The Housing Scene by Lew Sichelman


On a recent tour with a potential buyer, agent Terri Vellios of Keller Williams Realty in Campbell, California, showed a $1.3 million house that had an addition to the original building.

The addition created an atrium in the middle of the house, with the bedrooms facing it. But none of the bedrooms could actually access the atrium; the only way into and out of it was through the sliding glass doors in the dining room.

About the same time, Gay Ashley of the Ashley Realty Group in Fairfax, Virgina, showed a house in which the sellers expanded their living space by turning a one-car garage into a bedroom and very small family room. But their contractor neglected to plan for heating and air conditioning. Consequently, the two spaces were extremely cramped, and only comfortable for a few months of the year.

Welcome to the real world of home "unimprovements" -- the part of the house makeover business that they fail to show on HGTV, the DIY network or even on "This Old House." The part in which changes to a house detract from its value rather than adding to it.

Every real estate professional has seen these miscues: everything from botched paint jobs obviously undertaken by Picassos who made no attempt to prepare the surface and dripped paint on the carpet, to building an addition around a huge oak tree.

Bad paint jobs can be corrected rather easily. But other mistakes, such as banging such long nails into a ceiling that they penetrate through the roof, are costly.

Former home inspector Glen Fisher once posted a photo on real estate site ActiveRain of nails protruding through a newly replaced roof. The homeowner's idea was sound: Put up a ceiling in the attic to create more living space. But the execution was poor: a calamity that led to hundreds of small leaks and required another entirely new roof.

"As a home inspector, I am continually amazed at what I observe," said Fisher. "Just when you believe you have seen it all, another property will show the worst results from a well-intentioned homeowner."

Take a house listed recently by Jan Green of RE/MAX Excalibur in Scottsdale, Arizona. The kitchen had been remodeled beautifully with a very expensive refrigerator, wine closet, double oven, cabinets and granite countertops. But the owner left the 20-year-old tile on the floor, and "every person who came through commented about how the old tile detracted from the gorgeous kitchen," the agent said.

If the seller had consulted Green beforehand, he might have been able to obtain a higher price. Green would have advised him to upgrade the flooring and spend less on the refrigerator.

"I'm constantly telling my clients to call, even if they are only remodeling for themselves," she said. "I see hundreds of homes each year, including brand-new ones. I can tell them areas to spend (on) and areas not to. This will benefit them if they ever sell. After all, another set of eyes at no cost is a bonus."

That's certainly sound home-improvement advice. And here's some more:

-- DIY: The desire to do the job yourself rests largely with saving money. If you have the know-how, it's fine to do the work. But if you are a novice who doesn't have a lot of time to correct your inevitable mistakes, hire a professional. It could be money well spent.

Ditto for full-scale remodeling projects. A qualified contractor can take your ideas and visions, tweak them where necessary, and turn them into reality.

-- Tools: Equipment is a big part of the equation. You need the right tools for the job. Don't try to make do with a hammer when the project calls for a saw. Again, professionals have whole toolboxes full of the right equipment.

-- Safety: Climbing up on your roof is dangerous. And so is tinkering with electrical or natural gas systems. Not only can you hurt yourself if you don't know what you're doing, you also can create safety hazards that could destroy your house -- and those in it. And if you don't handle water-related projects properly, the result could be leaks that cause costly damage.

-- Permits: Almost everything you do to your house these days requires a building permit -- even simply replacing one garage door with another. Don't try to avoid it.

Permits help ensure that the construction is safe and meets minimum standards (codes). When permits are issued, building inspectors will drop by to make sure the work has been done properly.

You may be able to get away without obtaining permission from the proper government agency, but if your potential buyer asks about a permit and you can't produce one -- or your town's or county's building department doesn't have one on file -- chances are, your buyer will lower his offer or walk away entirely.

Moreover, if it's obvious the house has been renovated but no permits were pulled, banks are likely to refuse to finance your buyer.