4 housing upgrades that don’t pay

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Most people’s idea of a dream home is a haven they would live in for the rest of their lives. But the reality is, you’re probably going to be selling your house someday.

In fact, in a 2007 report, the National Association of Realtors said the median length of time recent sellers had spent in their previous homes was six years.

So before you dive into a major renovation project to give a house your special signature, consider how long you’re likely to stay.

“Where a lot of people get into trouble is that they go into a home that they’re only going to be in for a relatively short period of time, and they start doing renovations and additions that are sort of on their fantasy list, but that they’re not going to be there long enough to really enjoy,” says Jeff Beneke, author of more than a dozen home improvement books, including his most recent title, “The Fence Bible.”

“And when they turn around to sell, they’re just not going to get their money back.”

Renovation ideas to avoid
Thinking of renovating your house? Here are four things to avoid if you want to get your money’s worth when you sell.

Here are four reasons to proceed with caution, particularly if you want to maximize your chances of a profitable resale later on.

High maintenance

If your upgrade requires too much upkeep, buyers may view it as more of a nuisance than an asset.

A prime example is an in-ground swimming pool, which can cost a small fortune to install, secure, heat and clean. That may not be an issue in California or Florida, where the possibility of year-round pool parties makes it easy to get your money’s worth. But in a location where the season for outdoor swimming is much shorter, a pool can be a risky investment.

“Real estate agents anywhere, except in exclusive neighborhoods of warm climates, will tell you that a swimming pool can be more of a negative than a positive on resale,” Beneke says.

“My sense is that for what it costs to put a swimming pool in your backyard and maintain it, you can join the nicest swimming club in town, buy a car to get you there and back, and still have some cash leftover.”

Tim Carter, the syndicated columnist from askthebuilder.com, says homeowners often assume that a swimming pool adds value to a home.

“But if you talk to real estate brokers, some people may not look at a home that has a swimming pool because they think it’s a liability,” he says.


Don’t make your house look like the guest who wore a ball gown to a picnic. Luxurious amenities can be a good selling point, but only if they blend in with rather than outshine what the neighbors have.

“Buyers are becoming more and more savvy, and they understand that having the nicest home in the neighborhood can be a bad thing when it’s time to sell,” says Columbia, S.C., Realtor Brandon Hoffman.

“A lot of times, if an owner overimproves for the value of the neighborhood, they won’t get their money back. It can also make the home more difficult to sell at fair market value.”

A case in point: While homebuyers love a kitchen renovation, it is possible to get carried away.

“I don’t think we need to see granite countertops in entry-level housing,” says Pat V. Combs, a Realtor in Grand Rapids, Mich., and immediate past president of the National Association of Realtors. “I think that’s overkill. You have to improve for your specific marketplace.”

While those glossy, upscale shelter magazines may be great sources of inspiration, trying to copy a cover story kitchen can be a dangerous move.

“One of the biggest-ticket items anybody does in remodeling is the kitchen,” Beneke says. “From a resale standpoint, I think it’s crazy to start drawing your kitchen remodeling ideas from high-end home magazines.”

Instead, Beneke suggests getting a peek at some of your neighbors’ kitchens.

“If the kitchen remodels in your neighborhood include moderately priced cabinets and something other than expensive granite countertops, then you’re taking a chance if you go the more expensive route,” he says.

Too personal

You remake a cookie-cutter house in the image of your own exquisite taste. Nothing wrong with that. Just don’t be surprised if your masterpiece is underappreciated at resale.

A vacation in Tuscany inspired a $160,000 makeover of the interior of Dane Madsen’s Las Vegas home with travertine floors, exposed weathered beams, stone walls and murals painted by a local artist.

When Madsen got divorced 18 months later and put the home on the market, Realtors told him some house hunters turned to leave as soon as they stepped inside the front door. One even called Madsen directly to offer $100,000 less than the asking price as compensation for having to tear out all the changes if he bought the place.

Madsen did sell the house after repainting the walls a neutral color — including painting over the more personal of the two murals — and making some other adjustments. He says he has no regrets about the renovation, though he admits it was “way overdone.”

Miami Realtor Moe Veissi has seen everything from a water canal running through a house and flowing into a pool, to a bathroom with rock walls, live palm trees and other lush foliage, and an automatic misting system to keep it fresh.

“That’s the kind of interesting thing that maybe if you take a vacation to Tahiti or Maui you’d love to have for three or four days, but I’m not sure that it’s part of the norm,” Veissi says.

“And any time you deviate, no matter what the improvement is, from what is a fairly traditional, single-family house, you run the risk of improving in a fashion that will not lend itself to additional dollars.”


If no one else on the block has a room like the one you’re adding, or all the other houses boast the very feature you’re getting rid of, watch out.

For example, although converting your garage into an office, bedroom or playroom can be a less expensive way to add square footage and create more living space, it can have drawbacks. Potential homebuyers might miss the sheltered parking more than they welcome the additional room, especially if other homes in the neighborhood have garages.

Diana Bull, a Santa Barbara, Calif., Realtor, says a garage conversion is a resale dud in her market.

“People just shy away from it, and I think it’s because … the guys, particularly, have a lot of toys — cars, motorcycles, off-road vehicles — so garages are real popular here,” Bull says.

The same is true in Hoffman’s South Carolina neck of the woods.

“The additional square footage (from a conversion) doesn’t increase the value of the home very much, if at all,” he says. “Sometimes it can actually have a negative impact on the sale.”

If you decide to go ahead with such a transformation, be sure to check your local zoning regulations to see if you’ll have to replace the lost parking space.

Finally, Beneke offers a useful tip for whatever type of home renovation you may be contemplating.

“I always suggest that before you do anything in a house, you live in it for a while,” Beneke says. “I’ve gone through this myself. I write about home improvement, but I also fix up old houses. Typically, when I move into a place, I prioritize what needs to be done, and I’m always amazed a year later when I go back and look at that list, how much it’s changed.

“Having lived in the house, you start discovering that you might have problems that you didn’t realize were problems before … but often things that you thought were problems have faded in importance. Just living in a place can help you get a much better priority list in order.”