How to prioritize when remodeling


So you’ve bought a new home and now you want to make it your dream home.  Where do you start?  That’s presuming that you’ve completed the real first step of balancing your checkbook after all those closing and moving costs to determine what your budget really is (leaving a cushion for unexpected costs).  How do you prioritize your wish list?  As a home inspector, I would recommend going through your inspection report and making a checklist of all the things that were listed as needing repair or improvement, and then add all the things that you really want to do like the new bath or kitchen.  Then you start pairing down.


It’s helpful to mark each item on your list with a few category types.  The items from the home inspection report will mostly fall into four categories – life safety repairs, life safety improvements, future repairs, and maintenance.  Hopefully, you had the life safety repairs completed before you moved in, but if not, these items should have the highest priority.  The importance of life safety improvements, however, depends on your own preferences and circumstances.  For example, as home inspectors, we will always recommend installing receptacles with ground fault circuit interrupt protection in all your wet areas – the kitchen, bathrooms, and the exterior, but how important is that to you, especially after you have seen the cutest new light fixture that would be perfect for the dining room?  Do you fix the deck railing that has openings larger than what is permitted by today’s code?  If you have small children, the answer is maybe, otherwise probably not.  And here is the dirty little secret about repairs and maintenance.  They mostly are not completed until they have to be completed.  Even a newly built house will have more dings and wear than will ever get attended to in a typical year.  You have to decide what your comfort level with neglect is going to be.  A good way to manage this is to compare the cost of fixing something with the cost of neglecting it.  If the cost is upside down, i.e. will it cost much more next year or the year after that, maybe that item should be somewhere closer to the top of your priority list.  A good example of this is the toilet that runs a little in the night.  You hear it as you are getting ready for sleep.  It only runs for a couple of seconds, but it is annoying.  Then you fall asleep and forget about it until tomorrow night.  A running toilet loses water all through the day, and water costs can be high, especially in municipalities with water restrictions due to drought.  And the repair cost may be as inexpensive as a replacement flapper seal totaling a few dollars.  Fix the flapper, you will sleep better.


Now we get to the fun stuff.  You want new paint, landscaping, new bath, new kitchen, maybe new hardwood floors. . . .  The would-like-to-have list is endless.  How do you choose?  The obvious answer is whatever makes you happy.  But the list is endless, and trust me on this, trying to complete an endless list will not bring you happiness.  What is realistic?  You have to balance, time, inconvenience, and your budget – do not forget the budget.  Then take a moment and be pragmatic (or coldly calculating, if you prefer).  What will add the most to your resale value?  You may think that you don’t care.  You’ve found your home and you have no intention of ever leaving.  You may be right, but what if you aren’t?  Things do change.  Life gets in the way or just evolves.  Maybe a family or career crisis will take you across the country.  Maybe a dream opportunity will take you around the world.  You never know so be prepared.


So what home improvements have the best value?  Anything that increases the living space will always increase resale value if well done.  Other high impact areas are the bathrooms, the kitchen, and curb appeal.  Bathroom and kitchen remodels can be very cost effective, especially if you are updating an older home with a layout and fixtures from a previous generation.  Sometimes even modest improvements to landscaping and the façade of a home can provide substantial bang for the buck. 


So what not to do?  First, know the difference between updating and merely being trendy.  An update brings a house more in line with current living habits; a trend is something that everyone is doing today, but may be a deal breaker in just a few short years.  Open floor plans, bigger kitchens with room for socializing are example of updates.  Regretfully, things like expensive media rooms are looking like a trend (on its’ way out).  Secondly, don’t over personalize.  You may be the hippest, most funky person on the block, and your friends love you for that, but they wouldn’t necessarily want to buy your house after you made it your own.  Classic finishes and colors are classic because they have held up well over time.  Paisley wall paper is fun if you lived in Haight-Ashbury in the 60’s, or wished that you did, but it is possible that will not show as well on the home tour when you put your house back on the market.  That doesn’t mean you can’t live hip and/or funky.  Find the ‘you’ in your decorations and furnishings if you have to; just make sure that the funky is portable.  That way it can move with you to your next home.  And please respect your canvas and don’t make changes that contrast with your house’s basic style.  If you have a cute Victorian cottage, it will not be improved by a modern addition, or vice versa. 


And finally, know your limits.  Sweat equity can be a great investment, but only if done right.  As a home inspector, most of the deficiencies that we see stem from poorly executed do it yourself work.  Do your homework and research any project that you are tackling for the first time.  There are a wealth of resources to tap into from books, videos, and classes at the local home improvement warehouse.  And be willing to practice on a small scale before you tackle the big jobs.  Even with all the knowledge in the world, some jobs take practice to develop the right touch to do them well.  And be willing to admit that some jobs are not right for you.  I can hang sheet rock with the best of them, but I’ve finally admitted that I just don’t have the touch to finish sheet rock efficiently and well.  I’ve been much happier with the results ever since I relinquished the joint compound trowel.      


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