Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Pandemic Fallout: More Boomers Postponing Moves

For years, a finance officer for a large university had planned to leave her California-style contemporary upon retirement in 2021. Once retired, she had expected to sell her 4,000-square-foot suburban place in favor of a low-upkeep city condo. But living through the pandemic changed her mind.

“Working from home for months, she fell in love with her house and garden all over again. That’s why she’s postponing her sale in favor of renovations she can enjoy for several more years,” says Stacy Berman, her future listing agent.

The finance officer is focusing much of the remodeling project on her dated kitchen. There she’s replacing dark granite countertops with those in bright white quartz and renewing her flooring with a sparkling marble glaze. She’s also updating her master bath with all new tile and fixtures. For these and other improvements, she expects to spend no more than $20,000.

“Because she still plans to move in a few years, this owner is limiting her changes to those in good taste that will pay her back when she sells. Nothing odd or gaudy,” Berman says.

Unlike the finance officer, many boomers are planning to pursue their long-held plans to sell their big family house as soon as the pandemic clears.

“For many older people, downsizing isn’t just a preference, it’s economic necessity. As soon as it’s safe and easy to move, they’ll do so,” says Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and co-author of “House Selling for Dummies.”

But a minority of boomers are now treating themselves to the pleasures of renovating their properties several years in advance of a sale. These are homeowners with the discretionary funds to cover remodeling costs.

According to researchers at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, remodeling expenditures are one major factor explaining the surprising resilience of housing markets, despite COVID-19, says Chris Herbert, the center’s managing director.

“The remodeling market is bouncing back from the initial shocks caused by the pandemic as homeowners continue to spend significant time in their home,” Herbert says.

One risk facing boomers who are renovating several years in advance of a sale is that they might invest in upgrades that won’t enhance their property values.

“You don’t want to overspend on unnecessary renovations unless you’re going to stay more than five years,” says Kathi Fleck, the author of “Renovate, Remodel ... Relax!”

Here are a few other pointers for renovators with delayed selling plans:

-- Seek guidance from local real estate specialists.

Mark Nash, a real estate analyst and author of “1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home,” says by consulting a knowledgeable real estate agent before heading into a remodeling project, homeowners can often avoid major errors.

Owners who are unsure when they’ll move are often reluctant to ask for advice until they have a certain timetable. But Nash says good agents won’t pressure you to list your property until you’re ready.

“Look for agents who truly know your local market. They’re probably in touch with well-priced contractors who might be cheaper than the ones you hired,” Nash says.

-- Keep improvements within neighborhood standards.

Tom Early, who twice served as president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (naeba.org), says most purchasers are reluctant to pick up the tab for renovation work that raises a property above neighborhood standards.

“Even though many markets are now strong, buyers are still selective. They remain very focused on property values and hate overpaying,” Early says.

What sorts of upgrades constitute “over-improvement”? For example, you’re unlikely to recoup the cost of adding a three-car garage in a neighborhood where most homes have no garage at all.

-- Avoid overly personal improvements.

Nash tells the true story of an architect who owned a colonial house in a desirable city neighborhood. Given his plans to retire and sell his high-end place, the man spent $150,000 for an ultra-modern kitchen renovation that suited his taste alone.

“What he ended up with was extremely minimalistic and included a bunch of tiny pin lights in his 12-foot ceilings. The buyers who came through thought it looked like an embalming room,” Nash recalls.

-- Back off of pricey over-the-top renovations.

If you think you’ve arranged for too much remodeling, Nash suggests you phone your contractors to negotiate alternative scenarios. For example, you might decide to forgo top-of-the-line kitchen and bathroom appliances and fixtures.

“Most buyers aren’t looking for the finest slabs of granite or super-brand stoves or refrigerators in the kitchen. It’s usually the overall look they want, not the famous brands,” Nash says.

Often, real estate agents can suggest less expensive products than those recommended by contractors.

-- Avoid rushing into renovation work.

As the architect with the ultra-modern kitchen discovered, a thoughtless pre-sale renovation can be costly. Nash says the design was so objectionable to buyers that the owner had to discount his property by 10% to close a deal for the house.

“People looked at that kitchen and groaned. All they could think of was how much they’d have to spend to bring it back to normal,” he says.

One reason the architect made his expensive mistake was that he launched the kitchen redo without thinking through its implications.

“When you rush renovations to suit your personal taste, you’re at risk for one day putting a white elephant on the market,” Nash says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)