Your home is your castle, and you can do what you want with it. Right? Sure. But if you want a good return on the dough — and sweat equity — you pour into Home Sweet Home, you should make sure those changes are smart ones.
Too often, that’s not the case. Real-estate agents and appraisers say they regularly see homeowners make changes that don't increase the value of the home by much, if at all. Some renovations or alterations can even drag down the value of a home. Then, of course, there is all the damage that a lack of upkeep and upgrades can do.
Check out these 14 home-improvement blunders and our tips from the experts on how to steer clear of them.
1. Going overboard for the area
The common mistake: A common mistake homeowners make is improving a home too much for the neighborhood, turning the home into a pricey outlier. How much is too much? That depends. "If you're in a really nice neighborhood, it would be hard to over improve something," says Jay Josephs, a certified appraiser for 23 years and the president of the Josephs Appraisal Group in Phoenix. But if you, say, install a $20,000 pool behind a $60,000 house, "you might get $5,000 to $8,000 return," Josephs says.
What you should do: "Pay real close attention to the common denominator in a neighborhood," says Sandra Nickel, the owner of Sandra Nickel Hat Team, a real-estate agency based in Montgomery, Ala. Talk to a trusted real-estate agent or an appraiser, and ask for an appraisal without improvements and another with them. If it doesn't pay off, "it's not a good value," Nickel says.
The common mistake: Homeowners goof by upgrading inconsistently, which hurts value, says Josephs, who is also a partner at Value Trend Solutions. "I have seen completely remodeled kitchens where people have spent $40,000 or $50,000 on a kitchen, and the rest of the house is untouched — there are vinyl floors, blue shag carpeting," he says.
What you should do: "The best way to get the greatest return on your home is to cure the deficiencies. Find out what's the baseline in your particular neighborhood — and anything you can do to bring your home up to that baseline … is probably an investment worth doing," Josephs says. "One of the things I like to say is, 'Stone floors and vinyl floors should never be touching.'"
3. Closing off the porch
The common mistake: Some folks see a front porch as an opportunity for another four-season room. That's a no-no, Nickel says. "Obviously, the people who want to live in that neighborhood value being able to interact with their neighborhood," she says. High fences and enclosed porches prohibit that, she says. "Do not wall yourself from the community, if community is one of the assets of your neighborhood."
What you should do: If you want to create a comfortable, usable space, make the front porch a screened porch, Nickel says. If you have a larger full porch, perhaps enclose half of the porch. But be sure to keep most of the porch open to the outside world. You — and prospective buyers — will be happy you did.
4. Too much 'you' in your home
The common mistake: Debi Fortin, a managing broker with Windermere Real Estate-Greenwood in Seattle, knows a homeowner who's tidy and doesn't cook. So when the woman remodeled her kitchen, she went spare. She removed cabinets, put the refrigerator in the garage and added two little dorm-sized fridges in small niches. It's gorgeous — and nearly useless to everyone but the original homeowner. A remodel to such her personal taste decreased the home's value, Fortin says, because everyone expects a working kitchen.
What you should do: It's fine to add a personal touch to your remodel, but remember that you likely won't live in your home forever. Remember that your changes need to speak to a future homeowner. Or be prepared to eat your additional investment — and possibly more.
5. Screwing up the floor plan
The common mistake: Too many people aren't careful when they add square footage to a home, agents and appraisers say. "Adding a bedroom where you've got to walk through the laundry room to get there — most appraisers would call that 'functional obsolescence,'" Josephs says. Another example: adding a bedroom on the east side of the house when the bathrooms are on the west side of the house. "Those are additions that are probably not going to bring you a return on the investment that you're going to be satisfied with."
What you should do: "Keep in mind the functional integrity of the floor plan," Josephs says. Better yet, hire an architect who is trained to think about the design and flow of spaces.
6. Keeping the above-ground pool
The common mistake: Above-ground pools are pretty much a disaster, says Rodney Lee Camren, a real-estate agent with Keller Williams Realty Atlanta Intown. Often, part of the ground has to be excavated to sit them on even ground; they can be hard to enter and exit; and owners often don't clean them well or cover them, making them eyesores and havens for mosquitoes, he says. Most would-be homebuyers view them "as cheap and usually more of a nuisance than anything," he says. "They're bad. And they're tacky."
What you should do: If you already have a pool, by all means enjoy it. But get rid of it and rehab the yard completely before you sell.
7. Tackling big projects yourself
The common mistake: You want to feel useful and you also want to save money. So you tackle those big projects around the house. But in all likelihood you're not nearly as good at those DIY projects as you think you are, and it shows, Camren says. "Too many times a homeowner will go in and say, 'Hey, I can do this.' Really, you can't," he says. "When you go to sell your home, a buyer is going to spot sloppy tile."
What you should do: Unless you're pretty gifted, "stop doing the [big] DIY projects," he urges. "Hire a professional."
A professional will also steer you away from making rookie mistakes such as putting tiles on countertops that really belong on the floor. (Camren has seen it.)
8. Overstuffing the remodel
The common mistake: Oftentimes when homeowners remodel a kitchen or a bathroom, they “put bigger items in there than there should be," Camren says. For instance, homeowners will remodel with a giant piece of furniture that includes a built-in sink and cabinetry that overwhelms the bathroom, he says. The space ends up feeling cramped, and future homebuyers will pick up on that.
What you should do: "Really, all you need is a pedestal sink in the bathroom — slender, with no storage, and with good clean lines," Camren says. Store most of your bathroom supplies in the linen closet, he recommends. The result will be a more airy, roomy space that you and prospective buyers — will like.
9. Getting too trendy
The common mistake: Everybody wants a fashionable home, but too trendy can be a trap.
"Something that's real hot today that I think is going to be a problem in a few years? Those skinny tile backsplashes" in kitchens, Nickel says. "It's gonna be like avocado appliances" were a few years ago, Nickel predicts. "Ten years ago, garden tubs and separate showers were all the rage," she says. "Nobody wants a garden tub anymore; we figured out we don't get in them." Homeowners are ripping them out to put in a nice standing shower, she says.
What you should do: "Be very aware of what's trendy, and avoid it at all costs," Nickel says. Steer toward looks that are a bit more timeless, she says — so hip doesn't become dated.
10. Converting the garage
The common mistake: "I see too many people converting their garages to a living area," Josephs says. "The problem with that is that you've created 'functional obsolescence' because you've removed covered parking." When you sell your home, would-be buyers will see that the rest of the neighborhood has parking, while you don't. As a result, you’ll turn off perhaps 75% of your buyers, Josephs says.
What's more, he says, though a homeowner might have spent $10,000 to convert a garage into a living room or a man cave, the appraiser might turn around and say "the additional $10,000 is lost because of the impact of not having covered parking."
What you should do: Don't turn the garage into a living space, Josephs says. If you really want another place to hang out, consider a well-thought-out addition to the home.
11. Being a permit bandit
The common mistake: "Too many people are adding square footage and not getting permitting from the local authorities," Josephs says.
What's wrong with sneaking in a little (or not-so-little) home-improvement project? Well, potentially lots of things: Appraisers and lenders may not include the value of an addition that was not permitted because they worry that insurers won't give money in case of an incident, Josephs says. "Some appraisers might give you full value, and some appraisers might give you no value."
"I have seen scenarios where the lender says, 'Not only do we not want to give value for this unpermitted addition, we want you to reducethe valuation of the home to consider the cost to demolish the addition," he says. "That's a bad investment."
What you should do: Don't be penny wise and pound foolish. Endure the cost and hassle of necessary permits for any work you have done.
12. Holding on to brass door knobs
The common mistake: "One thing I see a lot is that homes that were built in the 1990s still have brass hardware," says real-estate agent Kim Baker with Russ Lyon/Sotheby's International Realty in Scottsdale, Ariz. "It's very noticeable, if you walk into a home that has been updated with counters, cabinets and yet they haven't updated the hardware."
What's wrong with brass? "It's dated; it looks old," Baker says.
What you should do: "The No. 1 thing I tell people to do is change out your brass hardware," Baker says. Try fixtures made of chrome, brushed nickel or oil-rubbed bronze instead, she suggests. If you can't afford to redo your cabinets, "even changing out the brass will add value."
13. Being colorfast
The common mistake: Color is a personal issue for homeowners. They paint their walls everything from deep blue to blood red. Trouble is, some homeowners are loath to return those walls to a neutral color when it's time to sell the home. That's a huge mistake, Baker says.
Right now Baker has two houses for sale, four doors apart. The houses have the same builder and nearly the same floor plan. But in one house, the homeowner has painted the doors and some of the walls black and refuses to change them. "The one that doesn't have the black gets three times as many hits on the website," she says.
What you should do: Enjoy your home in whatever hue you wish, but with the understanding that you'll return it to innocuous colors before you plant that "For Sale" sign. "I just had someone paint a condo that they have used as an investment," Baker says. She urged the owner to cover the shiny yellow paint in an eggshell hue. The result? "I got an offer for her the first day. And she probably got 10% to 15% more [for the condo] than if she had not done that."
14. Ignoring flaws
The common mistake: A lot of folks are like Goldilocks: They think their home is just right and without flaws. Baker recalls one client to whom she suggested they do a pre-inspection before putting it up for sale. The seller balked, offended at the idea that her home might hide problems. When an offer was brought to her, she had more than $40,000 worth of repairs, including hail damage and termites, Baker says. "She was out a lot of money."
What you should do: "Disassociate yourself from your home," Baker says. "If your home is more than 10 years old, get an inspection done even before you list it so that you're not surprised by any problems and can deal with them."