6 Home Renovations With Major Payoffs

Unless Ty Pennington and the crew from “ Extreme Makeover: Home Edition ” take on your renovation project, you’re likely to get weak-kneed looking at the estimate for the work or learning the terms of your home improvement loan.

If high prices, tough credit or falling home values have suddenly brought your fantasy makeover plans back to reality, the good news is that it’s often the more modest upgrades — not the grand additions — that offer the best return on your investment.

Another plus is that the sluggish remodeling market might make it easier to find available contractors and get their assistance with financing your project, even if they offer little wiggle room on the bill. Carol Friedhoff, a Certified Financial Planner in Dublin, Ohio, notes: “A lot of the builders are having to make extra concessions, trying to come up with creative financing.”

The February 2008 Leading Indicator for Remodeling Activity report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University projects that homeowner spending for home improvements will continue to decline, slipping at an annual rate of 2.6 percent through the third quarter of 2008.

“Contractors are much hungrier for the business now, much more responsive and more willing to negotiate on scheduling and things like that,” says Kermit Baker, director of the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center for Housing Studies.

“I’m guessing there will be some negotiating on pricing, too, but their labor costs have probably not gone down and their material costs have by and large gone up.”

In other words, don’t expect a big break on the price, but do look for more accommodation in other areas such as financing.

Homeowners are taking their time deciding whether to remodel, says Michael S. Hydeck, president of Hydeck & MacKay Builders Inc. in Pennsylvania and treasurer for the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. “The backup for projects and jobs is a lot smaller than it was a year or two years ago,” Hydeck says. “Most people are thinking and waiting.”

Waiting might not be such a bad thing, according to Friedhoff, if it means you can save enough money to pay cash for your project instead of having to borrow. “There’s a lot less risk, and you don’t have the possibility of owing more than the house is worth,” she says.

If you’re still mulling over your renovation options, here are six projects that can bring you a good value for your money.

1. Replace Your Siding

Exterior siding topped the list in Remodeling magazine’s 2007 Cost vs. Value report, which compared the construction costs of various projects to estimates of their resale value by members of the National Association of Realtors . Fiber-cement siding replacement came in at No. 1, with an estimated 88.1 percent of the cost recouped, while vinyl siding replacement had the third highest recoupment value at 83.2 percent.

Introduced nearly 100 years ago, fiber-cement siding is back in vogue, with cellulose replacing the asbestos of long-ago versions. The new and improved product is weather-resistant and extremely durable, says Tim Carter, a syndicated columnist who dispenses home improvement advice on his Web site askthebuilder.com .

And here’s an advantage over both wood and vinyl siding: “If you do it right, it really holds paint well,” Carter says. “The paint job can last 20 years.”

2. Build a Deck

Realtors in the Cost vs. Value survey estimated the average homeowner would recover 85.4 percent of the cost of a new wood deck from resale, giving this project the second highest value in the report. A composite deck addition — a costlier initial investment — was estimated to bring a 77.6 percent return.

Adding a deck is a relatively inexpensive way to gain more living space. “You can probably build a deck for $20 a square foot, labor and material,” Carter says. “If you were going to put a room on your house, you’re probably looking at $150 a square foot.”

3. Spice Up the Kitchen

A minor kitchen renovation ranked fourth in the survey, but in the eyes of Grand Rapids, Mich ., Realtor, and immediate past president of the National Association of Realtors, Pat V. Combs, this is the project that “brings the best value for the buck.”

Rolling on a new paint color, installing new countertops and putting on new cabinet and drawer handles are three ideas that only take a little out of your pocket but make a big impact, she says.

But if you have your heart set on a total kitchen overhaul at some point, remodeler Hydeck warns it’s probably not wise to sink too much money into piecemeal fix-ups in the meantime.

4. Install Energy-Efficient Windows

Combs is not surprised that wood and vinyl window replacements were each given about an 80 percent recoupment value in the Remodeling survey.

“People are very energy-conscious right now,” she says. “The cost of heating and cooling a home is important. It’s not just the purchase price (that homebuyers consider), it’s the cost per month to live in the home.”

To make sure your new windows are of the best quality, Carter says you should look for the certification label of the American Architectural Manufacturers Association. For energy efficiency, the Energy Star label of the National Fenestration Rating Council is the gold standard.

Don’t expect a quick return on your investment if you buy replacement windows, which can run upward of $10,000 for the whole house. If lowering your utility bills is your goal, it’s important to understand that it can take years for the savings to cover the cost of the windows.

5. Give the Bathroom a Facelift

Fixing up the bathroom, whether it’s an upgrade or simply for maintenance, is another reliable investment. “People like to pamper themselves, and they just don’t want to be in a grungy bathroom,” Carter says.

A midrange bathroom remodel has an estimated 78 percent resale value, according to the Cost vs. Value report.

6. Crown Your Walls

Crown molding is near the top of Carter’s personal list of easy, inexpensive upgrades with big impacts.

“It just really dresses up a room,” says Carter, who estimates that a do-it-yourselfer could outfit a room for less than $100.

“The best analogy I can give is that it’s like putting a tie on. When you wear a tie, it’s just a simple linear thing that dangles from your neck, but it’s very distinctive. Crown molding does the same thing to a room.”

Location, Location, Location

The value of any renovation project you choose depends a great deal on where you live and whether your home is in an entry-level or upscale market.

“Just like all real estate is local, all of these various upgrade projects are localized,” Combs says.

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