Jan 172017

A question we often hear from potential sellers is whether or not they should renovate or otherwise improve the property before selling. While there’s no one correct answer (except “it depends”), most licensees will recommend some degree of “freshening” — cosmetic improvements that might fall under the headings of staging or curb appeal.

But what about the “bigger” stuff? Should we remodel the bathroom?

Every year Remodeling Magazine reports the results of research designed to determine which projects have the greatest dollar return. The results of the most recent survey are reported on REALTOR.COM and might surprise you. While sexy renovations may help with the sale, it doesn’t necessarily mean a great increase in value. The top return was attic insulation–statistically it returns more than the cost.

We ought to bear in mind (and explain to prospective sellers) that the value of the improvement shouldn’t simply be measured in dollars, but having some data beats pulling our opinions out of the air. If you look at the chart, note also there are regional differences. Also, pay attention to what people are saying. I know when I talk with folks who are buying and selling two things that come up consistently are “energy efficiency” and “aging friendly.” It shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that in Maine where we have an aging population and some mighty cold weather.

One of the funnier questions I had a few years ago came from a young couple who wondered, “Should we remodel and add a bedroom if we’re planning to sell in ten years–will we get back the money we spend?” That’s some strategic thinking! In this case, they ultimately decided ten years living in a home with the additional bedroom would be worth spending the money–even if the long-term payback wasn’t guaranteed. There are too many “it depends” to answer the dollar question with any degree of certainty.

Seth Godin recently wrote a piece (Economics Is Messy) about the difference between value and profit. When considering the “Should I renovate…?” question, it’s an important distinction. The average dollar “return” on improvements is about 64%, making most improvements a loss if we only measure in dollars. When we look at the value we include factors like how much more salable the property becomes and how much pleasure the current owner will reap from the improvement. Those factors add value and may well offset the lack of dollar profit.