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Cover story: Home projects with an eye to resale value

- - Thursday, May 10, 2012

Last year, Americans spent $115.8 billion on home improvements, according to Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies. The American Housing Survey, conducted by the Census Bureau, estimates there are 76.4 million owner-occupied homes in the United States. Crunch those numbers, and it works out to the average household spending $1,515.15 a year on home improvements.

Interestingly, the number 15 in numerology signifies home, family and domestic harmony.

But even if homeowners are not running complex calculations or pondering numerology, most people do think about the impact remodeling projects will have on the resale value of their home - whether that sale is imminent or years down the road.

While every home is different, many improvement projects revolve around the same factors - appliances, counters, cabinets, flooring, wall colors, lighting and hardware. Talk to a handful of house stagers, Realtors, and builders, and clear trends emerge about what's hot and what's not.

Stainless steel appliances have been hot, hot, hot for years. But Harold Huggins, owner of Harold H. Huggins Realty in Burtonsville, said they are no longer the rage they once were.

"Some people don't like how it shows all the fingerprints," he said. "It's OK to go with black appliances."

Lynn Chevalier, owner and lead stager of Staged Right in Falls Church, said homebuyers, particularly those closer in to the city, still want stainless steel.

"Black smudges as much as stainless," she said.

Joseph G. Zorc, a builder and also a Realtor with Coldwell Banker in Georgetown, said he's heard some rumblings about how difficult it is to maintain stainless steel but added that it's still a high priority for buyers.

"It looks perfect at the open house - it gives kitchens a nice, clean look," he said.

Dave Lloyd, a Realtor with Weichert, Realtors in Arlington, agreed that stainless steel appliances are still a good investment because they attract more potential buyers.

"When you advertise a house and you can say 'stainless steel kitchen,' that will draw more people to the open house," he said, adding that the same holds true for granite counters. "You're limited to very few words in those listings, but those two things are high-impact."

Across the board, the real estate professionals agreed that granite counters are still in fashion, but they also all noted that the darker granites - especially the blacks and dark greens - are fading in popularity. Instead, lighter colors - primarily whites, creams, and tans - are in vogue.

Cindy Fortin, president of Cynthia Anne Interiors, a home-staging firm in Hamilton, Va., said the lighter counters offset dark wood cabinets.

"You're seeing espresso- and ebony-colored cabinets," she said.

Wearing his builder hat, Mr. Zorc said more than half of his new homes are going with light-colored painted cabinets.

"They're off-white or cream," he said, adding that this look is more flexible for making other changes in the kitchen. "You can change the floor color, change the backsplash, change the counters."

Mr. Lloyd said light painted cabinets are a good choice for smaller kitchens because they make the whole room appear lighter and more open, but he conceded that he is seeing darker cabinets in larger kitchens.

"Either way, you don't want to go with in-between colors - no maples, no honey woods - that looks dated," he said.

Mr. Zorc pointed out that Washingtonians once were enamored of walnut cabinetry, but that trend is waning.

"Natural wood-grain cabinets can be tricky because then you're stuck trying to match up the floorboards," he said.

Many homes in the Washington area have three-quarter-inch oak hardwood floors, Mr. Lloyd said, noting that it's well worth the money to refinish them.

"Don't put a laminate finish over the hardwood because that can't be sanded off and refinished," he said. "Don't put an artificial wood like Pergo over them."

Mr. Zorc agreed that laminated and veneered factory-finished woods are not the way to go.

"These are susceptible to heel marks and delamination with water damage," he said, adding that a new line of vinyl composition tile has the look of hardwood and is available in various grains, colors and lengths. "These are great on concrete floors in basements."

Mr. Huggins said not everyone is a fan of hardwood floors. "It's 50-50 between hardwood and carpeting," he said.

But Ms. Chevalier said hardwood is still a must-have, especially when it comes to the main level.

"Possibly, some people might want carpeting in the bedrooms," she said.

When it comes to carpeting, Mr. Lloyd said it's best to go with a solid neutral with no wild textures.

Mr. Zorc agreed that neutral, light-colored carpeting is best, and he advised steering clear of Berber because the carpet's loops are easily torn and it shows wear in high-traffic areas.

Going light and neutral is good advice when it comes to choosing wall colors, as well.

"We're getting away from the brown family of beiges and seeing more creams and yellow tones," Ms. Fortin said. "For contemporary homes, gray is in right now."

Bluish-green grays are popular in bedrooms, Ms. Chevalier said, adding that flat paints are a good choice if the walls have flaws.

"Flat paint hides imperfections much better than glosses," she said.

Mr. Zorc said he'd also be careful about having too many different colors in a home. "White ceilings are classic and make a huge difference," he said.

Mr. Lloyd recommended painting all the woodwork in the home a bright white. "That makes a room pop," he said.

Another "pop" factor for a home is the lighting.

"We're seeing a lot of drum lamps and shades - that's a timeless look," Ms. Chevalier said. "When you get ready to redo your lighting, check out the design magazines to see what's current."

Mr. Lloyd pointed out that the Washington area has a great deal of builder-grade polished-brass lighting.

"You want to replace all of that, but it doesn't have to cost a fortune because so many stores sell close reproductions of high-end light fixtures," he said, noting that the biggest expense is hiring an electrician.

"Save money by picking out all of your lighting for the whole house so the electrician can do it all at once," he said.

Polished brass in hardware - doorknobs, light plates, outlet covers - is passe, the experts agreed.

"Brushed brass is coming in, and it's not bad-looking," Ms. Chevalier said, adding that other popular finishes are burnished bronze, stainless steel and wrought iron.

Ms. Fortin said the hardware is really the jewelry of the room. "Even so, don't overspend in that direction," she said.

Before embarking on an expensive remodeling project, Mr. Lloyd said it's a good idea to bring in a Realtor or stager for a consultation.

"A lot of sellers think they'll never pick out exactly what the next owners would like, so they wind up doing nothing," he said. "But investing money in your house is always a wise move because it's often your largest investment."