During the old high market, I never ceased to be in awe of buyers who closed on their new homes and then began ripping out and replacing just about everything to create the perfect environment for their lifestyle - sometimes at very great expense. They were largely undaunted by worries that the sum of these improvements might take a while to enhance the home's value in the marketplace.
Through time, not all home improvements have made sense -- we all see that now. The best upgrades had utilitarian as well as design value, the worst fulfilled that short-term desire for an icing-on-the-cake lifestyle. Like custom cabinets vs. semi-custom; whole house A/C vs. window units; finished basements vs. not-so-finished -- but still cute, still liveable.
Custom cabs make no sense if the rest of the house isn't up to custom standards -- if you're still walking on old, curled linoleum or staring up at florescent lights from 1965; A/C is a luxury in a house with an old roof and peeling shingles, for buyers will discount the aberrant upgrade and focus on the have-not part of the home in this, our new, frugal buying environment. Finished basements for more family space-- hey, who wouldn't want that? But what's so bad if it hasn't got wall-to-wall carpeting or the pipes are visible? What about just replacing that horrible commode and putting in a new one for $100? Forget the high-end tumbled marble down there.
And so here we are at the end of a brutal 2009 real estate market, faced with the official yearly cost vs. value report on home improvements -- and it's a lesson to us all. According to Realtor.com today, "the majority of the 10 remodeling projects with the best return on investment nationally are a testament to pragmatism. Six of the 10 projects, using a variety of materials, involve home maintenance that costs less than $14,000."
There will still be those who jump head first into home ownership with the dream of perfection -- and, if they have the money, who can stop them? -- but my fervent New Year's hope is that my buyers will find ways to enjoy what they have and to work toward perfection with caution and humility. For, as some have found the hard way, new kitchens and baths do not necessarily happiness -- or profit -- make.