If you're rehabbing a house on a budget -- and who isn't on a budget these days? -- you may be agonizing over whether to include a whirlpool tub or an upstairs laundry or whether to restore an old fireplace. When you don't have floors or walls, such things may seem like ridiculous frills . . . but when it comes time to sell the house, will you wish you had them?
There's a way to find out exactly what homebuyers in your area expect: Looking at new housing.
Some builders do a lot of research to target buyers' interests. By studying what features they include, you can figure out what buyers like -- and are willing to pay for. Then you can decide what features in your rehab might offer the best payback.
It's a good idea to look at houses in a range of prices. What buyers of $250,000 houses want may not be the same as what buyers of $90,000 houses want. One of the biggest mistakes you can make in rehabbing a house is to over-improve it for the market you're in. It won't sell and you won't get your money back.
But if every new house in your region has a fireplace, you may want to spend the extra money to get an old chimney relined.
Baltimore has always been conservative when it comes to housing: Buyers in this region want tradition -- center-hall, Colonial-style tradition. But the economy is a big factor here as elsewhere.
"In a recessionary period you don't take chances," said Ross Mackesey, of Mackesey Marketing Strategies, a Baltimore-area firm that helps builders decide what to build. "When the economy is in rough shape, people are more willing to embrace traditional values" -- like crown molding, fireplaces and wood cabinetwork.
Suppliers also play it safe in hard times, sticking to traditional best-selling designs. "In order to introduce something new, it takes a lot of marketing money, which has not been available," Mr. Mackesey said.
One of the country's largest builders, Ryland Homes, uses regional focus groups to evaluate architects' designs. Fred Lampel, sales and marketing manager for the Baltimore division of Ryland, agrees this area is a more traditional marketplace. But he said there's one thing all new houses have, no matter where they are: They're much more energy efficient, with better designed heating and cooling equipment.
If the builders are playing it safe with features, you probably can't go far wrong to copy them. We definitely plan to copy some of the features we found on a recent visit to a new planned development in suburban Maryland. There are eight different builders in the community, and all inds of housing. Prices range from $80,000 (for a condo) to more than $300,000.
But there were some features we found over and over; by the time we'd looked at more than half a dozen houses, we knew exactly what kind of a bathroom to design for a rehab.
Here's what we found:
*Wood floors, not just in entryways and other high-traffic areas, but in family rooms and even in a kitchen.
*Gas heat -- good news for folks who hate heat pumps -- from high-efficiency furnaces.
*Fireplaces, some gas, some with vents to recirculate warm air.
*Non-traditional shapes that maximize tight spaces. In one townhouse, an angled wall in the entry was the back of a small pantry unit in the kitchen beyond. In another wedge-shaped house by the same builder, the sharp end of the wedge housed a gas fireplace.
*"Super baths." Our favorite had double entry doors, two vanities, a whirlpool tub with a tile surround and big windows behind it, a separate shower stall, and a separate toilet room. It was flanked by matching walk-in closets. It was the kind of room you could spend a day in.
*Sitting rooms off master bedrooms -- some of the spaces were not all that big, but they had lots of light and would make wonderful places to escape to read a book.
*Bay windows, especially in kitchens and dining rooms.
*Open storage spaces at ceiling level, often over closets. This would work well in an old house with high ceilings; the space at the top of a closet is often wasted because it can't be reached.
*More large closets, including walk-ins even in second and third bedrooms. To make way for them, laundry facilities have moved back to the first floor or basement.
*Kitchens with islands, many with cooktops.
*Pantries or pantry units, even in the smallest townhouses.
*Chair rails, even in bedrooms; in fact, most houses had fairly fancy trim.
*Colonial-style paneling and built-in cabinets and bookshelves. Our favorite was a library with elaborate fluted moldings on the bookcase edges.
*Cathedral ceilings, especially in family rooms and master bedrooms; many of them had skylights. This is also a fairly easy feature to work into a rehab, since old houses usually have high ceilings anyway.
*Mirrored walls -- while more of a designer trick than a structural feature, they were used effectively to open up narrow spaces, especially in the smaller townhouses.
Next: The issue of sprinkler systems.
Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a home writer for The Sun.
If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.