Home equity advice from Michelle Singletary
Photo: Eric McNatt
In a slumping housing market, remodeling projects don't guarantee the return they once did. But that doesn't mean no update is worth doing.
Barbecuing at our house isn't as appetizing as it could be. Since we moved in four years ago, we've been flipping burgers in the driveway, right next to the garbage cans and recycling bins.

Yes, I've been dreaming about building a deck—a two-level sanctuary with a gazebo to isolate us from bugs—made of composite decking, which means no splinters or stains and little maintenance. I asked a contractor to come by and give me a written estimate. When he handed it to me, I just stared at the paper. After a few minutes of silence, the contractor asked, "Are you okay?"

I wasn't. I was stunned. Barbecuing in the driveway didn't seem so bad after all.

There was a time when homeowners would plunk down for major renovating projects with nary a twitch. With home prices rising at eye-popping rates, we calculated the cost of improvements against what they would bring in when we sold. Adding a room or a deck was the next best thing to getting something for free.

But in a down market, big renovations—even the new kitchens and bathrooms that used to practically guarantee a profit—no longer pay dollar for dollar. A survey of real estate appraisers published by Consumer Reports in September found that kitchen and bathroom remodels now recover as little as 50 percent of what they cost.

That doesn't mean that no renovating job is worth doing. Like anything in real estate, the value of a fix-up always depends on where you live and what the local market is doing. But more important is how long you're going to live there, and how much you're planning to spend. Here's a breakdown of the kind of repairs that make sense for homeowners in different situations.

If you're...
1. Ready to sell
2. Selling someday, but not soon
3. Never selling


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