The "Ten Best Home Improvements" is an oft-cited list in newspapers and shelter magazines. But what about the worst improvements?
Since the bad ones rarely rate a mention, here's a look -- realizing, of course, that we're not talking about personal taste, need or comfort. This list, rather, comes from a strictly return-on-investment point of view.
-- Swimming pools. Pools top everyone's list of don't-do-its, if only because not everyone wants one. So if you put a pool in your backyard, you are eliminating better than half your potential market, and you haven't even put up a "For Sale" sign yet. You want to appeal to the largest buyer pool possible, no pun intended.
Beyond that, there's the cost. The experts maintain that unless you are in a neighborhood where pools are an anticipated amenity, not an unexpected one, you'll be lucky to recoup half the cost. Ditto for basketball and tennis courts.
Doug Rogers of Century 21 Millennium in Pineville, La., recently went on a listing appointment in a subdivision of $200,000 houses. Once he got there, the owners "couldn't wait to show me" their new $45,000 pool. And, of course, they wanted to ask $260,000 for their otherwise ordinary house.
At closing, though, the pool netted them just $7,000, which means they took a loss of $38,000.
Better to join a country club or perhaps the local YMCA. In Virginia, where pools are good only three months out of the year, John Statton of RE/MAX Action Real Estate in Mechanicsville says you can join a local pool for $300 a year -- without the increase in homeowners' insurance that owning a pool brings.
It's "weird but true," says Northern California agent Lloyd Binen. "In Silicon Valley, as many people take pools out as put them in."
-- Converting a garage. You might not want to park your family jalopy under covered space, but the next owners may. And once you seal off the garage doors or remove them altogether, you're done.
And let's face it: Garages make lousy dens, if only because they're cold. You have to insulate and run new ductwork to carry conditioned air to the space. That's likely to put too much of a load on your HVAC system, which was probably sized for the original house.
Phil Hopkins of Desert 2 Mountain Realty in Payson, Ariz., tells of an investor he knows who has flipped some two dozen houses in the last three years: His best returns are on those with converted garages. The investor buys low, turns the garage back into a garage, and makes a killing.
The people who owned Wallingford, Conn., agents Pat and Wayne Harriman's place before them converted the one-car garage into a master bedroom. "It's a huge room, and very nice, but no garage is a point of contention amongst buyers here," they posted on ActiveRain.com, the real estate chat site where "worst improvements" is a frequent topic. "It will come back to haunt us when we go to sell."
-- Granite countertops. There tends to be wide disagreement on this one. However, the majority of ActiveRain bloggers seem to believe that it's a poor investment to top your counter with granite in a Formica neighborhood.
Thomas McCombs of Century 21 HomeStar in Akron says that in five years, granite will be "the first thing that marks a home as being outdated." But Travis Parker of Team Linda Simmons in Enterprise, Ala., looks at it the other way. Newer homes feature granite, so owners of older homes have to keep pace or drastically reduce their asking prices, he says.
-- Home office. Converting that extra bedroom you never use into an office, complete with bookshelves and other permanent built-ins, is great if you work at home, but most people still don't. In fact, most people would rather have the extra bedroom, the ActiveRain contributors maintain.
-- Over the top. Updates are one thing, but don't overdo them. Bringing your post-WWII bathroom into the 21st Century will increase your home's market value, but adding a steam shower and carved marble tub probably won't, says Anthony Razhas of Real Estate eBroker in Carlsbad, Calif.
Remember, your idea of "luxury" may be a buyer's idea of "bizarre." Monique Ting of INET Realty in Honolulu once showed a house with a hot tub in the middle of the family room. "My clients were not impressed," she says.
-- Anything too personal. Highly personalized spaces -- a wine cellar, koi pond or darkroom, perhaps -- are not likely to bring a high resale value, says Michelle Roberts of Coldwell Banker Sea Coast Realty in Wilmington, N.C. "They appeal only to folks with the same likes as you," she says.
"Save your special things for the house you are going to live in until you die," advises Rick Snow of First Choice Realty in El Paso, Texas. Jane Peters of Power Brokers International in Los Angeles agrees. "If you upgrade," she warns, "upgrade for your own pleasure, not with the idea you are going to make a killing."
Many owners make improvements thinking they will add value, but Allen Deaver of Sky Realty calls them "Free Gift With Purchase." Case in point: Deaver's own brother.
"He built a beautiful water garden that covered almost half an acre," the Kyle, Texas, agent says. "When he got ready to sell, he was sure the water garden would make a big difference. The day after the sale, the new owner had a dump truck bring a load of dirt to fill in the water garden."
-- Bright colors. Painting is a great way to spruce up a house, but leave the bold, bright colors to the next owner. If would-be buyers have to re-paint your orange walls, they'll offer less -- often much less. Better to stick to neutral shades.
-- Do-it-yourself. If you don't have the tools and know-how, leave the job to the experts, no matter how easy it looks on paper. Amateur work sticks out like, well, a sore thumb.
-- Obtain a permit. This goes hand-in-hand with not doing it yourself. Most places these days require a permit for almost everything, so if one or more are necessary, make sure you or your contractor obtain them. Otherwise, you or your buyer may have to redo the work so it meets the local code requirements, and that devalues your house.