To Improve Or Not To Improve

By DiAnne Crown

January 18, 2012 5 min read

Larry Singer and his wife recently sold their 110-year-old two-story frame home after living in it for the past 25 years. They did need to fix the roof, but Realtor Fritz Pfister advised them to let certain other old-home things go, such as replacing a few windows that were painted shut. "When you look at a 100-year-old home," Pfister told the Singers, "you expect to see that sort of thing. There will be other things buyers are more concerned with."

Otherwise, says Singer, "We did some cleaning to spruce the place up and make it look presentable. We didn't need to paint. The walls were already 'bland,' whites and eggshells."

Fresh neutral paint is a seller, according to Pfister. But other fix-ups, improvements and remodels don't generate high return on the investment. Here are a few tips Pfister tells his clients:

"When considering remodeling projects for your home, invest wisely," begins Pfister, who has developed a winning combination of home preparation and pricing through thousands of contracts over the past 24 years. "The most important rooms in your home when you sell are, in this order (at least in the Midwest), kitchen, bathrooms and closets.

"Kitchens are expensive. So, if you know you will be selling within three years, a complete remodel is not advised. We are a long way from recovery in the housing market. Home prices will remain flat or decline until the inventory of foreclosed homes is absorbed by the market and the jobs market recovers and begins adding to demand. So, market conditions will outweigh improvements.

"If you are selling in less than three years, you can spruce up the kitchen's appearance with new counters, sink, faucet and appliances. Install flooring that makes the kitchen feel spacious. If you know you will be in your home longer than three years, then cabinet replacement or new design can be enjoyed for years, recovering the value of investment through personal use and enjoyment."

Use the same approach when updating bathrooms. "Consider installing a new vanity, updating fixtures to what is currently popular in your area and flooring if you will be selling in less than three years.

"If you plan on being in the home for an extended period, then consider the complete remodel by consulting a local bath design company of good repute," says Pfister.

"When contemplating both kitchen and bath updates, keep energy and water efficiency in mind for resale," says Pfister. "Make certain the water heater is large enough to accommodate any new demands and is efficient."

Make sure closets are well organized, cleared of all clutter and look spacious.

Windows, basement, mechanicals?

"Most investments such as new windows, in my opinion, will save you on your utility bills, but seldom save you enough to pay for themselves unless you live in the home long enough until the new windows are old. What this type of improvement does for you is to help you sell, and sell faster."

Pfister advises repairing or replacing anything that poses a safety risk before putting your home on the market. However, he adds, "Prepare to be disappointed if you're expecting a return on finishing the basement, new siding, roof, mechanical systems or room additions. All these will help you sell; however, do these for your own benefit first and as an investment second."

One of the most important things you can do is clean, clean, clean your house and freshen up the paint in neutral colors.

Last month, Carolyn York did this as a seller and looked for this as a buyer when she purchased an updated 1960s trilevel. York says of her new home, "What I like is that I don't have to do a lot of major changes. I like renovating things and updating, but I could live with this house as it is. It was move-in ready, which means less work and less money for me."

York's new house features a clean, open living room painted in neutral colors that form a beautiful backdrop for her furniture and artwork. The walls are taupe, and the wood trim is a clean, bright white.

As a seller, York cleared out her closets. "Buyers want to see 90 percent of the floor in the closet. I know when I looked at houses, I saw closets so crammed full you feel like there's not enough room for your stuff."

These dos and don'ts will help get a fast sale, and that should be your goal, says Pfister. "The faster you sell the more you sell for, which means the least hassle from living in a home your Realtor has asked you to prepare so that it looks like it hasn't been lived in. When selling a home in a buyer's market, there are only three factors that determine your success," concludes Pfister. "Price, condition and marketing. The first two are your responsibility; marketing is why you hire a good broker."

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