Planned renovation of a kitchen

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Why Expensive Renovations May Not Boost Your Sale

Though home improvement adds value to a property, your sellers don’t always have to undertake big projects to win a higher price at resale.

June 26, 2019

As modest increases in inventory begin to attract more buyers to the market, it may seem wise for your sellers to undertake renovation projects to boost their competitive edge. Kitchen and bathroom upgrades, for example, are among buyers’ most desired features and can fetch a handsome return on investment, according to the National Association of Home Builders. But even as remodeling demand rises—the NAHB predicts home improvement activity will jump 1.6% and 1.1% in 2019 and 2020, respectively—some real estate professionals aren’t sold on the idea that renovating always fast-tracks a home sale.

There are two types of homes that sell quickly in today’s market: fixer-uppers and completely renovated properties, says Blayne Pacelli, a sales associate with Rodeo Realty in Studio City, Calif. You’ll need to pay attention to local market dynamics to determine the salability of each type of home in your area. For example, if your market has an abundance of investors, who typically renovate anyway for flips or rental properties, your sellers may not need to upgrade their homes in order to sell. Traditional buyers, however, may want a move-in–ready property.

In the Los Angeles neighborhood where Pacelli works, investors and traditional buyers are both aplenty. His renovation advice to clients depends on each one’s situation. “If a house is already fixed up except, say, one bathroom, I would suggest updating that bathroom to [appeal to a wide market],” he says. “If the bathrooms and kitchen need updating, I would leave them as is” and market the home to investors.

Weighing Your Options

There’s no doubt that home improvement increases property values, but renovating can be expensive—and there’s no guarantee your clients will recoup all of the costs at resale. With that in mind, you must help your clients decide: Is the expense of remodeling worth it? Small improvements rather than large-scale projects may suffice. “Timing matters as does the cost to renovate,” says Elisa Uribe, a sales associate with Golden Gate Sotheby’s International Realty in Oakland, Calif. “It is a seller’s market in our area. In some cases, minor changes such as interior and exterior painting and updating the landscaping can add a lot of curb appeal and make the house more appealing to a buyer.”

Uribe has also used virtual staging to present renovation options to buyers, relieving her seller of having to do the work. In March, she sold a client’s unrenovated three-bedroom, one-bathroom home, built in 1910, at the list price of $564,000. The sale occurred even though the seller had not updated the property’s exterior siding, windows, landscaping, and hardwood floor finishes.

The buyer was attracted to Uribe’s virtual staging of the home, which showed what it would look like with the updates and new furniture. Uribe also virtually staged the home’s layout with an additional bathroom to show buyers the renovation possibilities. “My client was out of state and didn’t have the time, or the funds, to update the house himself,” Uribe says. “The buyer was an investor who planned to update the property and put it back on the market fully renovated.”

Less Is More

Sometimes, some form of home improvement is necessary to elevate the profile of an otherwise undesirable property. In these cases, it may be best to choose simple projects with big impact, such as refreshing the paint or hardwood finish. James McGrath, co-founder of Yoreevo LLC in New York, says one of his buyers recently closed on a condo that had been extensively renovated. The seller, an interior designer, saved money by designing the remodeling projects herself, but she still spent $100,000 on the actual work, which included gutting the kitchen and bathroom among other changes, McGrath says. “If it’s not the highest price per square foot in the building’s history, it’ll be pretty close,” he says of the deal.

The renovated unit received a lot of foot traffic, with 60 to 70 showings. “That being said, the owner won’t make money on the renovation,” McGrath says. Though the renovation generated a higher price for the condo—which McGrath’s client bought for $690,000— it wasn’t enough to cover the seller’s remodeling costs, he adds. This is an example of why McGrath suggests that homeowners avoid big projects prior to selling.

Another renovation con: While the improvements may be a hit with some buyers, others may have different preferences and won’t pay a higher price for the work that was done. In fact, McGrath’s buyer brought in his own contractor because he wanted to replace the tile in the kitchen and backroom. Though the tiles were new and in pristine condition, the buyer had a different vision for the space, McGrath says. “Presumably, the seller would have gotten the same offer from [my buyer] had she not spent thousands of dollars on those tiles.”

Protect Clients’ Bottom Lines

You can help keep your sellers on budget by reminding them that “restoring the home to a good state of repair” is all that’s necessary before listing, says Michael Edlen, SFR, a sales associate at Coldwell Banker Pacific Palisades in Pacific Palisades, Calif. But that may mean something different in each market. In areas where buyers have the advantage, a seller may need to do more work on his or her home. “If an owner does not perform basic repairs, many buyers tend to ‘horribilize’ what they think they see and how much it could cost to fix it.”

If your client’s home needs an overall update, focus on the smallest items that have the biggest impact first and test it on the market before deciding to invest in larger projects. Updated light fixtures and window treatments, which are eye-catching accents, are often enough to move buyers, says Dawn Levy, a sales associate with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Georgia Properties in Atlanta. If your clients want to take it a step further, they can install new energy efficient windows, which can be costly but is a huge selling point with buyers, Levy adds. “A home with good bones that needs a cosmetic facelift is much more appealing to buyers,” she says. “Price point also plays a role here.”

Of course, the value of any renovation depends on your market. What works in one area may not work in another, so you must be knowledgeable about your specific neighborhood. In New York, for example, condos and townhomes that aren’t completely renovated typically don’t get much attention from buyers, says Eric Rosen, a broker with Halstead Manhattan LLC. “If the apartment or townhouse requires work, then the seller would be penalized,” he says. “This means that the property will trade for less than the repairs would have netted in a sale.”

Danielle Braff

Danielle Braff is a freelance writer, living in Chicago with her husband, two daughters, two cats, and a dog. Learn more about her at DanielleBraff.com.

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