- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2001

Nothing may be more valuable to the resale of a home than a fresh coat of paint or varnish on the front door. Those who might think they'll cash in by finishing off that basement recreation room probably would do better to save their money.

Realtors say some home improvements provide a better return on investment than others, especially in this current sellers' market, where just about any home, in any neighborhood, will pique someone's interest.

One home-improvement contractor says, however, that his customers are looking at the sellers' market and finding more reason to stay put in their current homes.

Business is good, says Barry Chadda of Fairfax, a home-improvement contractor since 1991. His crew of six is working steadily, and he has a waiting list of projects. Kitchens are the most popular renovation, Mr. Chadda says, with bathrooms and sun-room additions following closely behind. A kitchen make-over averages about $12,000, he says.

Most of the business, he says, is coming from folks who have opted out of the current real estate market, where buyers are waging bidding wars for the few homes that are available.

"They are renovating instead of moving," Mr. Chadda says. "It's a sellers' market right now, so they don't have to worry about [renovations for resale] right now." He says folks are looking at additions and renovations as a way of making their current home more livable rather than as a means of increasing their value.

But some home improvements actually do increase the value of a resale, and they are essential if a house has been used as a rental property, Realtors say.

Under current market conditions, just about any home can be sold "as is," Realtors say. For those who want to get top dollar for their home, however, the best solution just might be found in a couple of cans of paint.

A $2,500 investment in paint could yield as much as $5,000 more in the asking price, says one Realtor in Gaithersburg who asked not to be identified. A similar return can be expected for new carpet and for resale purposes, it doesn't have to be the most expensive, high-quality carpet, the Realtor says, just so it's new.

The best home improvement for the resale market is "painting," says Laine Carnahan, a Realtor with Avery-Hess in Springfield.

"Especially the front door," she says. "And what people see when they first arrive."

"In this market," she says, "you will recoup."

About paint and probably inexpensive but fresh carpet, Mrs. Carnahan says, "You will recoup that and maybe some more if you've got some people bidding on the house. There are so few houses on the market in good condition, in good locations, I think you could sell just about anything right now. It's unbelievable."

Realtor Barbara Patton of McEnearney Associates in McLean agrees.

"That first impression is so important," she says. "The entryway is so important. It has to be freshly painted, preferably with the floor looking very good. An updated foyer floor is a definite improvement."

"If they spruce it up, they'll get their money back and then some," Mrs. Patton says, "and they'll get faster contracts."

Kitchens and bathrooms can survive a "dated" look in a resale home if they sport a fresh coat of paint, the Realtors say. More extensive renovation can be a selling point, says Mrs. Carnahan, who has been selling real estate in the region for 20 years.

"Obviously, a brand-new kitchen is a major selling point," Mrs. Patton says, "but it is very expensive."

She suggests freshening up a kitchen by installing a new floor or counter tops or lightening the color of older wooden cabinets. Another trick to update an older kitchen is merely to replace old cabinet hardware or install new light fixtures, Mrs. Patton says.

"If a house is tired-looking, that's going to make a difference," she says. "There are a lot of inexpensive ways to spruce up without going the whole nine yards. It will definitely give you the edge."

Some projects probably aren't worth much to the value of a home in the resale market, Mrs. Carnahan says.

"With pools and landscaping, maybe you'll get a faster resale, but I'm not sure you get your money back," Mrs. Carnahan says.

Mrs. Patton, a Realtor in the area for 10 years, agrees that pools are an iffy investment so far as home improvements go.

"It's probably a 50-50 wash," she says. "People should put in a pool if they want a pool. It can be a bonus if the buyer doesn't have small children." But pool maintenance can turn some buyers away from a house, Mrs. Patton says.

As for landscaping, Mrs. Patton says, "You will get your money out of landscaping if you don't overdo it."

Mrs. Carnahan says finishing a basement adds value to a resale "if it creates a 'legal bedroom,'" with a separate entrance. "As for a rec room with a wet bar," she says, "no."

"I tell people, 'If you're thinking about doing it, go ahead and enjoy it while you're there and don't worry about tacking it on when you sell it,'" she says.

Mrs. Patton agrees.

"In this market, what I'm finding is that if someone has not finished a rec room, it's not as much of a problem. Those that are done well they will definitely get their money back out of it."

She adds that one feature most often overlooked in basement refinishing projects is lighting, which should be inviting and should make the space more livable.

Homeowners who are considering home improvement as a way of increasing the value of their home for resale need to take their location into consideration. Despite the current sellers' market, location still is a prime factor in real estate sales. It is possible to invest so heavily in an expensive addition that it might price the house out of the market in its neighborhood.

"You can 'over' improve," says Miss Carnahan, who recommends that homeowners "look at all the [tax] assessments in the neighborhood."

"Look at the highest assessment and see what they've done and move ahead, based on that. Check and make sure that the home is a similar model and compare," she says.

Having the most expensive home in the neighborhood might be good for some egos, but it isn't much help on the resale market, where a similar neighboring house without the expensive addition, pool or landscaping probably will sell more quickly.

Homeowners can check current tax assessments for neighboring homes in their county courthouse or, in many cases, on line.

Mr. Votel is editor of the Friday Home Guide.

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