- - Thursday, September 27, 2012

Here’s a real estate riddle: What do most homeowners want even though they rarely use it?

The answer: a fireplace.

Look at the statistics. Even if it’s used only minimally, a fireplace in a home makes sense.

Sixty percent of new homes have at least one fireplace, compared with 36 percent of homes built in the early 1970s, the National Association of Home Builders reports. The same group surveyed homebuyers and found that they ranked fireplaces among the top three amenities (behind outdoor porches and upgraded kitchens). The National Association of Realtors reported that a fireplace increases the value of a home by nearly $12,000.

A sampling of Washington-area real estate agents agreed that fireplaces are high on many buyers’ wish lists, but most disagreed with the notion that a fireplace can add $12,000 to the value of a property.

“That number may be true in New England, but, in this area, it’s closer to $5,000 to $7,000 — that’s what most appraisers would say is the added value,” said Dana Scanlon, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Capital Properties in Bethesda.

Jennifer Hammond, an agent with TTR Sotheby’s International Realty in the District, said the bump in sales price from a fireplace is typically seen in new construction.

“For the past 10 years, we’ve seen a trend that when developers add a fireplace to a condo, the price goes up by $10,000,” she said, pointing out that the same does not hold true for existing properties on the market. “Just because your home has a fireplace, that doesn’t mean we’re going to add $10,000 to the asking price.”

Another trend that Ms. Hammond has noticed is smaller, sleeker fireplaces that don’t take up a great deal of wall space, particularly in condos. Condo dwellers typically prefer gas fireplaces.

“No one wants to carry wood up three flights of stairs,” she said.

But among owners of single-family houses, the preference for wood-burning fireplaces is growing, particularly in the past few years.

“We’ve been hit with some really bad snowstorms, and many people have lost power for days,” Ms. Hammond said. “With a wood-burning fireplace, you’ve at least got heat and light, and those are two amenities that people really love.”

If potential buyers view fireplaces in terms of practical backup sources of heat and light, they must be in working order. But that very well may not be the case. According to the American Housing Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 40 percent of fireplaces in residential properties are not usable.

David Myers — owner of 301 Chimney, a chimney repair company in Silver Spring — estimated that 90 percent to 95 percent of the fireplaces in older homes in the Washington suburbs likely would fail inspection.

“If the house is 40 to 50 years old — post War World II era — and the chimney has never been relined, that’s not going to be a working fireplace,” he said.

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