Buying & Selling Homes - 4/11 - Bob Vila

Category: Buying & Selling Homes

How To: Stage a Home

Staging your home sets the scene for potential buyers. A well-staged home can help it sell faster and for more money. Here are some basics for prepping your house.

Ho To Stage a Home


Much like detailing a used car prior to sale, staging a home allows it to put on its best face. Not to be confused with decorating, staging is about presentation, cleanliness, and drawing positive attention to the space inside. According to, the Web site for a unique program that provides certification and training to become an Accredited Staging Professional (ASP), 93% of homes staged by an ASP sell in less than 31 days. Home sellers can choose to do the staging themselves, take guidance from a qualified realtor, or hire an accredited professional.

Letting Go
The first step when staging a home to sell is to cut emotional ties, which means temporarily living without your most precious belongings surrounding you. When the house is put on the market, it should be thought of as a product, not a home. Although you might still be living in it while it’s for sale, it should not look that way to potential buyers. “The way that you live in your home and the way that you market it and sell it are two different things,” says Barb Schwarz, author of Home Staging: The Winning Way to Sell Your House for More Money and recognized as one of the founders of the home staging industry. “Once your home becomes a house, it can become a product, and people want to buy the product that has the best wrapper.” One way for the seller to be able to look at his home objectively is to take tours of homes for sale. “A walk through the neighbor’s house can help the home seller to see things from the homebuyer’s point of view,” says Craig Schilling, founder of Real Estaging, a home staging company in Chicago.

Selling the Space
Part of letting go means packing up all unnecessary “junk.” Anything that can be lived without should be packed up and either tucked away or put into storage. Put away knickknacks, memorabilia, superfluous furniture, lamps, or anything else that adds to the home’s clutter and distracts from what is really important: the space. “You’re supposed to be selling the space, not the stuff,” says Schwarz. “The value of the house is in the space.” When potential buyers walk through an unstaged home, they tend to focus on everything but the space, particular in an overly cluttered home. A sparse, staged home is open, allowing the size of the rooms to be the main attraction.

Packing alone isn’t enough, however. The staged home must sparkle, and to do that will take some elbow grease and attention to detail. “A staged home needs to be Q-tip-clean,” adds Schwarz. For the exterior of the home, cleaning can mean power-washing the siding, scrubbing and staining the deck, and taking down unsightly cobwebs. Inside the house, any dust, stains, and scratches must go. Every corner of every room—from the windows to the baseboards—should be made to look new.

Setting the Stage
With clutter packed away and all the surfaces shining, homeowners should go through each room arranging furniture and configuration to best present the space. Also, each room should clearly look like what it’s designed to be. “Make each room what it is,” suggests Schwarz. “If it’s a dining room, make it a dining room.” Consider the focal points of each room, and arrange those focal points to accentuate space and function. In bedrooms, for example, the bed is the focal point. When a potential buyer stands in the doorway to look inside a bedroom, the bed should not block the view of the room or make the room look small. If certain rooms lack the necessary furniture to make them what they are, the homeowner might consider borrowing or renting furniture for staging purposes.

Another investment worth making is in paint. Neutral and light colors will make a room look big, while dark walls shrink the size of a room. Furthermore, off-kilter colors and color combinations can make for a bad first impression of a home. The small investment in time and money to paint the walls can make the difference when it comes to time on the market and selling price.

Hiring a Professional
The home staging business is a fast-growing industry, and there are many people who call themselves professional home stagers. Accredited staging professionals are typically members of the International Association of Home Staging Professionals and can be found by searching by ZIP code on both organizations’ Web sites. When hiring a professional home stager, homeowners should ensure that the professional is certified as well as protected and insured. “Homeowners should call and meet two or three professionals,” says Schwarz. “Home staging is about commitment, and homeowners should know that everyone involved is committed to the job.” Home stagers can be hired to perform a range of staging services, from simple consultationto a complete “enhancement,” where the stager might bring in his/her own props, furniture, and artwork as part of the staging process.

Additionally, more and more realtors are becoming staged-home-savvy. Many are choosing the ASP certification, while others are educating themselves on the ins and outs of the practice. When choosing a realtor to help sell the home, homeowners should inquire into staging experience and ask about rates. Although the cost to have a home professionally staged will vary by market, homeowners should expect to pay anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000. “Homeowners need to remember that they are not just paying for the props or the advice; they are paying for the actual time it takes to stage the home,” says Schiller.

Whether you hire a professional home stager or use the funds toward a DIY staging job, home staging is a worthwhile investment that will almost certainly sell your home more quickly and increase your return on investment.

Maximize Appeal
The exterior of the home is the first thing a potential buyer sees, so make sure to tend to landscaping needs, make small repairs, and clean dirty siding. Here are some other quick essentials for the interior:

Pack before you move. Put everything that you can do without until your move into boxes and then put the boxes in storage or somewhere completely out of sight.

Clean. Go room to room and clean every surface until it sparkles. No cutting corners! Don’t forget the windows.

Create space. Arrange the furniture in each room to accentuate the space. Remove as much furniture as possible without making the room appear vacant. Make every room seem bigger than it is.

Paint. Freshen up your walls and make colorful ones neutral. Dark rooms are smaller in appearance, and off-kilter color combinations are distracting.

Eliminate odors. It’s not just what is seen that matters. Unsavory smells will turn the buyer off. Clean carpets, get rid of pet and food odors, light some candles, and put out some potpourri.

Lighten up. Open blinds, pull up shades, and turn on lighting.

How To: Find Affordable Housing

Start by looking into government programs.


In most areas of the U.S., housing costs are rising faster than wages. To meet the federal government’s definition of housing affordability, costs should not exceed 30 percent of household income or 60 percent of the area’s median income. Looked at it this way, the issue of affordability becomes very personal. What may be affordable for some will not necessarily be affordable for all.

Financing a Home
Virtually all people purchasing homes are doing so with money borrowed from a bank or mortgage company. A mortgage is a legal agreement between buyer and lender that uses the house being purchased as collateral or security for the loan. Before lenders loan money for a house, they make sure that the buyer has enough monthly income to cover the costs of principal, interest, property taxes, and insurance (PITI). Most mortgage programs require that those payments not exceed 30 percent of the borrower’s monthly income. To keep the monthly payment affordable, a buyer might have to raise $25,000 or $30,000 for a down payment. For many first-time buyers, this kind of cash is out of reach.

Help Is Available
If you cannot find a home in your community that you can afford using traditional mortgage formulas, look into special programs to assist first-time homebuyers. A variety of programs have been spawned to help people get into home ownership. Some of the programs are federally sponsored, some are state-sponsored, and most rely on a mix of federal, state, and private funding subsidies to make them work.

Much of this assistance is tailored to people at or below the area median income (AMI). Some of the programs offer low-interest financing, down-payment assistance, or both. There are also programs designed to keep housing affordable by offering limited or shared equity clauses that restrict the future resale price of the home. Generally speaking, the more assistance one accepts, the more restrictions there will be on the terms of ownership or resale.

Get Prepared
Buying a first home takes a lot of work. Begin by getting the lay of the land, your own and that of the community where you wish to live. Start a first-home file for basic information, your financial records, and employment information. Learn as much as you can about the housing market in your area — read real estate ads, talk with real estate agents, and study the real estate transactions section of your local newspaper. Learn the terms and numbers. Know what homes cost in your target area, what your monthly income is, what your monthly financial obligations are, and how much you think you can afford. Start to reduce your monthly debt and open a savings account that is dedicated to your first home. Even if you only save a few dollars a month, you will be moving in the right direction.

Locate Your Resources
Not everyone can buy a home, but there are programs and services like the Section 8 federal housing subsidy program that assist low- and very-low-income people with housing costs. Section 8 vouchers have traditionally been used for rental housing, but can now be used to purchase a home. This Section 8 program is usually run through local or state housing authorities. Every region of the country and most states have programs to help first-time homebuyers. State housing finance agencies or a NeighborWorks office ( see below ) are good resources. If you are a veteran of the military, contact the Veterans Administration for the latest information on homeownership assistance.

Community land trusts (CLTs) put together packages of funding to help offset the cost of housing for low- and moderate-income families and individuals. These organizations develop perpetually affordable housing by limiting the resale price of the home if and when the homeowners decide to sell. These limited- or shared-equity clauses keep the house affordable for the next eligible buyer and preserve the original homeownership subsidy for the life of the home.

Know the Limitations
Most home-buying assistance programs have income limitations and are often reserved for people earning 80 percent or less of the area median income. Most programs also require enough income to make the monthly mortgage payments. Program staff can help you verify and maintain your eligibility for homeownership subsidies until a match can be made.

It is important to understand under what circumstances you might be required to pay back the subsidy. Employer-assisted housing programs, for example, may have a residency or employment requirement — to get housing help you may need to stay in the home and work for the company. With CLTs, the selling price of the home will be limited should you decide to move. The price limitation may be a predetermined fixed price, but is usually determined by a formula. Have any restrictions and formulas explained to you and get them in writing before you commit.

Resources: NeighborWorks
Chances are NeighborWorks supports a housing agency or neighborhood program in your community. This nonprofit agency was established by Congress in 1978 to build partnerships that result in affordable housing and homeownership for low-income community members.

NeighborWorks’ goal is to revitalize communities through homeownership, housing rehabilitation, housing vouchers, equity protection, minority homeownership, ongoing education about homeownership and care, community economic development, and aging-in-place solutions. The NeighborWorks network has more than 240 community-based programs and operates in all 50 U.S. states to create stable, sustainable communities.

One Warranty for Everything

Explore insurance plans that take over when the old coverage runs out.

Home Warranties


If your furnace dies on a blustery winter morning, you’ll need a few hundred dollars to get it fixed or, worse yet, a few thousand dollars to have it replaced. The same could be said for the refrigerator, oven, plumbing system, water heater, air conditioner, electrical system, washing machine, clothes dryer, or garbage disposal. Unless, of course, it’s under warranty or covered by a home service plan or home warranty.

When Things Go Wrong
The complexity of modern homes, and the cost to keep them running smoothly, is one reason more homeowners than ever before are turning to home warranties. The other reasons are the aging of the American housing stock, and the desire homeowners have for, as home warranty companies invariably put it, “peace of mind.”

Home warranties, also known as home service plans, are not new—they have been around since at least 1971. According to the Better Business Bureau, home warranties and service plans overall are increasing in popularity.

The appeal of home warranties is obvious. For an annual flat fee of about $400 or less, most warranties will pay for repair or replacement of your home’s appliances and systems that fail because of normal wear and tear. Policies are typically issued without a home inspection, take effect 30 days after payment is received, and cover appliances and systems that were in good working order when the policy was ordered.

With just one toll-free call, a good home warranty can make life simpler no matter what goes wrong. There is typically a deductible to pay when a service technician comes out. Deductibles range from $35 to $100, but the policy pays for covered repairs beyond that.

Who Needs a Home Warranty?
If you just bought a new home, your builder likely handed you a stack of warranty and maintenance documents for various elements in your home. Virtually all new appliances and systems are already covered by a manufacturer’s warranty. A home warranty will not kick in until those warranties have expired.

The National Institute for Consumer Education at Eastern Michigan University states that most defects in appliances show up while the item is still under the manufacturer’s original warranty, or after a store-bought extended warranty has expired. So, while you may be encouraged to buy third-party extended warranties for individual appliances at the time of purchase, the consumer Web site believes, “The only ones getting a good deal are the sellers, who find these programs very profitable.”

Dollar for dollar, it’s far better to purchase a home service plan or home warranty that takes all systems and appliances into account, no matter the age or place of purchase. Indeed, home warranties make great sense when the house and its appliances and systems start to wear, perhaps after 10 years.

Help Your Home Sales
Most home warranties or service plans are transferable, so a warranty brings a level of security to a home’s sale, especially as it moves through escrow. According to some real estate experts, a home with a warranty in place sells faster than one without. And new homeowners, who might have overextended themselves financially to buy the house, may not have a cushion for unexpected repairs. Just make sure that your plan can be transferred with the house before making any promises.

Granted, there will always be handy people who prefer to make their own repairs. These people may be better off banking or investing the $400 policy cost, and using it when needed. Likewise, people who want the freedom to hire the repair company of their choice might not be happy with contractors approved by the warranty company. Read the home service plan carefully and see if your needs are met by their coverage.

Choosing a Home Warranty
All policies and companies were not created equal, and the key to choosing the right home warranty is research. You need to know what’s covered and what isn’t.

Policies vary radically, making it impossible to list all the variables here, and only your study of the fine print will help you to manage your expectations. Most policies cover these home elements: air conditioning units, central heating units, ductwork, electrical systems, paddle fans, plumbing systems, water softeners, water heaters, refrigerators, built-in dishwashers, built-in microwaves, ovens/ranges, garbage disposals, built-in trash compactors, central vacuums, and washers and dryers. If it’s the security system you’re looking to cover, or a pool or spa, you may wish to look further.

A good first step would be to list the issues with your home that concern you the most, and read individual policies to determine the level of coverage. If you live in Tucson, AZ, for instance, you’re probably more concerned with the air conditioning system coverage than if you live in Bangor, ME. In the North, furnace coverage is much more of a priority.

Understanding What Is Covered
Don’t just glance over the contract or you’re likely to be disappointed later on. One policy may say it covers invasions of pests, a definite plus, but the fine print excludes termites, carpenter ants, rats, and wood-boring beetles. Again, policies might list the “plumbing system,” but exclude damage done to pipes by tree roots. This may or may not be a problem for you. Take the time to read the contract before you decide.

Once you find a policy that covers your “hot-button” issues, either with a basic plan or with added options that cost more, ask yourself who will make the repairs. Most companies have agreements with outside contractors to do the work. If you bring in your own favorite plumber who is not approved, the repair will not be covered.

Definitions of how plans can be sold vary from state to state. In some areas they are considered warranties; in others, they might be sold as insurance or as a service plan or contract. Also, many states have their own laws and restrictions for warranty programs. In Nevada, for instance, the breakdown of heating or air conditioning renders the residence uninhabitable. As a result, service must commence within 24 hours.

The peace of mind you seek in a home warranty will only come if you buy the right policy, from a reputable company. Time spent researching the policy and company now will pay off later when you’re most likely to need it.

How Long Things Last
Life estimate in years:
• Dishwashers: 5-12.
• Disposals: 5-12.
• Washers and dryings: 8-12.
• Water heaters: 8-12.
• Refrigerators: 15-20.
• Stoves: 15-20.
Gutters and downspouts (galvanized): 15-20.
• Gutters and downspouts (copper): Life of home if well maintained.
• Warm air furnace: 8-12.
• Heat pumps: 8-12.
• Air conditioning compressors: 8-15.
• Gas-powered air condition: 8-15.
• Hot water boilers: 30-15.

Source: Freddie Mac

Creating Affordable Housing

Together, developers and municipalities can overcome the challenges.

Affordable Housing


Since World War II, the federal government has had its hand in promoting and supporting affordable housing through GI Bills and low-interest financing. These policies and subsidies were very effective in helping returning GIs and other first-time homebuyers get into their first homes. But with rapid economic growth and the Baby Boom, traditional federal subsidies alone have not been able to keep up with the growing affordability gap. Families need safe and decent places to live. Communities need an adequate supply of housing, at all price levels, and businesses need housing that is affordable for their workforce.

Affordable to Buy
The federal government defines housing affordability as housing costs that do not exceed 30 percent of household income. Housing costs are defined as rent or principle, interest, taxes and insurance combined (PITI). If we assume you’re making the 2002 median income of $43,318 (U.S. Census), you would be spending no more than $1,083 per month on housing costs. Now, if we also assume that you are purchasing a home at the 2002 median price of $158,300 (National Association of Realtors), you would need to come up with a down payment of $28,890 to purchase that home and still meet the definition of “affordable.” Of course, there are other factors that influence this deal including mortgage rate, term (length) of the loan, points, and closing costs. Change any of these factors and your down payment or monthly payments could go up or down. And when you factor in points and closing costs, your total cash outlay at closing would be over $33,000! By the government definition, this home may be affordable to own, but with this much cash required up front, would it be affordable for you to purchase?

Affordable to Build
One major factor in affordability is the cost to produce housing. Builder groups often claim — and government statistics support these claims — that home building traditionally leads the nation out of recession. It’s no wonder when you consider that home building benefits not only the trades but also manufacturing, professional services, and even transportation. But the demand for new housing can cause shortages in labor and materials. Delays due to weather or permit issues also add to costs and these costs get passed on to the buyer. Builders of new homes typically operate on fairly narrow net profit margins of 5 percent to 10 percent, so even a small spike in costs can cut drastically into a builder’s profit and increase housing costs to buyers.

An experienced builder can help the homebuyer keeps costs down through careful design and material selection. This process is called “value-engineering” and, as a buyer, it is in your best interest to find a builder who thoroughly understands it. But while the building industry certainly benefits from innovations in materials and methods, the independent builder is generally not able to have much of an impact on overall housing affordability. Think of it this way: A $750,000 mansion, at its core, is built with essentially the same materials as a $125,000, three-bedroom ranch. It’s not just the finishes that make for the inflated price tag.

Bringing Housing Costs Down
One of the key ways to achieve affordability is to increase housing density. Land use regulations at the federal, state, and local levels can have a tremendous impact on housing affordability. Wetlands regulations, for example, take large tracts of land out of the housing market, reducing supply. Local zoning rules that require five-acre plots for each single-family home also add pressure to land supply. There are certain fixed costs to developing any parcel of land, including site planning and permits, roads, power, sewer, and water. All of these costs have to be included in the selling price of the housing that is built on the parcel. If zoning or other regulations limit the parcel to the construction of one house, all of those development costs will have to be borne by that single home, making the price go higher. If zoning regulations allow a higher density of housing—more houses per parcel—the builder can spread the land development costs over all of the housing units, so the same house would actually cost less to build and buy.

Housing Policy for Affordability
Local governments usually jump in when a shortage of affordable housing starts to harm the vitality of the community. In many areas of the country, essential workers such as police, firefighters, medical workers, and teachers cannot afford to live in the communities where they work. Some municipalities are now offering subsidies and other incentives to close the affordability gap and lure workers closer to their jobs. Other measures employed by local and state governments include housing affordability mandates and inclusionary zoning ordinances.

In Massachusetts, for example, Act 40B is a state statute that requires every municipality in the state to have a housing policy with the goal of having at least 10 percent of its housing stock affordable to people earning 80 percent or less of the area median income (AMI). Such measures may require that developers increase housing density to more efficiently use available land. Some rules require developers to make a certain percentage of the homes they build affordable. Act 40B was one of the first such statutes in the country and has been partially responsible for the creation of approximately 18,000 units of housing that meet this level of affordability. Maine followed suit with a similar law. Today there is a growing list of states, in every area of the country, with existing or pending legislation that promotes and/or mandates housing affordability.

There are also a number of nonprofit organizations and programs that specifically address housing affordability. Community land trusts (CLTs), for example, are usually private, nonprofit entities that secure grants and donations to purchase land and housing for long-term affordability. Most CLTs sell the houses but hold the land “in trust” through long-term land leases to the house owner. Most CLT leases require some sort of equity limitation so that when the house is sold, it will remain affordable to the next buyer. Other organizations include Habitat for Humanity, NeighborWorks, state housing finance agencies, and local housing authorities. One relatively new federal program, administered through local housing authorities, allows eligible renters to use their Section 8 housing vouchers to purchase a home. Local banks and mortgage lenders often have the latest information on loan programs for first-time buyers.

Case Study: Community Land Trusts Save Housing
The city of Burlington, a town of about 40,000, is Vermont’s largest city. Despite its stable economy and small-town charm, Burlington has its share of big-city problems: high rents, absentee landlords, aging housing stock, and wages that lag behind rising housing costs. In 1984 city leaders and housing advocates established the Burlington Community Land Trust (BCLT), the first municipally funded CLT. Today it is the largest CLT in the U.S. with over 2,500 members.

A CLT is a democratically controlled community organization that acquires land and buildings and holds the land in trust for the good of the greater community. In terms of affordable housing, this model removes the cost of the land from the housing-cost equation, thereby making the house much more affordable. Additionally, the land trust provides a long-term (usually 99 years), renewable lease to the homeowner. In exchange, homebuyers agree to limit the price of the home if and when they decide to sell it. In many cases, the CLT gets the first option to buy back the house at a formula-determined price. The homeowners get less equity out of the sale, but this limitation ensures that the house will be affordable for the next buyer.

On average a first-time BCLT home is affordable to people at 62 percent of the area median income. On resale, the average BCLT home is affordable to people earning 57 percent of AMI, but the sale brings owners a net equity gain of over $6,000.

Limiting equity may have been a radical idea 20 years ago, but the model has gone mainstream. When the Burlington Community Land Trust was established in 1984 there were only a handful of CLTs. Today there are over 160 in 34 states and others in Canada and the U.K.

Historic Home Buying 101

The pros, cons, and everything you need to know about buying a registered, historic home.

Perhaps you have been searching for several months or even years, and now you have found the perfect home. Your dream comes with elaborately detailed scrollwork, a hand-carved newel post, or stately white columns. It is also listed as a contributing resource to a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. What does that mean? What things should you consider before determining that this house is for you?

Part of Something Larger
Pacific Union senior sales agent Tom Zannelli of San Francisco indicates that a listing on the National Register is a particular, upscale amenity that attracts a specific group of homebuyers. Others may fall into this possibility during a house hunt. Tom and Lynn Wood, architects and principals of Timeline Architecture, consciously chose to live in their neighborhood of redeveloped military housing at Fort Ethan Allen in Essex, VT. Both the surroundings and the house encouraged residential re-use, while the space offered uncommon design, craftsmanship, and materials. “It was a chance to be part of something larger and unique,” said Lynn.

Return on the Investment
A National Register citation confirms a home’s historic significance, but the real worth may be realized in the stability and strength of the property’s value. A 2000 study of South Carolina home sales showed that homes in Columbia’s historic districts sold 26 percent faster than the overall market; while historic Beauport owners saw a whopping 21 percent greater sale price. In Rome, GA, properties in designated historic neighborhoods increased in value 10 percent more than similar properties without historic designation between 1980 and 1996. Studies in Texas, New York, and Pennsylvania corroborate the positive effect an historic district designation has on property values, with overall increases between 5 percent and 20 percent. The stability of property value appears to extend to owner tenure as well: There is a reportedly lower owner turnover within historic districts than in neighborhoods lacking that distinction.

Playing By the Code
National Register inclusion is an acknowledgment of a property’s importance to its community, state, or the nation. Some homebuyers may be anxious about this designation from the National Park Service, fearing infringement of their property rights. These concerns are unfounded, as long as the work receives no federal money, and requires no federal license or permit. Owners are under no obligation to restore their property, or to open their doors to the public.

Many municipalities, however, have designated design control districts in areas that have been identified as having particular historic, architectural, scenic, cultural, or visual significance. Buildings in these areas may be subject to review for any proposed alteration, addition, or demolition. A prospective homebuyer of a property within an established historic district would be well advised to visit the local planning and zoning office to determine what guidelines may apply to them. Preservation ordinances help homeowners protect their investment by preserving the historic character of their neighborhoods. Review of any project may run the gamut from a cursory evaluation by a zoning administrator to review by a secondary commission that advises specifically on questions of historic sensitivity and architectural compatibility.

For certain types of work, homeowners may need to secure a permit called a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA), or Permit for Minor Work from their planning office or historic review board. Communities that rely on heritage tourism frequently have more stringent review procedures: Historic Savannah requires review for alterations as minor as changing awnings. In New York City’s Row House District, a COA is necessary before changing exterior shutters. Review only applies to the exterior of any structure in a historic district, and does not affect any interior changes.

Some historic district commissions may require replacement of damaged materials in kind, that is, with material or design features original to the building. While the alteration of an historic home may require specific or expensive materials or craftsmanship, it will be balanced with the likelihood that the investment will hold. Additionally, your neighbor’s protected property is also less likely to be altered in a manner that might reduce your property value.

Preservation Resources
In some instances buildings listed as contributing resources on the National Register may be eligible for limited financial aid through grants, loans, or tax incentives. Georgia has provided an eight-year freeze on property-tax assessments on designated historic properties. The federal government currently limits tax credit opportunities to structures that are income-producing (rather than strictly residential). Preservation organizations are another resource for modest financial assistance. Preservation easements may also be arranged through local governments or private organizations like Historic New England (formerly the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities). These arrangements can lessen the property-tax burden while providing for the preservation, protection, and maintenance of your historic property. Programs differ from one state to another, so check with your State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), local planning agency, or community historical society.

Thousands of historic districts have been listed by the federal government on the National Register, ranging from the landmark homes of Newport to modest mill housing of New England. Owning property within a historic district offers you the unique opportunity to interpret and share the history of your home, as steward of a recognized contributor to our nation’s past.

For further information, contact the National Register of Historic Places or your local State Historic Preservation Office.

Consider a Condo for Your Second Home

Vacation condominiums offer amenities and less maintenance, but more restrictions.



Bob Vila’s Home Again opened its fifteenth season with a bay-front condo remodel along the Venetian Island stretch of Miami Beach. This vacation getaway was a remodeling challenge from the start. Gina Kirkpatrick, a realtor with Beach Front Realty, was given a modest purchasing budget to work with and the directive to find something dated. “You know, shag carpet, awful wallpaper, that sort of thing,” she recalls.

She found a one-bedroom, 950-square-foot unit with an open floor plan in the Island Terrace complex, with views of the bay and the luxury homes along Venetian Island. The complex is situated right on the Venetian Causeway, a stone’s throw from the beach and an easy jaunt to the Miami mainland or to trendy Lincoln Road. What’s more, the unit fell well within Bob’s purchase range — proof that you don’t need to be a millionaire to live like one.

This condo was a bargain because the owner was willing to buy into an older building, Kirkpatrick explains. Older units are often roomier with more closets, which means more space. For Bob, taking out closets meant opening up more space. Bob’s unit was in need of TLC, but so was the rest of the building. The timing was good, however, as the current owners had just been hit with a one-time assessment earmarked for a major property overhaul, making this condo an ideal second-home investment.

Condo Conscious
In Miami, second-home owners tend to purchase condominiums over single-family homes. Condominiums provide a host of amenities and low maintenance. “Owners like having a doorman downstairs — the doors are locked, there’s less vandalism,” Kirkpatrick says. And the market has responded to that demand by significantly adding to its inventory. Property values have been known to double in just five years, making a condominium purchase a wise choice for those looking to resell down the road.

In Miami, views are a priority, causing developers to build upward instead of outward. so even mainland properties tend to offer views of Biscayne Bay. The Miami mainland can be a buyers’ paradise, with one- and two-bedroom luxury condominiums with square footage ranging from 850 to 1,500 square feet. In Miami, swimming pools are standard fare, but developers tend to attract new buyers with luxury spas, community rooms, and high-end services. ’

Beware of the Bylaws
Condominium living has advantages, but they come with a price tag. Prospective buyers should inquire about the complex’s association fee, which can run anywhere from $300 a month for a one-bedroom to $600 for a two-bedroom condo in Miami. The higher the square footage, the higher the association fee. Fees cover things like routine exterior maintenance, pool upkeep, building insurance, and front-door security. Plan for the occasional assessment, particularly for older buildings where exterior updates and structural upgrades are more likely.

Condo associations also have bylaws and regulations that dictate what you can do to your unit and how it will be done. Cosmetic changes are typically okay as long as any required city permits have been acquired. Condo associations don’t concern themselves with a wall-color or carpet change. But interior reconstruction is another story, particularly if it compromises a load-bearing wall. Beware of noise restrictions and the hours during which construction can take place. Also inquire about delivery and storage of construction materials, as well as disposal of construction waste and debris. All of this will factor into the cost of your remodeling project.

Second-home owners aren’t year-round occupants, so it’s important to check association bylaws if you plan to rent out your unit. Some places require that owners establish residency for a couple of years, while others may limit the number of months or the number of times per year that the unit can be rented. And some don’t allow rentals at all. Pet ownership is yet another consideration, so do your homework before you buy.

Evaluate the Home Systems

Learn what questions to ask when you conduct an inspection of the heating and cooling systems, insulation, water and electrical service, of your home.

Bob and plumbing contractor Frank look at the 40-year old Dinosaur. Photo: From Bob Vila

So you like the way the house looks and believe the footprint will accommodate your family’s needs. But how does it function?

Let’s examine the house’s infrastructure:

Heating and Cooling Systems
Here are questions you should be asking:

  1. What kind of system is being used?
  2. How old is it?
  3. What kind of condition is it in?
  4. How much does it cost to operate?

I’m not suggesting that you pursue or walk away from a house based on the answers you receive, but it’s worth figuring in the cost of future replacements as you debate the merits of one house versus another.

Common heating and cooling systems include hydronic, warm-air, natural-gas, oil and electric. Let’s take them one-by-one.

Hydronic Systems. Hydronic heating systems transmit heat via hot water or steam. A boiler (powered by electricity, natural or propane gas, or oil) heats the water, which is then circulated by a pump via pipes to the radiators or baseboards of the house. You’re better off with forced hot water than with steam. The cons that come with steam heating are: uneven heat distribution, drying the air, slow response, noise, and inefficiency. Many newer homes will not use steam heat but older houses will.

Warm-Air Systems. Warm-air systems can use electricity, gas, or oil as their main fuel source. The most common warm-air system is forced air. How it works: fans or blowers circulate the warmed air from the furnace through the house. Another type of warm-air system is a gravity system. You know how heat rises? Well a gravity system is based on the likelihood of warm air rising. You’ll find these systems in use mainly in older houses. Their drawbacks, compared to forced-hot-air systems are that you’ll need a huge furnace in the middle of the basement and considerable duct-work. Not only are they inefficient, you can’t run central air-conditioning through them. For these reasons, if the house you’re considering has a gravity system, you should plan to replace it.

Natural-Gas Systems. Heat is transmitted from the furnace to the distribution system via a heat exchanger. To find out how energy-efficient your gas furnace is, you can check the Annual Fuel Utility Efficiency Rating. If you’re evaluating newer equipment, by law it will have a bright yellow “Energy Guide” which will show the anticipated annual cost to operate the unit.

Oil Systems. While a furnace that is powered by oil is similar to one that is powered by gas, the difference is that your fuel will be delivered by truck versus automatically being piped into your house from an outside gas line. Because oil doesn’t burn as cleanly as gas does, oil furnaces require regular cleaning for optimal operation.

Electric Systems. Here’s what’s different about electric systems versus gas and oil systems: Electric systems do not involve combustion and thus do not produce exhaust. Most of the time, electricity will be the most expensive option. There are electrically powered heat pumps, which can both heat and air condition the house. You’ll find them mostly in warmer climates because they’re not sufficient on their own in terms of heating the house’s interior when temperatures fall below 25-30 degrees Fahrenheit.

Heating and Cooling Systems: Costs
When you evaluate a potential house, pay attention to its heating and cooling costs. Energy costs fall just after housing payments and food costs in most household budgets.  You’ll need to know how much it will cost to operate.

Tip: Ask to see at least the last two years’ worth of utility bills.

Not only is it the “green” way to do things, but you’ll save yourself money if your house is more energy-efficient. For minimal or no cost, you can ask the utility company to conduct an energy audit. This audit might suggest insulating the hot water pipes or replacing the furnace, both of which could help reduce your energy costs.

Should You Replace the Temperature Control System?
Depending on what time of year you inspect a house, not to mention unusual weather patterns that could be in effect, you may or may not be able to determine if a house’s temperature control system is working properly. Part of a routine home inspection by a professional home inspector involves testing the heating system by turning it on and letting it run for a few hours (or more on a warm day). Make sure that you find a reference to this test in the inspector’s report. It’s unfortunate, but you can’t conduct a similar out-of-season test on an air-conditioning system as testing an air conditioner in the dead of winter could cause serious damage. If you find yourself in this position, you might want to set aside some of the money in an escrow account for future home repairs.

Don’t make assumptions. That is, a bigger heating and cooling system is not necessarily better—in fact, if it’s too big for the house’s needs, it will be inefficient and expensive. You might be better off with an older system that has been maintained well as opposed to a newer one that has been neglected.  This said, if the maintenance is the same, a newer system will be more efficient, less likely to be a source of trouble, and more likely to still be covered by a warranty.

Of course, if the house’s furnace doesn’t work, you’ll have to replace it. If instead it’s a matter of making your house’s systems more energy-efficient, you’ll need to crunch some numbers before you determine when your investment would pay off. You’ll want to figure in the cost of the replacement, the savings in energy costs, and how many years you anticipate living in the house. First consider more minor improvements such as adding insulation or taking conservation measures.

The House’s Insulation
If you’re considering a house that is exposed to temperature extremes, you should be sure to ask about the insulation.

Questions you should ask:

  1. Is the house insulated?
  2. What kind of insulation is being used?
  3. How much insulation exists in the house?
  4. Where is the insulation located (roof, attic, sidewalls)?

One of the best types of insulation is fiberglass though there are other effective types such as cellulose or foam (rigid foam, foam board, and poured-in foam). If you learn that the house has been insulated with urea formaldehyde (UFFI) or that asbestos insulation surrounds the hot-water pipes, you should investigate this further and make this part of your negotiations with the seller.

The Hot-Water Heater
“You used up all the hot water!” Ideally, this is a phrase that you won’t be hearing in your future home. Your hot water heater should be able to accommodate your needs, such as taking a hot shower while you’re running the dishwasher. What’s important to find out is how long it takes the unit to reheat the water from a starting position of empty.

Oil-fired and gas-fired water heaters are efficient and are quick to reheat. Thus a thirty-gallon holding tank should be adequate for your needs. Electric heaters, on the other hand,  are slower to reheat and therefore are usually accompanied by a sixty-gallon tank. Assess your family’s needs, and if there are teenagers in the house, figure that into the equation!

Water Service and Supply
Where does the water for the house come from? A municipal water system? A well? A nearby lake? (beware of this last scenario as drinking-water problems are likely to be an issue). You should be asking a different set of questions if the water for the house is connected to a municipal water and sewer system versus having its own well.

Questions to ask if it’s connected to a municipal water and sewer system:

  1. Have there been problems in recent times with either the quality or the supply of water?
  2. What does water and sewer service cost? Questions to ask if the house has its own well: a) Has the well ever run dry? b) Has the water been tested recently for potability? If you are considering making an offer on the house, send the water out to be tested by a lab in order to determine that it’s safe to drink. Not only will the lab be able to tell you about safety, it will also tell you if the water is hard or soft.
  3. Is a lot of salt used on the street or road during the winter? (If the answer is yes, you’ll want to find out where the drains are in relation to the water source in order to determine the likelihood of the well’s becoming contaminated.)
  4. Where are septic fields (yours or others’) located in relation to the well?
  5. Are there or were there gasoline-storage tanks near your house? (As old gasoline-storage tanks disintegrate, toxic amounts of petroleum products are released into the watershed and therefore into the well water.)
  6. What is the well’s capacity? (Related questions involve how much water is dispensed, how quickly, how long it takes to refill, and if there’s variability in the supply depending on the season.) Note that if a well doesn’t supply enough water for two showers to occur at the same time during a fifteen to thirty minute period, you should think about buying a larger reserve tank.

Tip: A water capacity test can be conducted by a home inspector or a water-testing lab. There are contractors who specialize in water and septic systems. You should make sure that your Purchase and Sale agreement notes the requirement of a satisfactory assessment of the water supply.

Septic Systems
If the house is served by a septic system, as opposed to being connected to the municipal sewage system, ask the following questions:

  1. How old is the septic system?
  2. Have there been any problems with the septic system?
  3. How frequently has the system been pumped out? (Maintenance that is too infrequent or too frequent can be an issue whereas every two to five years is ideal. An older house with a cesspool and no leaching field will have to pump the system more often.)

Tip: Hire an independent septic contractor, recommended by someone you know versus the broker or seller, to test the septic system. This test will involve pumping out the system to see how much waste there is and running a dye test to confirm that the system is flowing as it should.

If the house’s cesspool is older than twenty-five or thirty years, you may need to replace it with a new septic system.

Whether the house is connected to the municipal system or has its own well and septic system, you’ll also want to find out about the condition of the house’s plumbing to make sure the pipes are to-code, not lined with lead, and not so narrow that they negatively impact the water pressure in the house.

Electrical Service
You should check the number and location of electrical outlets as well as that the service in the house is adequate to meet your needs. This will depend mostly on the number and type of electrical appliances. If it seems that you’ll need to rewire the house, don’t be too concerned as the cost is important but not huge.

A home inspector will be able to tell you:

  1. If the house fails to meet code requirements
  2. If the house is unsafe
  3. How old the wiring is
  4. What condition the wiring is in

The wiring system may use fuses or circuit-breakers.  Either is fine, though it’s easier to manage the newer circuit-breaker system, involving a simple flip of a switch back to the “on” position. But if you keep extra fuses on hand in an accessible spot with a flashlight nearby, and are prepared to change things out yourself, then either system will do.

Evaluate the Home Interior

Follow our guide to inspecting the interior of your home, room by room.

Bob and Gregg walk through a shingle style home. Photo: From Bob Vila

The Floor Plan
Find out how many rooms the house has and whether or not the number will meet your family’s needs. In particular, think about how many bedrooms and bathrooms there are. Is the layout awkward? The house on more than one level? Don’t estimate the room sizes in your head, actually measure their dimensions. Note whether the rooms are bright or dark. If you’d consider expanding the current living space, make sure first that there are no restrictions.

Bathrooms and Kitchens
We can probably all agree that these are the key rooms in the house. Look closely, whether you’re examining how much counterspace there is in the kitchen or if the bathroom has a shower or bath. Check the water pressure throughout the house. Look under the sinks in the bathrooms and in the kitchen for signs of former leaks.

Walls, Ceilings, and Floors
Here’s what you’re looking for: cracks, stains (which will tip you off to past leaks), and peeling paint. This is not the time to be shy—look under rugs to assess the condition of the floors and look in back of paintings to make sure they’re not covering up issues you’re not supposed to see.

Windows and doors get a lot of use in the home.  See if they fit as they should—if they don’t, they’ll get caught and be the worse for wear. Wooden windows and doors expand in the summer and contract in the winter. While this is taken into account during construction, if the house has “gone out of square” or if the condition of the hardware is compromised, the issue will remain. Doors in older houses tend to be too tight or susceptible to drafts. Entrance doors that don’t work properly will be expensive to fix. As for patio doors, problems include streaking and frosting; while newer models use more appropriate materials and succeed better at keeping the heat out during summer and the cold out in the winter, their installation is expensive.

Windows these days are much more advanced than they were in the past. The windows in most old houses don’t work that well. The use of weighted sash cords meant that there were slots in the window frames, which let the winter air in. Not surprisingly, this didn’t help homeowners conserve energy. If you’re trying to tackle leaky windows in an old home, you can cover them with aluminum storm and screen windows. This can look out of place and is expensive but is the best functional approach.

Tip: Beware of steel casement windows. You’re unlikely to come across them but if you do, be forewarned that they’ll cause you trouble, rarely closing tightly, conducting the cold, and condensing moisture. They’re also difficult to find replacement parts for. It’s not a reason to walk away from a house that you’re considering, but know what you’ll be in for.

Details That Make a Difference
As you walk through your potential home, keep an eye out for:

  • Electrical outlets. Make a note of how many there are and where they are located. Think about your specific needs.
  • Closets and storage areas. There’s no such thing as too many closets. Keep in mind that if you bring in a free-standing one, you’ll be giving up 10 square feet of floor space.
  • Skylights. In spite of the aesthetic value that these bring, they also contribute heat from the sun during the summer, as well as leaks if they are the kind without insulating glass.
  • Fireplaces and heating stoves. Look past the charm and make sure there are no hazardous situations.
  • Bulkheads and cellar entrances. It’s convenient to be able to enter your cellar from your yard. But unfortunately, what can enter with you are cold and water, and water can lead to rotting.   If you’re inspecting an older home, the cellar doors are likely to be made of wood, which means that they’ll be heavy and susceptible to rot. You can replace them with steel but you’ll have to hope that standard sizes will fit. You may need to replace the cheek walls too. If you’re dealing with a bulkhead that’s been leaking over the years, the water will probably have reached to the stairs below, causing them to rot. Since it’s extremely difficult to get a proper seal between the cellar walls and the bulkhead opening, you should buy a doorway and door to keep out the cold.

Toxic Environments
Investigate whether any of these toxic situations are at play in the house you are considering:

  • UFFI (Urea formaldehyde) insulation. While this form of insulation is one of the most effective, it was found to be a source of respiratory disease and other health issues in homes where it was not installed properly. Even if you are not concerned, a future home buyer might be.
  • Asbestos. This previously popular form of insulation for pipes is most often found in houses that are over 40 years old. Asbestos becomes an issue if it dislodges and asbestos particles enter the air. Find out from a professional home inspector if there is asbestos in the home. Then look into removing it (not always the best way to proceed) or encasing it.
  • Radon. This gas is released naturally wherever uranium exists in the soil. The presence of radon becomes an issue if it gets trapped inside dwellings. The good news is that it is an easy and inexpensive problem to fix. By improving your ventilation, you can most likely solve the problem. Your home inspector may recommend that you seal cracks in the basement floor and walls.
  • Lead Paint. How old is the house you’re assessing? Lead paint is likely found in houses built before 1940. Between 1940 and 1955, there is still a danger, though less of one. After 1955, manufacturers of paint stopped using a lead base. But it wasn’t until 1970 that the use of lead was banned. It is expensive to remove lead paint. But it must be done if there are young children in the house. And even if there aren’t, you should do it so it doesn’t become an obstacle to your selling the home in the future.

Evaluate the Home Exterior

Here are some tips on how to inspect the roof, gutters, and overall structure.

Exterior Home

Before you buy a home, you should hire a professional inspector to conduct a thorough analysis of the true state of the house, beyond what meets the eye.

But taking a step back for a minute, you can narrow down the field of houses you’re considering by developing a more educated eye. You’ll want to learn how to distinguish between a major structural issue and a minor cosmetic matter. You’ll want to make a list of required and desired changes. Keep that list top of mind when evaluating the asking price of the home and what you’re prepared to offer.

Let’s begin:  

House Styles: Learn about the most common house styles so that you can properly read the real estate listings. You might want to watch my video tours of historic homes in Cambridge or An Architectural Tour of Harvard Square as a fun first step.

“Intake Session”: Pretend you’re a doctor conducting a first physical exam of a patient. Find out as much about the patient’s (house’s) history as you can, such as how long the current owners have lived there, what changes they’ve made, what condition the house’s exterior is in, why they are selling the house.

Roof of the House: Pay particular attention here. Problems with the roof will be expensive to address. Don’t climb up on a ladder to investigate, but ask questions. Find out when the roof was put on the house and what materials were used. Find out if the roof has leaked in the past and if so, how and when it was repaired. Look at the pitch of the roof. Know that a flat roof, or even one with a gentle pitch, can be difficult to waterproof. Find out if the roof has been re-covered with two additional layers of shingles on top of the original layer. This might be a local building code violation and can cause structural issues. If you see water stains on the walls and ceilings, chances are there is a leaky roof. This will mean financial and structural problems down the road. However, don’t be fooled by the absence of water stains as they may have been hidden by a new paint job. Test the ventilation by placing a thermometer in the attic on a warm and relatively wind-free day. If the temperature is 10 or 15 degrees more than what it is outside, you’ll know that there isn’t adequate air flow. This causes problems in summer and winter and can compromise the effectiveness of your house’s insulation.  

Gutters: Determine how well they have been maintained. Neglected gutters become clogged and then rotted, and can lead to a wet basement when backed up water spills out. Look for splits or missing portions of the gutter. This may indicate an ice dam problem, a serious matter that causes ruined ceilings, walls, and floors. Note deteriorated gutters or sealant around chimneys and other elements that project through the roof as these can also contribute to a leaky roof.

Foundation: Find out which material has been used.  Wood is problematic as it’s porous and water can get in. Even pressure-treated lumber which contains water-repellant chemicals lasts just 30-40 years and isn’t meant to eliminate the need for a stone or concrete foundation. Concrete-block was common in the first half of the Century. This is weaker than today’s reinforced concrete foundation and also more susceptible to water. Reinforced concrete is strong and stable. Another common material choice used in older homes is fieldstone, sometimes called “rubblestone.” These irregularly-shaped rocks are joined with mortar. They don’t age well, tend to leak, and can’t be waterproofed.

Tip: Wet basements are common. There are many products on the market to address this, many of which are meant to be applied to the inside of the problem wall. This is not the recommended course of action. Don’t fight water; instead attempt to divert it or install a sump pump to pump it back out in the direction from whence it came. But, remember, if a storm floods your basement, it may simultaneously knock out your power supply, and then your electric pump will be of no use. Best to fix the basic problem and divert the water away from the foundation.

Cracks: Not all cracks in the foundation are causes for worry. Vertical and diagonal cracks are generally harmless, a natural result of settling and the shrinkage of concrete. If these cracks are not more than a quarter of an inch wide, you can probably leave worry at the door. If you spot bigger cracks, however, especially in a house that’s less than 10 years old, you should bring these to the attention of a professional home inspector. It is the horizontal cracks that can be of greater concern as they can indicate negative grading or poor drainage. The worst-case scenario, while rare, involves horizontal cracks in the basement wall which can necessitate rebuilding the foundation. Needless to say, you’d rather not have to do that.

Slabs: Under the floor of the house, slab foundations (pads of concrete) are poured on top of the ground. Slabs make sense if you don’t have to worry about winter frost or a place to put the heater.  But here are some of the negatives: they can crack, they can be cold and hard underfoot in spite of carpeting or tile, they’re not well insulated, and they can make plumbing additions complicated. Plus, if you have a termite problem, you’ll be hard pressed to combat it.

Crawl Spaces: This refers to a way of building on a concrete foundation. For a proper crawl space, the walls extend below the local frost line and stick out at least eight inches above the ground line’s highest point. Whether the crawl space is below the frame of the house or supporting the house’s deck, be sure to look at the footings. These are solid concrete pads that hold the weight of the foundation wall (the wall of concrete supporting the house’s wooden frame). By understanding where they are compared to interior walls, you can understand the structure of the house.

The Soundness of the Structure: OK, let’s have some fun here. Can you draw a straight line? First, stand outside the house, at each corner, and look down the sight line to see if it’s straight.  If it’s an older house and you don’t see deformation of the structure, that’s good. Here’s an entertaining test you can do to judge how much wood a house has in it. Stand in the middle of the room and jump up and down. If the floor moves a lot, there’s a good chance that a wall is missing underneath or the joists are not large enough. Whether or not you have an engineering degree, you can conduct a test to see if the windows and doors close properly or if they are “out of square.” Back to the straight lines—if the ridge of the roof is not perfectly straight, have a professional home inspector find out why. This is the most obvious symptom of a weak house structure.

Now this might surprise you, but if you’re considering a house with structural weaknesses, don’t write it off so fast. Not only can it be corrected, it doesn’t have to be expensive. One word of warning: pay attention to the sills (the wooden members attached directly to the foundation walls upon which the rest of the building sits), especially if the house was built before the mid-70’s when pressure-treated lumber came into more general use and helped keep sills dry. You don’t want to hear the very long list of things that can go wrong when your house’s sills are rotted. I’ll share with you just a few: Sagging floors, windows that won’t open or close in a smooth way, porches that have slipped away from horizontal. While carpenters can handle these problems, fixing them is akin to major surgery. And like any good doctor, they have to diagnose the cause of the problem too to make sure it won’t happen again.

The Remodeled House:  It’s wise to take it slowly before you irrevocably alter an old house, whether you’re changing original materials or the spaces themselves. Not only do you want to do your homework about the style of the house and what changes were made when, what’s worth preserving versus what could stand some innovation, you also want to think about the ways in which people today — yourself included –- live in their spaces and therefore what their needs are in a home. That is, before you tear down interior walls and make one giant space, you might want to think about the cost of heating such a space or about the demand for individual rooms that fulfill different purposes. Beware of prior renovations where corners were cut or poor workmanship was in play. If you have the heart and soul of a remodeler, I’d suggest waiting for an original.

Maximize Your Remodeling Dollar

Make your bathroom and kitchen remodeling jobs pay for themselves and find out where to spend your money best


The average American is said to move every five to seven years. As that statistic suggests, you would be wise to think carefully about how you spend your renovation dollars. The odds are that in the not-so-distant future, you will be trying to recoup your expenditure when you’re getting ready to move on to your next dwelling.

Not every home improvement or renovation will bring a healthy return on investment. So which will enhance the value of your house? Kitchen and bathroom renovations usually more than pay for themselves. Some experts believe that for every dollar well spent in bathroom or kitchen remodeling, the value of the house increases by two dollars, though some studies are more conservative (one recent survey found that on average sellers recouped better than 90 percent of the dollars they had invested in kitchen remodeling). Painting, stripping, and such cosmetic work typically pay for themselves, but other work is less of a sure thing.

The Kitchen: Make a Great First Impression
Most of us, consciously or unconsciously, tend to think of the kitchen as an indicator of the quality of a house. A well-equipped, efficient, and attractive kitchen makes the potential buyer feel immediately at home. Conversely, an outdated kitchen will leave the buyer thinking it’s a problem to be solved. Thus, if you’re planning a kitchen renovation, consider both what you want and need and what will leave future buyers with the best impression.

Quality is important – both for you and them. Durable and attractive materials like stone counters, hardwood cabinets, and imported tile can help convey a sense of the well-made. Make sure you have ample storage and counterspace. Good lighting is important, too, especially over cooking surfaces, the sink, and food preparation areas. In a medium-size or larger kitchen, eating areas, whether at tables or islands, add to the life of a house, involving other family members and guests with the cook’s activities. Brand-name appliances are another good way of conveying a sense of quality.

Bathrooms: Make a Good Investment
Bathrooms are second only to the kitchen in maximum benefit for the buck (according to one survey, better than 80 percent of remodeling costs are recouped on average in subsequent home sales). If you have no bath on the first floor of your multi-story house, a half bath is an excellent investment – both for your comfort and the resale value of the house. Private baths off master bedrooms are also popular, but be wary of an overly large master suite. Some homeowners have discovered the hard way that too many square feet devoted to dressing areas, workout space, and bath-shower-whirlpool combinations can be an expensive waste of space and money. Good tile work and quality fixtures (new or antique) also add value. For a modest investment, handsome towel bars and other hardware can add considerably to the finish. The installation of two sinks can make the new bathroom twice as efficient on a workday morning.

Decks, Windows, Home Offices: Add Instant Appeal to Your Home
In terms of financial returns these projects are next, recouping on average roughly 70 percent of the costs invested. Decks offer indoor-outdoor spaces that add significantly to living areas for minimum cost. Replacing windows and siding can offer considerable energy savings, as well as make the house more attractive. With more and more small businesses being run from home offices, a well-appointed office space can also be a selling point when it comes time to move on.

Floors, Moldings, Woodwork: Choose Good Materials
Whatever the nature of the job, the materials you choose will have an impact on the perceived value of the work. Hardwood floors are good investments. They’re durable, warm, and attractive. After the stripped down starkness of the seventies, moldings, casework, and other woodwork have made a major comeback. Bold cornice moldings can add formality to a room. Chair and picture rails are practical and attractive additions that define surfaces and set off furnishings. Consult with your designer about appropriate profiles and scales for moldings, since they should reflect not only your tastes but the vintage and quality of the existing home.

Money-Saving Tip: Use architectural salvage such as old doors, mantels, and window sash – along with your imagination – to add unique character and a fresh new look to your home at little or no cost.

Lighting: A Little Can Go a Long Way
Individual lighting fixtures can be surprisingly expensive, yet a few new light fixtures may be the most cost-effective way of “remodeling” a house. Without changing anything else, a new lighting design can add drama, convenience, and character to a house. Certain kinds of fixtures can draw attention to themselves, while others are almost invisible but emphasize other elements. Good light can also make your life in the house more comfortable.

Basement and Attic Conversions: Do It Right
If you’re going to remodel spaces downstairs, be sure that the space is light and dry enough. Your remodeling dollars won’t be well spent if the first impression people get is of darkness and damp. Sometimes designers can, however, design imaginative solutions to illuminate downstairs spaces, using a mix of natural and artificial light. If you’re going upstairs, beware of too little headroom. Or of a narrow or steep stairway. If the place is going to feel cramped from day one, consider alternative approaches. Light and ventilation are crucially important, too. Roof windows and dormers can help.

Closets: You Can Never Have Too Many
Think about it: Have you ever heard anyone say they have too much closet space? Unless they intrude on other spaces, closets are always improvements.

Technology, Landscaping, and Other Touches: Think About Future Selling Points
These days, more than one phone line and plenty of phone jacks are a small but appealing selling point (and a convenience while you’re in residence). You might also want to think about setting up a wireless home environment. Modest landscaping involving shrubs, trees, foundation plantings, stonework, or small perennial beds almost always pay for themselves. On the other hand, faux building materials like vinyl siding and fake brick make a house look plastic.

Keep in mind the delicate balance between what you want and what the next owner will need. That tension can sometimes be a tie-breaker in the decision-making process.