Americans have been on a home-improvement binge for years. But at some point, many homeowners realize their aspirations can't be met through remodeling alone. That's when they start thinking seriously about buying a better property.
What spurs move-up buyers to action? Often, it's a job promotion, a growing family or the quest for better schools. Lately, it could also be the belief that if they don't act soon, home values might rise to the point that they can no longer afford to move up.
"At some point, people just say, 'Let's go ahead and take the plunge,'" says Ashley Richardson, a long-time real estate agent affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (www.crs.com).
She tells the true story of a couple of 33-year-old buyers who, until recently, were living comfortably with their 2-year-old son in a tiny Cape Cod with a dining room so small it could barely fit a table. Word that the wife was pregnant with twins sent them house-hunting.
After much discussion, they sold the house they bought in 2006, accepting the reality that it had gained little value since then, and found a colonial triple its size in a nearby neighborhood.
And it's not just people with growing families who are moving up. Richardson also cites an older group she calls "house tweakers" who make a hobby of home improvement.
"As soon as they make one house absolutely perfect, they feel compelled to find another house they can remodel," she says.
One common denominator to all trade-up buyers is the quest for upward mobility that Richardson believes is embedded in American culture.
Here are pointers for move-up buyers:
-- Let go emotionally of your current property.
Surprisingly, many people who want to sell their property in favor of a better one have a tough time letting go of their current domain, says Sid Davis, the author of several real estate books.
"Subconsciously, many sellers think they're entitled to a higher-than-market price because they love their house and think it's better than any other place for miles around," says Davis, a veteran real estate broker.
"Get greedy and you'll hurt your plans for moving any time soon," Davis says.
How can you loosen emotional ties to your current property so as to sell it properly?
Davis recommends that before setting your list price, you do a brief tour of the properties available in your price range in the area where you wish to live.
"Looking around at other options can flip the switch in your brain and cause you to get excited about buying that better house. This should help you on the selling end," he says.
-- Never ignore resale potential when buying a home.
If you're trading up to a better property for the second or third time, you may assume your next buy will be your last -- what real estate people call a "forever house." But statistics show that many owners sell sooner than expected, says Dorcas Helfant, a former president of the National Association of Realtors (www.realtor.org).
Regardless of how long you stay, you'll want a place that not only holds its value but appreciates. That's why it's wise to look for features that will gain in value over time, such as those that help keep utility bills to a minimum.
Helfant says one good bet is to look for energy savers, including extra attic insulation, double-paned windows and high-efficiency appliances. In addition, look for an open floor plan that should retain its popularity over time.
"Buyers don't like chopped up floor plans with a lot of small, self-contained rooms. They like a kitchen that flows directly into a large 'great room,'" she says.
-- Don't rule out a brand-new home.
As always, real-estate markets vary in strength, fluctuating through the seasons and economic cycles. But Davis says one constant is that better deals, on a per- square-foot basis, are typically found in upper-range subdivisions.
"Some areas now have a shortage of new housing at all levels, while others have an excess of new properties at the top. Builders with big construction loans are always eager to sell so they can repay their debts," he says.
-- Consider the purchase of an "over-improved" property.
The recent surge in home-improvement activity prompted some homeowners to go to extremes, making their properties fancier than their neighbors'. For example, they might have added exotic wood kitchen cabinets in an area without upscale kitchens. Or perhaps they've built on a fifth or sixth bedroom in a community of three- or four-bedroom houses.
When they first set their list price, the owners of an over-improved home may ask too much, on the hope they'll recoup every dime they spent on remodeling. But if they've outdone the local market, their home will typically sit unsold for a lengthy period, says Michael Crowley, a broker and former president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (www.naeba.org).
Once a major price cut is taken, however, the over-improved home can become a genuine bargain, Crowley says.
"The key here is to be sure your agent is tracking the home and can tell you the minute a big price reduction occurs. At that point you might catch a wonderful buying opportunity," he says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at email@example.com.)