It’s so easy, once you’re in the clutches of home improvement, to keep improving.
The new paint makes the cabinets look bad. The new cabinets make the appliances look bad. The new appliances make the floor look bad. The new kitchen makes the bathroom seem dated, and pretty soon you’re fixing up the neighbor’s house.
While we’re at it are the most expensive words in home improvement.
But stop short, and your home can end up looking like one of those women who have their faces lifted so tight they look as if they came out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, while their necks are still as wobbly as a Tom Turkey’s.
My friends, home improvement, like plastic surgery, is a slippery slope. Not enough can backfire. And so can too much.
I contemplated all this as I fixed up my parents’ 50-year-old-and-looked-it house to get it ready to sell. My goal was to hit that happy intersection of spend the least and net the most.
Thankfully, I was working with a good friend. Bill Wood is a California real estate agent who knows houses, knows sellers, knows me (so can protect me from myself) and knows where to draw the line.
He knows that the improvements you make when you’re fixing to sell — not dwell — involve a very different calculus.
For instance, if you’re staying put, you might spring for slightly higher-end finishes, and take more time deciding. Heck, last time I chose tile for a home I owned and lived in, it took me three days, five trips to the tile store and a pint of Haagen-Dazs. This time I chose in under three minutes.
That’s because when you’re fixing to sell, you must stay focused on the four filters: Nice, New, Neutral and Necessary.
Last week, I told you about the improvements we made at the old homestead. We scraped the shell, and chose new paint, flooring and finishes to give the house a sure hand, a warm but neutral background for a new owner to build on.
But as important to the bottom line is what we didn’t do and why. Besides getting Wood’s thoughts, I canvassed another fix-and-flip friend, Susan Beane, of Denver. I folded her advice in with Wood’s and mine for this list of improvements you can skip.
— Don’t over improve for the neighborhood. If everyone on the block has a gourmet kitchen and a Jacuzzi bathtub, you may need to step up those areas, but if most don’t, don’t add them. That was the case here. No Jacuzzi baths, no fancy kitchens. I chose fixtures in keeping with the home’s roots — modest and practical.
— Don’t replace what doesn’t matter. Focus on entries and main areas. Don’t fret about secondary areas like garages and laundry room. “If the entry tile looks bad, I replace it,” said Beane. “If the laundry room tile looks bad, I give it a good cleaning.” In the garage, don’t bother putting in built-ins or epoxy on the floor. Buyers won’t care.
— Don’t replace what can be cleaned. The home’s old shower enclosures were spotted and rickety with calcification. But new enclosures would be expensive and we would not have netted the gain. Wood thought a power clean would get rid of the build-up, restore the shine and make the doors slide like new. He was right. Super cleaning dirty grout on tiled areas can also bring sparkle back to an old surface.
— Don’t replace what can be embellished. Rather than tear out old baseboards or trim just beef then up, said Beane. Adding more molding to what exists and painting it often gets the results you want for less.
— Don’t replace what you can paint. An ugly brick fireplace is a great example. Don’t replace it, paint it. Same with dated wood paneling. Even old tile can be painted with tile paint.
— Don’t replace what can be repaired. Enough said.
— Don’t replace what can be staged. If a kitchen backsplash is in good shape, but not special, stage it with plants and a raised cookbook display.
— Don’t replace what buyers don’t notice. I like solid wood doors, and would put them in a home I planned to stay in, but replacing this home’s hollow doors with solid ones would not have been worth it. The improvement is too subtle.
— Don’t add what’s best omitted. Window treatments are a perfect example. Remove old drapery and leave windows uncovered, or cover them with plain vanilla blinds. Similarly, don’t feel compelled to extensively stage an empty home.
— Don’t replace what the new owner would rather buy. The stovetop in this home looked OK, but didn’t work well. Since it didn’t detract, rather than pay to replace it or have it fixed, we decided we’d let the new owner replace it with gas or electric, which is a personal preference best left to them.
— Don’t overachieve. Save the Italian marble for your dream house, which this isn’t, remember.