Projects That Pay

The Washington Post

How to Spend $1,000, $10,000 or $20,000 to Improve Your Home

When it comes to your home, every new light fixture, appliance and even the kitchen sink can become a gut-wrenching investment decision. What change will increase the value of your home more: The sensible beige tile or the fuchsia with hand-painted details that you really want?These decisions have become even more significant during a housing slump that has stoked competition among home sellers. For people on a budget, finding the most effective way to continue to increase the value of their home depends in part on the size of the property and its age, contractors and architects say.

“If you live in a $1 million home, $10,000 is not going to cover the cost of new kitchen cabinets or do anything for the master bath,” said Bob Weickgenannt, president of Starcom Design Build in Columbia. “But if you live in a home that’s worth $450,000 to $650,000, you can probably do your countertops and your master bath.”

Before launching a project, owners should consider whether they plan to stay in a home for a short time — less than three years — or are making a long-term investment, said David Lupberger, a home improvement expert for Service Magic, a contractor referral service.

“If you are in there in 10 years, does it matter what the return on investment was?,” he said. “They are putting espresso makers in bathrooms, heated floors, heated towel bars. If that is the kind of thing you are looking for, then go for it.”

The calculations are different for people who may be selling within three years, Lupberger said. The time-consuming task of customizing a home to personal tastes should take a back seat to more generic improvements that could bring in a buyer, he said.

“Why would you put all of that energy into a place you’re not committed to?,” he said. “The emotional investment is not there.”

It can take years to recoup the cost of a renovation, so consider it a long-term investment, contractors said. In the Washington region, remodeling a 5-by-7 foot bathroom, including replacing all fixtures, costs $16,028, according to Remodeling magazine’s 2007 Cost vs. Value report. It will increase the resale value $12,932, or 80.7 percent. A minor kitchen remodeling costs $21,109 and will recoup 81.9 percent of its value.

“When the market was good, the return on a kitchen [remodeling] was 150 percent right away,” said Tim Burch Jr., president of Burch Builders Group in Warrenton. “I think in the long run, you definitely get your money back. And you have to remember, you get to live in it. That’s the real advantage of it.”

And don’t forget landscape upgrades, said Stephen Vanze, a principal with Barnes Vanze Architects in the District.

“Landscaping has a big impact on the value of your home, it has a big first impression,” he said. “Your yard is the biggest room in your house, if you think about it.”

Here are some suggestions on some investments you can make in your home with a $1,000, $10,000 or $20,000 budget.

Up to $1,000

The nearly universal reaction from landscapers, architects and contractors on to how to make the best of a $1,000 home improvement budget is a round of head scratching, hem-hawing and stalling. The options are limited and the projects should be defined and small, they agreed.

Paint, which can cost less than $30 a gallon, emerged as a frequent suggestion. “Just changing the color on one wall can change the way the floor space looks without structural changes,” Burch said. While many advocated adding interest to a room by adding color to the walls, Christian Zapatka, a modern architect in the District, recommends otherwise. White can act as a blank canvas and you’re not limited to the stark white of hospital walls, he said. Consider linen white and other shades that come with flecks of blue, he said.

And don’t forget your hardwood floors. “If you were to get as much white paint as you can for the walls, trim, and white stain for your wood floors, that will instantly transform your place for $1,000,” Zapatka said.

With $1,000, a homeowner can also tackle a neglected lawn, plant some fast-growing trees or get rid of overgrown shrubbery, landscape architects said. “Something being eliminated is better than something being overgrown. On the front of the home a typical exterior aesthetic faux pas is people getting attached to bushes they planted 15 years ago,” Weickgenannt said.

With patience, do-it-yourselfers can also attempt time-consuming projects that involve relatively cheap materials, architects and contractors said. That could include replacing an outdated bathroom medicine cabinet or painting kitchen cupboards.

Architect Meghan Walsh used out-of-stock tile samples and cheap finds at Home Depot to create mosaics in the bathroom and front porch of her Bloomingdale home. The materials, including grout, cost about $200 but the projects took more than 40 hours each and would have cost $4,000 to $10,000 to have professionally done, she said.

It is a strategy she has recommended to clients, including some who have gone to recycling plants with Walsh to search bins for broken pieces of granite and marble. One client is installing a mosaic tile on the bedroom floor after making a visit to a dumpster, she said. “Marble and granite are being thrown away every single day,” she said. “It brings uniqueness to the house. It is hard to talk about in real estate terms, but it is an unconscious feeling you have when you open a space.”

Up to $10,000

Homeowners with a $10,000 budget can explore creating an outdoor living space, including adding a deck to a townhouse or creating a simple patio. If the home already has a deck or patio, consider upgrading the yard by adding an outdoor kitchen with a sink and refrigerator or even a fireplace.

“People are wanting to enjoy outside space,” Burch said. “We almost always think now about what can we do with this outdoor adjacent space, so it’s not just a yard. . . . It’s a good way to add that extra flair that nobody else has.”

If making structural changes to a large or complicated yard would blow the budget, find a shady but unused portion of the lawn and draw attention there with a stone bench, said Kameron Aroom of Arlington-based Scott Brinitzer Design Associates. Save money on labor by purchasing the stone yourself, he said.

If you work with what you have, “you will be more successful,” Aroom said. “You can create a separate place from your house to entertain.”

A $10,000 budget is also enough for an overhaul of a powder room or small bathroom, contractors said. You could improve many of the major elements — vanity, mirrors, toilet — adding marble and other upgrades, they said. With enough room and lucky pipe placement, some people might also be able to add a small shower.

It is possible to do a “pull and replace” of a powder room for $5,000 to $10,000 that would not include moving pipes or making other structural changes, Burch said.

With $10,000, homeowners can also rethink the lighting plan in their home. Adding recessed lights or upgrading electrical panels and circuits to handle more power can increase the value of your home. So can finally tackling rooms that have insufficient natural light, contractors said.

“Lighting is a huge thing. There is not a lot of thought that goes into that in a lot of builder-built houses,” Walsh said. “You don’t need the most extensive features. Using Ikea indirect lighting, florescent light can make a big difference.”

In some neighborhoods, where a place to park a car sometimes seems almost as valuable as a home itself, creating a parking space can be an affordable upgrade. People with narrow, long yards behind their townhouses can shorten the garden to make that space as long as they back onto an alley or street, said Donna Evers, a real estate broker. That project could be done for $5,000, depending on the type of materials — gravel vs. brick — but would immediately boost the value of the home, in some cases by $50,000, she said.

“If you can create parking, please go ahead and do it,” Evers said. “Parking is so valuable now.”

Around $20,000

With a $20,000 budget, a homeowner’s ambitions can widen to include significant changes to the kitchen. A complete kitchen renovation is likely too expensive, but significant improvements are possible, including adding granite counter tops, new floors or cabinets. All would prove to be a good long-term investment that would raise the value of the home over time, remodeling experts said.

For $20,000, you can also consider a complete renovation of a master bathroom. As long as you aren’t planning on moving any of the major plumbing fixtures, the renovation can include upgrading materials, adding granite and new vanities, Burch said. “There are so many options now. Vessel sinks, natural stones, there are a million and one vanity options,” he said. “It makes a huge difference.”

It would also be a good investment to look at the less glamorous parts of the house, including doors and windows. They are both things that you can see and operate, Zapatka said.

“Make sure your interior doors are solid core, not hollow,” he said. “It gets a lot more substance and heft, when you open and close your doors they should have a weight to them. . . . Windows and doors can make or break a house.”

With this budget, homeowners can also tackle a more extensive yard renovation, including adding a water feature, larger patio or more plants, landscape architects said. The adventurous homeowner could even consider a “trophy tree” — a large transplant from another part of the country, which could cost more than $10,000, including shipping costs, landscapers said.

But otherwise, don’t expect an immediate impact. “It can take at least two years for plants to get to a somewhat mature size, but trees will take five to six years,” Aroom said. “No one should expect a garden to pop out of the ground.”