The Baltimore Sun

Staying put?

With house sales in the Baltimore area down an estimated 28 percent last year, many people are finding now to be a good time to spring for a renovation.

Ideally, home renovations and remodeling projects are a three-way boost: They make life easier and better for homeowners, they increase the house's appeal to others, and they provide some financial return when the time for resale comes.

But in a time of edgy economics, what projects make sense? According to the experts, small projects are in and big ones are out. Green remodels are in, too, while energy-guzzling projects are out.

Sal Alfano, editorial director of Remodeling magazine, expects remodeling to pick up after a small decline. "I think there is a lot of pent-up demand out there," he said.

The National Association of Home Builders' figures for U.S. spending on renovations are in agreement with Alfano.

"In 2009, we expect it to be $223 billion," said Gopal Ahluwalia, NAHB vice president for research. That's up from the estimated $216 billion in 2008. The 2007 figure was $226 billion.

Some remodeling is discretionary, some not.

"Sometimes, you have to do it. You go home and your roof is leaking," says Ahluwalia. "But if you don't like your kitchen, you can postpone remodeling your kitchen."

The most common project? Painting and wallpapering. General trend? Long-lasting products.

"The main thing is the quality. Most people want maintenance-free. Nobody wants to do anything," he said.

These are nine of the top small projects the pros say will be big in '09.


Electric radiant heat beneath floors.: It's becoming one of the most popular upgrades when redoing a bathroom, says Michael Owings, president of Owings Brothers Contracting in Eldersburg and of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

Everyone loves having warm tootsies. The equivalent of an electric blanket beneath flooring, it warms a room that gets regular but not continual use, and is both comfy now and a good resale point later.

"The one thing people really do appreciate is not being cold in the morning. It has become a very affordable item if you have gutted your bathroom," Owings said, noting that it adds about $1,500 to a small bathroom if the electrical capability exists.

"It is energy efficient and it works on its own thermostat," he said.

The use of radiant heat is growing for kitchens, sunrooms and other floors as well.


Second floor "pop-up" over a garage.: This adds about 480 square feet of space atop a two-car garage without eating your yard - "a heck of a lot of space to gain in an existing footprint," says Donald Lynch Jr. of Lynch Construction in Churchville and president of the HBAM Remodelers.

"We have done a number of rooms like this, where we take the roof off the top of the garage and put a mother-in-law suite or an office or other rooms up there," he said.

Expect to redo siding or add brick. It can reach $70,000, not all that small an expense.


Siding and window replacement.: Nationwide, this investment brought a hefty payback, according to Remodeling magazine's recent "Cost vs. Value Report." In the Baltimore area, midprice window replacements recouped about 75 percent of the price at resale. For siding, it was 88 percent, the highest payback of any project. (Go to for project data.)

"All that stuff reduces maintenance," says Alfano, who adds that it also instantly brightens curb appeal, improves energy efficiency and cuts utility bills. Windows, especially, enhance comfort by reducing drafts. The latest windows are a vast improvement over those of 10 years ago. Ditto for skylights.


Energy efficiencies.: If you haven't sealed, insulated, added flow restrictors to spigots and replaced old appliances with high-efficiency ones, you're sending cash down the drain.

Not only are many of these savers on the "in" list, but many are inexpensive. You can replace faucets and showerheads, or for a few dollars you can add flow-restrictors. Replacing an old toilet for a water-saver costs a few hundred dollars.


Showers, the upscale, "therapeutic" kind, in a bathroom redo.: "Showers are hot stuff," says Bob Weickgenannt, founder of the Starcom Design Build Corp. in Columbia, one of the nation's leading remodelers.

Think built-in bench, built-in shower-goods niche, stylish grab-bars, rainfall shower, handheld adjustable spray, multiple spray sites and tile of your choice, in a 3-by-5 space.

"It is heaven if you have lower back problems, upper back problems, neck problems, tennis elbow," Weickgenannt says.


Kitchen remodel.: A perennial favorite for a room in constant use, kitchen remodeling costs top $15 billion a year nationwide. Overhauling the kitchen gives you conveniences, energy-efficiencies, space-savers and easy-care products. Electrical and plumbing are updated and more insulation can be stuffed into open walls.

Kitchens and bathrooms are make-or-break rooms at resale time. A kitchen remodel, whether a replacement-only or full redesign, moderately priced or gourmet, returns more than two-thirds of its cost at resale, according to the "Cost vs. Value Report."


Reinvent space to multi-task.: "People would much rather have a room they can use for a variety of purposes," Alfano says.

"As people move toward smaller rooms and multipurpose, you want a spare bedroom, but you don't want it to be a spare bedroom all the time. You want to use it for an exercise room or an office, but you don't want a queen-size bed in the middle of it," he says.


Finished basements.: This is gaining in popularity, as people look to turn unused space into liveable rooms, says Lynch, who at the moment has four in various stages of design and construction.

Plus, it's flexible. There's a wide cost range; you can keep part of the basement unfinished.

It's great for a video or media room, which is dark by nature and perfect for slumber parties, says Weickgenannt.


Cosmetics.: These freshen your home, say the experts. They can be as simple as adding moldings in the dining room, as utilitarian as replacing worn carpeting, or as complex as an exterior facelift. Hardwood floors? Still in.

renovation road

What's hot

A deck. This is a good choice, especially if yours is the only house in the neighborhood without one. The payback at resale is about the same, 76 percent, for composite and wood; composite, which typically needs less maintenance, costs more.

Anything green. Consider environmentally friendly and energy-efficient projects, right down to caulking.

A two-story addition. At an average cost of $141,000, this runs counter to the small projects notion, but on the "Cost vs. Value Report," the cost recouped at resale was 77 percent.

What's not

A big, deep whirlpool tub. Statistically, they're used seven times during their lifetime because people like the idea but lack the time to soak, according to Jim Krengel, a Minneapolis-based guru of kitchen and bath design.

Huge bathroom. You don't live in there. The space can serve you better elsewhere.

Guest suites and other infrequently used, energy-guzzling luxury spaces.

expert advice

Before you remodel, advice from the pros:

Regular maintenance comes first. Expect to spend the equivalent of a mortgage payment or two a year on maintenance.

Have a budget. Start with how much you want to spend and what you want to spend it on. The real price tag balloons if you are taking out long-term loans. When you interview remodelers, ask what they can do within your budget.

Don't go for trendy. Keep costs down by not going for custom work and trendy accessories. In a kitchen, replacing what's there costs less than a redesign that moves plumbing and electrical lines.

Get references for contractors and check. Don't just look at their photos. Visit the work they've done, and not only the most recent jobs. If your neighbors have renovated, have a look. If you like the work, get their contractor's name. In Maryland, home improvement contractors must be state-licensed. Check out contractors at

See for yourself. Big-box stores make it easy to look at quality of products and workmanship. Whether you are looking there or in a remodeling showroom, tell an approaching sales rep that you are there just to look. Go online to learn about product specs and performance.

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