MONEY home improvement

Tackle These Projects Before Selling Your Home (And After Buying)

Home improvement projects that pay off for buyers and sellers, according to Porch.com.

That outdated powder room you never bothered to fix up? Well, that’s not going to fly with potential buyers. So it makes sense that general contractors were the most popular project home sellers took on before listing their home, according to a new report from home improvement firm Porch.

What if you just moved in? You were far more likely to hire a painter.

Whether they’re buying or selling, many homeowners turn to home improvement projects to boost property value or enhance curb appeal. Porch’s analysis of more than half a million projects by region show that many popular projects go hand-in-hand with practical considerations such as repairs and home inspections.

For sellers: The most popular home improvement hires are general contractors and handymen, followed by electricians, plumbers, and roofing professionals. The reason is simple: to avoid any issues during home inspections.

Top Projects Sellers“Have a professional remodeler walk around the house with you inside and out,” Paul Sullivan, chair of National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Remodelers, recommended. It will “make the process much smoother.”

The work appears to pay off. Contractors provide, on average, 68% return on investment, according to Porch.

One surprise, Porch said: Not many sellers said they were hiring painters. A fresh coat of paint returns close to 100% of the money spent in boosted value, its report said. Sullivan cited one home in a Boston suburb which sold for $60,000 over the asking price within four days, which was “absolutely” due to improved presentation.

Sellers often wonder if they should make the investment in improvements solely to sell, says Tom O’Grady, of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. They might be comfortable accepting a lower selling price rather than risk not getting their money back in the form of a higher sale price.Top Projects Buyers

Painting is one of the first things buyers tackle after moving in. That brings an average return on investment of 152%, Porch says. Other top projects included installation of new appliances such as dishwashers and refrigerators, roof repair, and home inspections.

Larger endeavors like renovating kitchens and bathrooms are common, Sullivan added, but both he and O’Grady advised against making drastic, costly changes immediately after moving in.

Instead, O’Grady said, small enhancements like crown molding, new tiles, and better light fixtures can dramatically change a room, making it more comfortable for new owners until it’s financially feasible to do a complete renovation.

“Live in the house for a month or two and get a feel for the place,” Sullivan said. “When you’ve lived in a house for 10 years, you know its shortcomings. But when it’s a new house, you only think you know.”

TIME Television

The House Shows Boom: How the Real Estate Market Is Reflected on TV

American Dream Builders - Season 1
Nate Berkus, center, on 'American Dream Builders' Vivian Zink / NBC

Nate Berkus says that we watch housing shows because we want to live better — and it looks like he's onto something

Nate Berkus knows a lot about houses. The celebrity designer, who got his start with Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement and now makes news with his personal life, has spent years renovating and redecorating homes for TV-viewers’ pleasure. The latest evidence of his know-how is his role as host of the NBC home-improvement competition American Dream Builders, which has its first season finale on May 25.

But Berkus’ knowledge isn’t just limited to the houses themselves. During a recent conversation about the appeal of home-improvement shows, he told TIME that he has a theory about why they’re so popular. “No matter who we are, no matter how much money we have or don’t have, no matter where we are in the world, everybody wants to live better,” he said. “When we watch shows that inspire us to make changes in our own homes, when we see how other people live, I think that’s a really powerful message.”

Berkus added that he saw home design on TV for the first time with TLC’s Trading Spaces, which debuted in 2000, a one-time behemoth in the genre and the show that helped make decorating cool by supplementing the staider fare that has held court on public television for years (This Old House, Hometime). In the years since, he’s come to believe that viewers are looking for “inspiration” and really do want to change their lives, that even if viewers are not exactly going to replicate the projects at home they’re still interested in fixing their real-life living spaces.

But how much do such shows really correspond with what viewers are likely to be doing with their homes?

It turns out, Berkus may be onto something. If you compare the number of home shows on air during a given calendar year to real-world housing statistics, including housing starts, sales of existing homes and foreclosure filings, the numbers seem to follow a pattern. (Especially if you ignore shows on networks like HGTV and DIY, where they have to fill up their schedules pretty exclusively with home-improvement shows; on a network like TLC, the presence of home shows is more of a choice.) Here’s what we found:

Shortly after Trading Spaces took off, there was a burst in house-related shows, peaking around 2005 with a television schedule that included Trading Spaces, While You Were Out, Trading Spaces: Boys vs. Girls, Monster House, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, This Old House, Moving Up, Hometime, Flip That House, Flip This House, Sell This House and Property Ladder. Shortly after, the number of such shows declined. It’s worth noting that 2005 was right around when January housing starts and existing-home sales were way up.

On the other hand, 2010, when nearly as many housing shows were on air, was right after both housing starts and home sales hit a low and foreclosure filings hit a high. As the housing market has begun to recover from that bubble, the number of home-related shows has also increased, though not to the extent that was seen before the bubble.

Housing shows today aren’t the same as they once were. When Trading Spaces started, the genre was about redecorating and making the most of the space you lived in; the past decade has seen the growth of shows that are about improving houses in order to sell them rather than live in them.

It’s impossible to say whether there’s any causal relationship between the housing market and housing shows — some factors, like the celebrity of a person like Berkus, have little to do with stuff like mortgage data — but some of the relationships seem pretty obvious. For example, foreclosed homes are a big draw for house flippers who intend to buy cheap, fix up and sell for more; accordingly, the huge jump in foreclosure filings around 2006–2008 matches the jump in flipping shows around 2007, when more fodder for those shows was available. (Another possible explanation: more people having a harder time selling their homes means more people interested in watching homes be sold successfully on screen).

And again, while there’s no way to prove a causal link, the correlation may indicate good news for homes on- and off-screen. Though 2014’s crop of home shows so far remains below pre-bubble levels, those looking for hopeful signs may be able to find them on TV — and not only with Nate Berkus.

Though Berkus has made his fame in the renovation and redesign business, Jeff Lewis, who is behind a slew of Bravo shows, launched his first series, Flipping Out, right in the middle of the housing crisis, as foreclosure numbers climbed. A more recent edition to his oeuvre, however, deviates from the formula: during Interior Therapy with Jeff Lewis, which debuted as sales and construction climbed, the houses are renovated rather than flipped. His clients live in them, invest money in them, and plan to keep living there after. And that’s apparently what audiences want to see: the show’s second-season finale, which aired in September, drew its highest ratings yet.

On desktop, roll over this graphic to get a closer look; on mobile, click to zoom.

Heather Jones for TIME

Methodology: We looked at housing shows on network television, PBS, A&E, Bravo, TLC and Discovery; all show data is according to IMDb’s records, by calendar year rather than television season, in order to better mesh with non-television data. This does mean that one season of a fall-spring show will fall in two calendar years; one season of a summer show falls in one year. It also means that the 2014 show count, which looks low, is actually only half complete. Housing starts information is for the month of January in each year, per ForecastChart.com. Existing home sales information is for the month of January in each year, per Mortgage News Daily. Foreclosure filings information, not represented on the chart above but discussed in the text, is for the entire year, per RealtyTrac. RealtyTrac data for aggregate yearly foreclosure filings prior to 2005 was not available.

MONEY home improvement

Renovate Your Home: 5 Smart Fixes

Love your town but less crazy about your house? MONEY asked architects and designers across the country for creative, cost-effective ways to address the most common complaints people have about their living spaces.

Allyn Brown didn’t really like the cramped, choppy layout of his 1970s ranch home, but the location was just too good to give up.

The house sits on two mountaintop acres overlooking vineyards and orchards, just minutes from the vibrant downtown of Sherwood, Ore. — fifth on this year’s list of Best Places — and not far from where Brown’s two adult children and four grandchildren live.

“So rather than downsize or move into a retirement community, I decided to stay right here,” says Brown. He hired designer Joel Fraley, of Neil Kelly Company, and ordered up a $140,000 overhaul, which included opening the floor plan, modernizing the kitchen, and installing a wall of windows that offers panoramic views of the lush valley.

“It transformed a funky home into a truly spectacular place to live,” says the 68-year-old attorney.

Happy with where you live but not so hot on your living space? Now might be the perfect time to address your abode’s architectural flaws.

With real estate prices on the rise, it’s safer than it has been in years to invest in your home — especially when measured against the prospect of moving, notes real estate agent John Ranco, past president of the Greater Boston Association of Realtors.

“Remodeling away your house’s shortcomings can cost tens of thousands less than trading up to an already remodeled house, which commands a major premium now,” he says. In addition, you avoid realtor fees, moving costs, and the inevitable expense of making a new place your own, no matter how “turnkey” it is.

What’s more, improving a substandard home in a sought-after location may be the best real estate investment you can make, says Omaha appraiser John Bredemeyer, spokesperson for the Appraisal Institute. Spend wisely, and you could get back your project cost — or more — when you sell.

The key is to remodel efficiently, by recasting existing space wherever feasible (vs. putting on a costly addition) or at least building up rather than out (to avoid the cost of a foundation).

MONEY asked some innovative remodeling pros for cost-effective solutions to the issues that most commonly force people to move. One of their suggestions may just turn a house you like — with reservations — into a home you love.

The problem: No first-floor powder room

Many modest, two-story prewar homes lack facilities on the main floor. So every guest and grandparent has to traipse upstairs to use the loo.

Solution: Recast a closet. You can squeeze a powder room into a space as small as four feet by four feet or even three feet by five feet, says architect Chris Turley of Highland Park, Ill. One option is to repurpose a large coat closet, pantry, or under-stairs cubby. Alternatively, you could build new walls to carve the space out of a hallway, back foyer, or porch.

Related: America’s Best Places to Live

Keep in mind that the closer you put the bathroom to existing plumbing, the less it will cost. Horizontal drainpipes must be sloped properly and tied into a stack, a basement-to-rooftop pipe that vents out sewer gases. Adding a new stack means significant demolition to walls above and below — and cutting a hole in the roof. So try to build directly next to, above, or below the kitchen, the laundry room, or another bathroom.

Cost: $10,000 to $20,000 if you use the existing walls and door of a closet and have a basement or crawlspace underneath to give the plumber easy access. Need to build a room? Make it $15,000 to $25,000. Add $3,000 to $5,000 if the new WC isn’t near existing plumbing.

The problem: Master suite that’s not so sweet

In newer homes, the master bedroom typically offers generous floor space, walk-in closets, and a dedicated bathroom featuring dual sinks plus a separate shower and tub. In older homes? You’re lucky to get enough room to fit a king-size bed and a couple of dressers, let alone a bathroom.

Solution 1: Steal a bedroom. Expand your boudoir, bath, and wardrobe by taking over an adjacent bedroom. “A lot of people do this when the kids go off to college,” notes Indianapolis contractor Geoff Horen.

Even if you can’t get by with fewer rooms, he says, you can make things right by replacing the lost sleeping quarters up in the attic. This can also help you avoid taking a hit on property value.

“You always want to keep your bedroom count on par with the neighborhood,” says Horen. “So, in a four-bedroomhouse area, dropping to three may not be a good idea. But in a predominantly two-bedroom neighborhood, you’d still be way ahead of the Joneses.”

Cost: $40,000 to $80,000, since your project can range from a simple workaday bathroom and basic pole-and-shelf closet to a spa-style retreat with stone finishes and a bubbler tub for two, and a walk-in wardrobe outfitted with kitchen-quality cabinetry.

Solution 2: Build over the garage. Another possibility is to build a master suite over an attached garage. That’s no small job, since you’ll need to remove the roof, beef up the structure to hold the added weight, provide a vapor barrier to block car exhaust, and build out not just your master suite addition — from the structural framing to the decorative finishes — but a whole new roof on top of it. Plus, you may need to reconfigure your existing floor plan to provide an entrance that feeds off a main hallway. Still, because you avoid digging a new foundation, it could easily save $10,000 compared with a ground-level addition.

Cost: $50,000 to $80,000, depending on how much work the garage structure needs and how high-end you go with your project.

The problem: Bedroom shortage

For growing families, the number of bedrooms is often the biggest factor motivating a move to a bigger and more costly home. Because bedrooms do not require the plumbing, tiling, or appliances other rooms do, however, they can be fairly inexpensive to add — and may significantly increase your house’s value, says Buffalo Grove, Ill., architect David Wytmar.

Solution: Convert the attic. The ideal place to add bedrooms is the square footage you already own up in the attic. Not every attic is easy to finish, though. First of all, you’ll need a full-size stairway for the main access (a cliff-steep stair or pull-down ladder won’t cut it). You’ll also need a means of emergency exit, though that could be accomplished with a simple built-in rope ladder.

Related: Where homes are affordable

The bigger attic issue is the Rule of Sevens: By code, you generally need at least 50% of the finished space to be at least seven feet high, and that portion must also be at least seven feet wide and at least 70 square feet. To create more full-height space, you can add a dormer, says Riverton, N.J., architect Bogna Pro. That basically means raising part of the roof to provide more clearance.

Cost: $20,000 to $30,000 to strengthen the floor, insulate, and finish the space, assuming you have stair access. Add around $10,000 to $30,000 for a dormer, $10,000 for stairs, and $40,000 for a bathroom.

The problem: Kitchen is too small

Kitchens didn’t become the hubs of houses until the 1980s. So older homes often have cramped, closed-off cooking areas that are short on storage, prep space, and room for eating. In a recent CNNMoney.com poll, 18% of respondents complained that their home’s biggest flaw was an undersize kitchen.

Solution 1: Lose a wall. “Removing the wall between the dining room and kitchen creates a feeling of spaciousness — and also clears room for an island or peninsula that can become a key workstation or a place for family and guests to congregate,” says Portland, Ore., kitchen and bath designer Erin Davis. Putting stools around that new island allows you to lose the kitchenette set, if you want, making way for even more cabinets and countertops.

Tearing down walls improved the flow of Allyn Brown’s house. It was also an ideal solution for Angie and George Devanney, 42 and 51, of Berkeley Heights, N.J., No. 6 on our Best Places list.

“Our kids were getting bigger, and it was tough to squeeze around the kitchen table,” says Angie. Removing two walls as part of their $60,000 kitchen makeover kept the character of the old house — “and we got the livability of a brand-new home at a fraction of the cost,” says Angie.

Cost: $5,000 to $8,000 to remove the wall and refinish the surrounding floor, ceiling, and walls, with the ultimate cost depending on whether you need to add a beam or move plumbing. This does not include costs to redo the kitchen, which range from $30,000 to $100,000, depending on labor, finishes, and appliances.

Solution 2: Hang a small addition. Want to keep the dining room as is? Put on a small kitchen addition that hangs off the side of the house rather than sits on top of a full foundation.

This “air rights” space can’t be any deeper than two feet, but it can run the length of the room, potentially adding just enough square footage to reconfigure the kitchen layout. You might go from an L- to a U-shaped design, for example, or gain the space for a breakfast-bar island.

Cost: $10,000 to $15,000 for a two-foot- by-10-foot bump-out, plus the cost of your kitchen remodel.

The problem: No place to play

Today’s high-end houses are built with spacious rec rooms, sometimes including wet bars and home theaters. That gives tots a place to romp, older kids a spot to play videogames, and parents another area for entertaining.

Unfortunately, few pre-1990s homes offer such a space, which 35% of homebuyers think is “very important,” according to a survey by the National Association of Realtors. One in 10 respondents to our CNNMoney.com poll ranked the lack of a rec room as their home’s biggest flaw.

Solution: Finish the basement. The answer for Tom and Karen Henry, both 59, of No. 1 Best Place Sharon, Mass., was under their house. In 2007, they turned their cellar into a family room.

“It was our teenage daughter’s idea because she wanted a hangout spot with some healthy distance from her parents,” Tom says. Luckily their basement ceiling was high enough. In order to make this work, you’ll typically need a ceiling height of seven feet (check your local building code), including under beams, pipes, and ductwork in main traffic areas.

You also must resolve moisture issues first. That could be as simple as repairing roof gutters to eliminate the source of water. Or you might need a sump pump, possibly with drainage piping cut into the floor around the perimeter to collect and discharge water that gets in.

Cost: $30,000 to $50,000 to finish the basement, which would include adding insulation, putting up walls and ceilings, installing flooring, wiring electricity and lighting, and connecting to your heating and cooling system.

Figure on paying an additional $15,000 or so for a wet bar and $20,000 or so for a bathroom. To relocate a duct or pipe, you’ll pay up to $2,000 more; raising a main carrying beam could set you back $5,000. A sump pump, with drainage piping, could run $4,000 to $10,000.

The Henrys wound up going whole hog with their basement, spending $125,000 for a 900-square-foot living area that includes a tricked-out home theater, pool table, mini-kitchen, and laundry room. “We had no idea how far we’d wind up taking this — or how great it would turn out,” says Tom. “It’s part man cave, part mom cave, and part kid cave. And it’s one more reason that we’ll never leave this house.”

MONEY home improvement

Find the Best Handyman for the Job

For a busy — or simply hammerphobic — homeowner, it sounds almost too good to be true: A hired handyman (or woman) could tackle your odd jobs for about a third of the cost, time, and hassle of a general contractor.

There are plenty of jacks-of-all-trades out there, but is it possible to find one you can really rely on? The answer is yes—provided you know where to look and what chores to give him.

Pick the right project

“A handyman should do only things that a proficient homeowner could handle himself if he had the time,” says “Handyman Fran” Carito of Watertown, Mass.

That might include installing a ceiling fan, freeing a stuck window sash, or replacing a light fixture, faucet, or cracked windowpane.

Go with a licensed tradesman instead for work inside walls, like replacing a pipe or adding an electrical circuit; specialized tasks (say, repairing a roof leak or installing tiles); and, of course, remodeling.

Tap your network

General contractors don’t usually like to bother with small fix-up tasks anyway, so if you have a good working rapport with one, he might be willing to suggest one of his guys who takes side jobs.

Or ask a contact at a local school, church, or office park to recommend a staff handyman who does some moonlighting. Otherwise, check with friends for referrals.

A long-established local sole proprietor may be the most expert and reasonably priced option. A larger company, though, is more likely to carry insurance, especially if it’s part of a national franchise such as Mr. Handyman or House Doctors.

Get an estimate

Unlike contractors, who name their price upfront, handymen bill you for the materials they use and the time they spend — typically at around $40 to $70 an hour. That’s because, ironically, it’s trickier to commit to a fixed price for a little job, says Madison handyman Adam Shirley.

Still, ask for an estimate — and consider setting a ceiling. For instance, you could designate a half-hour for trying to repair a dripping faucet before replacing it instead.

Start small

Just as you might audition a car mechanic with routine oil changes, test your new handyman’s mettle with low-tech stuff, such as clearing clogged gutters or installing garage shelves.

It’s best to combine a few of these small projects, since most pros either have a two- to four-hour minimum or impose a one-hour service charge. Then let him earn his way to bigger assignments that require craftsmanship — and if he nails those, put his number on speed dial.

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