As a rule, improvements that increase the functional space of a home hold their value longer than ones that just make a house function better. Converting an attic into a bedroom suite, for example, usually costs about $22,840 but returns about 84% of its cost at resale time, even five years later. Waterproofing a basement for storage, a job that costs about $3,000, recoups more than 100% of its cost when the house goes on the market.
An Extra Bathroom
Adding an extra bathroom with all the trimmings -- marble vanity top, molded sink, bathtub with shower and ceramic tile -- all but pays for itself. At a cost of around $15,000 a full bath recoups at least 90% of its price tag. A second bath adds more value than a third and if you have natural light, all the better.
Redwood Decks
Installing a redwood deck may be the most cost-efficient way to add square footage to your house, and of all the outdoor home improvements except painting, it may be the most reliable value. Decks average $4,000 to $7,000 and generally recoup about half their value. That may not sound like much, but other touted outdoor improvements fare even worse.
New Windows
Even energy-efficient windows and doors are sluggish performers. According to data from the National Association of Realtors, an $8,000 to $12,000 investment in windows and doors will return only 36% to 53% of its cost, while $1,280 worth of caulking and insulation will recoup 71%. If your windows are old and leaky, by all means replace them. The savings on your utility bill might make up for the spotty resale value. "A good window arrangement, as long as they're standard, will make money back, says William Eccleston, a broker in Coventry, R.I. But, he warns, "as soon as you get into customizing, with fancy shapes, bays and bows you can't see from the street, you're throwing money down the drain."
Lower-priced, standard, double-hung windows -- about $200 a pop -- are usually the best bet. But that depends on the neighborhood. In more expensive enclaves, sharp-eyed buyers may spot cheaper windows as an underimprovement. "The higher the price, the more buyers begin looking at the ticket for the brand name," says New Jersey broker Frank Dell'Accio. "At $150,000, people ask, 'Are the windows Thermopane?' At $300,000, they start saying, 'Oh, by the way, are they Andersen?'"
Swimming Pools
It is commonly agreed that a swimming pool has no resale value at all. "I've had clients spend $300,000 and fill in the pool," says one agent. The main reason pools repel more prospective buyers than they attract is that they require expensive upkeep. Running a close second is the fear of liability: Pool accidents are a quick way to end up the subject of a negligence suit.
Manicured Gardens
Fancy gardens -- which will require time and money to tend -- usually won't add to the offering price. "Landscaping is for your own enjoyment," says New Jersey agent Frank Dell'Accio. "It may be a $40,000 investment, but there's no way it'll add $40,000 to the value of your house." The same goes for expensive fences and stone walls. They look nice, but buyers don't pay up for them.
Basic Improvements
Unfortunately, the worst-performing home improvements, as far as resale value is concerned, are the invisible ones that have the most value for you as a homeowner. Adding a new plumbing system, a radon-mitigation rig or a new septic tank just doesn't come back to the bottom line. So, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

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