- - 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.

Relining a chimney for an average-size fireplace typically costs $1,500 to $2,500; if it’s a large fireplace with a three-story chimney, the repair price may go up to $5,000, Mr. Myers said, adding that relining a chimney typically takes a day or two.

He said he advises sellers to fix their fireplaces before putting their properties on the market.

“Everyone hates spending money when they’re getting ready to sell their house, but you either fix it or disclose it and negotiate the repair cost as part of settlement, or you risk it being a deal-breaker at the last minute,” he said.

Ms. Hammond agreed that it’s worth it to fix a fireplace, particularly if it will cost less than $2,000.

“An old fireplace that’s not working can be a fire hazard, and that can kill a deal when it fails home inspection,” she said.

But Virginia Cheezum, a real estate agent with Re/Max Allegiance in Fairfax, said she has never had a fireplace be a deal-breaker.

“I do not advise my sellers to fix things like an inoperable fireplace because if you go through and make all the obvious repairs, you leave nothing for the home inspector to ‘find,’ and his job is to find things, so he will,” she said.

Ms. Scanlon said many sellers tell her that they haven’t used their fireplaces for years, so she advises them to wait and see whether a problem arises during the home inspection. If an expensive repair is needed, the sellers have the option to add a line in their contract that says: “Fireplace conveys as is.”

Still, Ms. Scanlon said, it doesn’t hurt to have the chimney pre-inspected and cleaned before putting a home on the market.

“A lot of chimney companies will give you a one-year warranty on their work, and that’s peace of mind for potential buyers,” she said.

Because a working fireplace is such a big asset when selling a home, it makes sense to highlight that fact in the marketing materials, said David Lloyd, an agent with Weichert, Realtors in Arlington.

“To be able to say ‘wood-burning fireplace’ or ‘gas fireplace’ in the listing is high-impact,” he said. “You also want to be sure to have fireplace shots in any videos or brochures.”

To show off a fireplace to its maximum appeal, Manuela Tantawy, owner of the Staging Fashionista in Woodbridge, said the first step is to eliminate all the personal items from the mantle.

“Most people use their mantles for family photos and to showcase trophies and kids’ artwork,” she said, adding that this is not a good look. “You want the mantle to be sleek and cleaned off.”

Ms. Tantawy recommends hanging a large mirror or a beautiful painting in the space over the mantle.

“You want that to be the center of attention,” she said. “For the mantle, you want symmetry with a little group of three things of varying heights — like vases or candles — on either side.”

Don’t block the fireplace with couches or chairs, Ms. Tantawy said. “You want to be able to walk up to the fireplace.”

For the hearth, she said, it’s a nice touch to have elegant fire tools and perhaps a basket with wood or blankets. “It’s a very cozy look, and people really respond to it.”

If it’s a cold day, it makes sense to light a fire for a showing or open house, Ms. Tantawy said.

“Obviously, it would be ridiculous in the summer, but it might be nice to put candles or a candelabra in the fireplace so you’re not left with a big black hole,” she said.

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