Home Upgrades and Improvements That Really Pay Off
These around-the-house upgrades and improvements make great investments.
The timing for a home upgrade or major house improvement project may never be ideal, but now—when you’re at home most of the time and able to receive deliveries, keep an eye on progress, and do some DIY work when you have a few hours—is as good a time as any to tackle major improvements to your home. You may not be interest in moving now, but that doesn’t mean you should put off that kitchen redo or landscaping job.
“Any changes you make on your house now should increase your home value later,” says Kermit Baker, project director for the Remodeling Futures program at Harvard University. But which projects will increase your home value? (Those home remodeling costs aren’t cheap.)
Take a look at this list, starting with the upgrades most likely to recoup your investment, and get ready to appreciate your space more than ever. One note: No home upgrade is going to completely pay for itself. (If it does, you’re one lucky home seller.) With that in mind, make sure you’re picking home improvement projects that will increase your enjoyment of your space; see the opportunity to increase the value of your home as just a bonus.
Why it pays off: Paint provides dramatic results with little investment; the cost to paint a room is much less than that of other home upgrades, and it’s an easy home improvement. If you decide to hire a professional to do the work, expect to pay $3,600 to $6,000 for the interior of an average American house (about 2,400 square feet). An exterior paint job will run $5,000 or more.
Can’t decide on a color? Gerri Willis, former anchor of Open House on CNN and the author of Home Rich, says that pale yellow homes tend to sell faster and for more money. Barbara Richardson, the director of color marketing for Glidden and a noted color trend forecaster, says, “Yellow is optimistic and inspirational. It gives people joy and the sense that brighter times are ahead.”
Why it pays off: According to the 2020 Cost vs. Value Report, a study conducted by Remodeling magazine, fiber-cement siding (which is made of sand, cement, and cellulose fibers and costs an average of $17,008) is estimated to recoup about 78 percent (or $13,195) of a home owner’s initial investment. While vinyl can crack, split, and warp and aluminum tends to dent and fade, easy-care fiber cement holds up well against the elements and is resistant to fire, rotting, and termites.
If you prefer the look of masonry, you’re in luck: The addition of a manufactured stone veneer is even more valuable. The average cost of the upgrade is $9,357, with an average added sale value of $8,943—nearly a 96 percent return on investment, the highest in the 2020 Cost vs. Value Report.
Why it pays off: A deck will provide you with more than a place to flip burgers and soak up the sun. “Buyers see a deck as offering a seamless transition from inside to out,” says Jerry Levine, president of the Levine Group, an architectural and construction firm in Silver Spring, Md.
Experts suggest using natural, rustic wood. In 2020, wooden decks (as opposed to composite ones) reaped an impressive return on investment: Home owners who spent an average of $14,360 on lumber and labor could expect to recoup $10,355, or 72 percent of their costs.
Why it pays off: It’s hard to go wrong with remodeling your kitchen, which can net up to 77 percent of the cost. If you’re upgrading with resale in mind, though, just avoid making overly personal decisions with the decor to make your kitchen more sellable; the features of your dream kitchen may populate someone else’s nightmares.
“People know that renovating can be a nightmare, and potential buyers will appreciate that you did the dirty work for them,” says Vern Yip, a designer and former host of HGTV’s Deserving Design. “But stick with high-quality fixtures, like stainless-steel appliances and granite counters, and don’t pair them with a cheaper material, like laminate.”
A word of caution: If your house is a tiny two-bedroom bungalow, don’t bother splurging on, say, a high-end stove. “You’ll never get your money back by installing fancy appliances in a smaller home,” says Leslie Sellers, vice president of the Appraisal Institute, an association of real estate–appraisal professionals in Chicago.
And if an appliance overhaul isn’t in the cards, “you can easily make cosmetic updates on a kitchen that’s in decent shape,” says Steven D. Bullock, a designer in New York City and a certified member of the National Kitchen & Bath Association, in Hackettstown, N.J. For example, if your existing appliances are in good working order, coat them with electrostatic paint to give them a metallic or enamel-type finish. And you don’t have to rip out your cabinets, either: The 2020 Cost vs. Value Report found that minor kitchen remodels have a higher return on investment than major ones.
Why it pays off: If you’re experiencing cool and blustery weather in your living room, it’s time to buy new panes, pronto. Not only are you losing precious heat but your utility bill could also be skyrocketing. “Energy-efficient windows eliminate drafts, so your home feels warmer,” says Sellers. Home owners who spent $17,641 on vinyl window replacements got a 72 percent ($12,761) return; the return is lower for wood windows, at 69 percent.
Why it pays off: Bathroom upgrades, like updated countertops and new fixtures, provide solid returns―anywhere from 57 to 64 percent. But “avoid anything too trendy,” says designer Vern Yip. “Choose classic features, like off-white subway tiles, that will appeal to people with both traditional and contemporary tastes.”
There’s no need to splurge on fancy fixtures, either. “A tub is a tub. A Jacuzzi will never make or break a sale,” says designer Steven D. Bullock. For quick touch-ups on existing sinks, toilets, and tubs, consider hiring a surface-restoration company that recoats ceramic, porcelain, and fiberglass fixtures so they look like shiny new porcelain.
Why it pays off: The front of your house is the first thing people see (hello, curb appeal), so it makes sense that any improvements―from planting petunias to surrounding your home with a hedge―will be worth your while.
“Don’t be afraid to spend money on perennials, which come back year after year,” says Yip. As for big-ticket investments, like trees, they aren’t just nice to look at; they also stave off erosion, block storm-water runoff, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and filter groundwater pollutants. They might make your home sell for more money, too. The Arbor Day Foundation estimates a six- to eight-foot Colorado blue spruce or live oak (both are commonly found all around the United States) may grow one to two feet a year. And properties with gorgeous, established trees are even more attractive to potential home buyers down the road.
When determining which areas of your yard to attend to first, try approaching the house from the curb to the front door. “Buyers make their decisions in exactly eight seconds,” says Barbara Corcoran, founder of the Corcoran Group, a Manhattan real estate firm. “After that, they’ve either fallen in love or are just honoring an appointment.”
Why it pays off: Adding central air to an average 2,400-square-foot house could cost upward of $10,000 and boost your home’s value by 10 to 20 percent, says appraiser Leslie Sellers. And central air-conditioning is energy-efficient, too. Centralized units have an average energy-efficiency rating (EER) of 11.5, compared with an 8.5 EER in single-window models, making them less expensive to run. What’s more, central air won’t block the view the way a window unit does.
Why it pays off: “There’s nothing worse than that unmistakable damp-basement smell,” says Corcoran. “A dry basement is far more important than worrying about the right lighting or furnishings.”
If your basement is prone to flooding, leaks, or excess moisture, call in a pro. If you do want to finish your basement by adding drywall, insulation, laminate flooring, or even a bathroom, “be sure it’s proportional in quality to other areas of your home,” says Lonny Rutherford, a chairman of the National Association of Home Builders Remodelers, in Washington, D.C. According to Sellers, “basement remodels gain back anywhere from 50 to 100 percent, depending on the quality of the materials.”
Why it pays off: When you’re deciding whether to install a pool, it’s important to consider the part of the country where you live; the value of homes with pools varies widely. In places where it can get unforgivingly hot, such as California and Florida, an in-ground pool may boost a home’s value by as much as $95,000, according to a 2019 analysis by real estate brokerage Redfin.
In more temperate areas, a pool can be a big turnoff, as prospective buyers imagine all the work they’ll have to do to maintain it, not to mention safety issues and higher insurance rates. But if you plan to enjoy a pool for a few years and it improves your quality of life, “then go for it,” says Tom Kraeutler, a cohost of The Money Pit, a home-improvement radio show, and a coauthor of My Home, My Money Pit. “You can’t put a number on that.”