Remodeling magazine touts minor upgrades

The Baltimore SunJuly 19, 2013 

Pop quiz: What’s the home-improvement project that comes closest to paying for itself when you sell?

Not a snazzy new kitchen or bathroom. A lowly steel front door.

So says Remodeling magazine in its annual survey breaking down the cost benefits of spiffing up your home. Nationally, the survey says, replacing your door costs an average of $1,137 and has a resale value of $978.

“That’s the entrance of the home,” said Dave MacLean, director of sales at Brothers Services Co., a Hampstead, Md.-based remodeling firm. “That’s the absolute first impression.”

A steel door, if Remodeling magazine is right, will recoup 86 percent of its cost at sale. The survey suggests that beats the heck out of a major kitchen renovation (69 percent) or a bathroom remodel (65 percent).

The takeaway is to think on a smaller scale – at least if your priority is resale.

Costs for the survey’s five most valuable projects range from the $1,137 door to a minor kitchen improvement of about $18,500 (new cabinet fronts and hardware, plus replacement countertops and the like). For the bottom five, costs start at $11,400 for a backup power generator and top out at nearly $73,000 for a sunroom addition.

The survey relied on appraisers and real estate agents – about 3,900 nationally – for its resale estimates. But appraisers warn that home improvement is not an exact science. It depends on the property, the neighborhood and what buyers expect.

At a certain point – say, a property with a bathroom and kitchen predating the Eisenhower administration – you might need to do major updates just to get anyone in the door to look. And market expectations vary a lot by neighborhood.

In affluent areas, “you need to know your competition,” said Sharon L. Cremen, owner of Cremen Appraisal & Consulting Inc. in Forest Hill, Md. “If they all have these great gourmet kitchens, you need to have a gourmet kitchen if you’re putting your house on the market. Or you need to be extremely realistic about how much the property is going to sell for.”

Cremen, by the way, isn’t convinced that a steel front door gets you such a hefty return. It’s not that she doubts the importance of curb appeal, but she says this example of it so hard to measure. “Front door” isn’t even its own line item on her appraisal reports.

“There’s just no way to isolate the value of a front door,” she said.

Where she agrees with the survey findings is that simpler is generally more cost-effective. Replacing cabinet fronts and appliances, say, rather than gutting the kitchen. Or building a much-needed bathroom within the footprint of the house rather than adding on.

Really want a home office? You might not mind so much that Remodeling magazine’s survey says you’ll get only 44 percent of the cost back, on average. That’s dead last on the list of 22 typical – as opposed to upscale – home-improvement projects.

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