Home improvements that really count

Michael Evitts and his wife are in the midst of renovating their first floor row house in south Baltimore. The remade parking spot out back has great resale value, real estate agents say. Evitts, (shown at the parking pad) opted for one that's permeable so rainwater can go through. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun / June 26, 2013)

Pop quiz: What's the home-improvement project that comes closest to paying for itself when you sell?

Not a snazzy new kitchen or bathroom. A lowly steel front door.

So says Remodeling magazine in its annual survey breaking down the cost benefits of spiffing up your home. In the Baltimore metro area, the survey says, replacing your door costs about $1,120 and has a resale value of $1,040.

"That's the entrance of the home," said Dave MacLean, director of sales at Brothers Services Co., a Hampstead-based remodeling firm. "That's the absolute first impression."

A steel door, if Remodeling magazine is right, will recoup 93 percent of its cost at sale. The survey suggests that beats the heck out of a major kitchen renovation (73 percent) or a bathroom remodel (69 percent).

The takeaway is to think on a smaller scale — at least if your priority is resale.

Costs for the survey's five most valuable projects range from the $1,120 door to a minor kitchen improvement of about $18,000 (new cabinet fronts and hardware plus replacement countertops and the like). For the bottom five, costs start at $11,400 for a backup power generator and top out at nearly $78,000 for a family room addition.

The survey relied on appraisers and real estate agents — about 3,900 nationally — for its resale estimates across metro areas. But appraisers warn that home improvement is not an exact science. It depends on the property, the neighborhood and what buyers expect.

At a certain point — say, a property with a bathroom and kitchen predating the Eisenhower administration — you might need to do major updates just to get anyone in the door to look. And market expectations vary a lot by neighborhood.

"If you're in Montgomery County or the D.C. area or some of the affluent Baltimore County locations, you need to know your competition," said Sharon L. Cremen, owner of Cremen Appraisal & Consulting Inc. in Forest Hill. "If they all have these great gourmet kitchens, you need to have a gourmet kitchen if you're putting your house on the market. Or you need to be extremely realistic about how much the property is going to sell for."

Cremen, by the way, isn't convinced that a steel front door gets you 93 cents on the dollar. It's not that she doubts the importance of curb appeal, but she says this example of it so hard to measure. "Front door" isn't even its own line item on her appraisal reports.

"There's just no way to isolate the value of a front door," she said.

Where she agrees with the survey findings is that simpler is generally more cost-effective. Replacing cabinet fronts and appliances, say, rather than gutting the kitchen. Or building a much-needed bathroom within the footprint of the house rather than adding on.

And if you care about resale, don't even think of constructing an in-ground pool in this region, said Cremen, who's been an appraiser for 36 years. Given the short time it can be used each year and the safety concerns of some buyers, she thinks you won't get more than a third of your investment back. Better to go buy a house that already has a pool.

"The contributory value is much less than the cost to create, so that's the ideal," she said.

Pools weren't included in Remodeling's Cost vs. Value survey, and neither was a niche project that locals say could end up paying for itself multiple times over.

Ron Howard, an agent with ReMax Preferred in Fells Point, says parking pads fall in that category for parking-scarce neighborhoods in and around Baltimore's Inner Harbor. He said it costs $2,000 to $4,000 to build a pad, and he puts their value at somewhere between $20,000 to $30,000 — based on the varying estimates he's received from more than 20 appraisers over the years.

"If you take a market like Canton and you do a search on homes with a $50,000 spread — say like $250 [thousand] to $300 [thousand] — you'll find maybe 30 properties, and maybe six of them will have parking," he said. "Some people like courtyards. Way more people want parking."

He points to a Canton rowhouse he sold in 2011 as a prime example. The owners brought him in after they'd been on the market for six months with no offers, despite price drops. He suggested they put in a pad, and they did. Nineteen days later, they had a contract for $270,000, near their asking price.

Mike Martin, one of the then-owners, loved the suggestion because he got the project done for virtually nothing. The courtyard out back was already topped by concrete. All he had to do was pull down a cinderblock wall that surrounded it, something he managed over a weekend with help from family and friends, and patch up the concrete afterward.