What Kinds of Home Improvements Pay Off?

Your big projects should aim at making you comfortable. If they add value, that’s even better.


Imagine heating and cooling that adjusts with the tap of a smartphone—even when you are miles from home.

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When you arrive, the house is filled with music from your personal playlist.

When it’s time to go to sleep, you slide between sumptuous sheets in a master bedroom that is also your private sanctuary.

Technology and luxury blend to create homes that are beautiful, comfortable and safe.

But what niceties offer the best return on your home investment dollar?

“For the past four or five years, people have been extremely interested in what improvements will impact their home’s resale value,” says Nile Johnson, an interior designer based in Kennett Square. “In many cases, it’s the deciding factor on what homeowners decide to improve—or not improve.”

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The biggest bang for your buck isn’t fine furniture or tech toys you can show off to your friends. Insulation gives prospective buyers a warm and fuzzy feeling, according to Remodeling’s latest Cost vs. Value Report. Installing fiberglass insulation in the attic offers a cool return on investment of 116 percent.

Curb appeal also looms large when it comes time to sell a property. After insulation, the biggest money makers are all external improvements:

  • Manufactured stone veneer creates an aura of stateliness and will recoup 93 percent of an average investment of $7,519. (You can use veneer to dress up the inside of the house, too.
  • A new garage door will get buyers’ motors going, with an average return of 92 percent of the $1,652 cost. Have your heart set on upscale garage doors? Go ahead and indulge. The numbers say you will get a 91 percent return on the $3,140 cost.
  • A good quality steel door says “welcome” to prospective buyers, with a 91 percent return on an average price of $1,335.

Don’t neglect the greenery. A manicured lawn, nicely trimmed shrubs and colorful blooms make a good impression before guests walk in the door.

“Landscaping makes a property look great and you get a great return on your money,” says Laird Bunch, of Brandywine Fine Properties/Sotheby’s International Realty.

Location also factors into what improvements make sense for your home. In an upscale community at the beach, where open-air entertaining is a priority, the wish list might include an outdoor kitchen with professional-style grill, a fire pit and a swimming pool with a cabana. In suburban New Castle County, a deck might fit the bill.

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“Don’t over-improve, unless you plan to stay put for a long, long time,” Johnson says.

Update your bath—but don’t get soaked

Most folks appreciate a luxurious bathroom.

But nobody wants to take a bath on a home improvement investment.

Installing a new bathroom offers one of the lowest returns on renovation dollars, according to the latest Remodeling Cost vs. Value Report.

Of various options for upgrading the bath, the worst return rate is on expanding the footprint of the house to accommodate another bathroom. The average cost to add on a 6 foot-by-8 foot bathroom is $43,232. Expect to recoup about $23,283, or about 54 percent of the cost.

Remodeling an existing bath provides a better return, with homeowners paying an average $18,546 and recouping $12,024, or 65 percent, at resale.

That said, there’s value in selling a home quickly. And outdated bathrooms are off-putting to most buyers, says Bunch.

“The bottom line is buyers want great bathrooms,” he says.

Lucy Findlay of Partners in Design in Dover suggests balancing your budget against your quality of life.

“You have to make a decision,” she says. “Am I doing this because I want a return on my investment? Or because I can’t stand the thought of sharing a bathroom with my kids for another minute?”

Even when the bathroom is part of a master suite addition, homeowners are unlikely to realize a profit on that investment. The average cost of a 24-by-16 master suite addition with a bedroom, walk-in closet and bath with soaker tub is $119,533. Only 65 percent of the tab, or $77,506, would be reflected in the resale value.

That said, a powder room that is awash in glamour will help to sell a house faster and for a better price, says a Bloomberg survey. It’s well worth the average investment of $3,000.

Here are a few other choices for homeowners to weigh:

  • A designated home office. Built-in cabinetry will cost around $4,000, but add only about $1,800 in value. So before you make a permanent change to that spare room, consider bookcases and other storage that you can take with you.
  • A sunroom addition is light and pleasant, but don’t expect it to light up the eyes of potential buyers. Expect to recoup about half the cost.
  • A garage is on the wish list of many home shoppers. But extending a two-car garage to a three-car garage won’t drive additional buyers your way. Before you invest in expanding the footprint of an existing garage, roll up your sleeves, clean out the space and enjoy your newfound square footage.

Interior designer Nile Johnson encourages clients to start with the bedroom when creating a sanctuary.//Courtesy
of Designer Nile Johnson

When it comes to luxury homes, a high-end kitchen with custom cabinets and countertops is a must.//Courtesy of Nile Johnson

A look at the trends

At the Delaware beaches, upscale homeowners are installing two kitchens: an open gathering space with custom cabinets, high-end countertops and professional-style appliances, plus an auxiliary service kitchen outfitted with small appliances, a supplemental fridge and other amenities conducive to feeding guests.

In Kent County, Findlay jettisoned a big whirlpool tub and replaced it with a spacious walk-in shower with seamless glass doors, multiple shower heads and one-of-a-kind ceramic tiles that she “loves every time I see them.”

Homeowners in New Castle County are often focused on increasing their living space without extending their footprint, so they are rethinking existing interiors, transforming formal dining rooms into children’s playrooms, creating basement man caves and repurposing formal living rooms as home offices.

“Wherever we go, we are gearing designs to how people live, with more open spaces and gathering spaces, and less formal spaces,” says Douglas Hertsenberg, who leads the residential design studio for Bernardon, an architectural firm in Wilmington and West Chester.

Large gathering spaces with plenty of seating and multimedia are all the rage.//Courtesy of Nile Johnson

At his own home, Hertsenberg created a personal retreat on the lower level of the house, where he displays his collections of model airplanes and art rendered by World War II veterans.

The concept of rethinking spaces manifests itself in multiple ways, based on the occupants’ needs and desires. An empty nester might be more interested in a compact home gym than a fourth bedroom. Homeowners with a large garage could park a potting bench there. Or they can extend the seasons on the patio with a fire pit or outdoor fireplace. Hertsenberg recently designed a basement boot room for an avid equestrienne.

A large foyer offers more than a grand welcome. It also provides square footage for entertaining, a place to set up a bar during a cocktail party. Porches—open-air, enclosed or screened—also are expanding entertainment options.

Findlay and Valla Rogers own Partners in Design, an interior decorating firm in Dover. In a recent project for a fitness-minded couple, they designed a health room off the master bedroom, equipped with a sauna and other amenities for relaxation and wellness.

Guest bedrooms are being reinterpreted as ladies’
Sitting rooms, craft spaces and studies.//Courtesy of
Nile Johnson

With smaller families, seldom-used guest bedrooms are being reinterpreted as ladies’ sitting rooms, craft spaces and studies. “They are personal retreats, a place to get away from whatever is going on in the rest of the house,” Findlay says.

When it came time to design a bath for herself, Findlay installed higher, ergonomically friendly counter tops. She chose handmade, rustic tiles that make an individual statement. “It’s a place I enjoy every day,” she says.

Designers say the trend is toward more gathering spaces
and less formal spaces.//Courtesy of Nile Johnson

Sumptuous finishes are an essential element in luxury homes, says Tim Dewson, of Dewson Construction in Wilmington. Crooked Billet, a development of high-end homes in Greenville for the 55-plus community, reflects a strong trend toward turn-key houses that are big on amenities yet smaller in square footage.

“As families start to turn into empty nesters, they are looking for smaller, higher-level homes that give them the ability to travel,” he says. “They don’t want to be bothered with high levels of maintenance.”

That translates to communities that offer property management services, where someone else takes care of cleaning the gutters and down spouts. Homeowners don’t have to worry about mowing the lawn, trimming shrubs or shoveling snow.

A high-end kitchen is a must, with custom cabinets and counter tops of quartz, concrete or marble, often combined with contrasting counters of exotic woods. “Homeowners also expect great appliances, a sub-Zero refrigerator and a Wolf range,” Dewson says.

Large custom homes might boast two kitchens. It’s an especially desirable offering at the beach, where friends and families often vacation together. “There may be a service kitchen and a formal show kitchen, where you don’t have coffeemakers and appliances sticking out,” Dewson says.

Buyers expect great appliances like a sub-Zero fridge and
a Wolf range.//Courtesy of Nile Johnson

Other trends on the homefront include:

  • First-floor in-law suites that can accommodate aging parents or live-in companions. “Think of a very nice apartment, with a sitting room, bedroom, kitchenette and accessible bathroom,” Dewson says.
  • His-and-hers master suites are appearing more frequently on couples’ wish lists. Notes Hertsenberg, “It’s not a reflection on the relationship. It’s just what they prefer.”
  • The hall bathroom, shared by multiple family members, is falling out of favor with buyers of new homes. “They prefer each bedroom to have an en-suite bath or at the very least a Jack-and-Jill bath,” he says.
  • Heated and cooled garages can be readily converted to entertaining areas when vehicles are removed. Expect no-skid flooring, upgraded lighting and a compact kitchen for preparing or warming food.
  • Plank tile flooring that is grained to look like wood is popular in kitchens, baths and mudrooms, Findlay says, “especially at the beach.” Choices in hardwood floors are expanding beyond traditional oak to hickory, maple and walnut. “We are not seeing people getting wall-to-wall carpeting. They are still asking us to get rid of it,” she says.
  • Large, multipurpose laundry rooms combine the function of an informal back foyer, mudroom and more. Visualize a space measuring 12 feet-by-20 feet with a washer, dryer, sink and refrigerator. There’s plenty of room for Fido, too. “Dogs are part of the family and they need room for their crates and food,” Dewson says. “We also do at least two or three doggie showers a year.”

Technology is making homes safer and more energy efficient, with controls for security, lighting and HVAC. Whole home audio systems are mobile-device friendly, controlled with smartphone apps. Mom and dad can be listening to one thing in the living room while the kids listen to something else.

“There are no more keypads on the walls,” says Greta Colgan of Beyond the Studs in Wilmington.

Security measures include digital locks that can be switched on and off remotely to allow access for repair people, cleaning crews and guests. Price points are $200 to $300.

“With each passing year, there are more things we can provide for people,” she says. “This technology is not just for wealthy people with very large homes.”

Energy savings help to offset the investment in technology. Homeowners have the option of running their systems in economy mode when they are away. Systems also empower users to perform such tasks as shutting off water valves remotely.

“We have a client who wants to make his house as energy efficient as possible,” Colgan says. “His system makes sure that all the lights are off when no one is in the house. If someone forgot to turn off the heated floor, it can be switched off from wherever he is.”

On the home entertainment front, she says there is less demand for designated home theaters as consumers shift toward multi-purpose media rooms.

“People are asking for multiple TVs for watching games,” Colgan says. “They often combine it with a pool table, almost like a sports bar experience.”

Homeowners with a list of multiple projects often seek guidance on where to begin, says Johnson, the interior designer in Kennett Square.

“People are spending more time at home and they want to enjoy their homes,” he says.

Johnson encourages clients to start with the bedroom to create both a sanctuary and a place conducive to a good night’s sleep.

“The master bedroom is often a space people put at the bottom of the list. But I think it should be at the top because people should be spending quality time there,” he says. “The master bedroom also should be done to the same level as the rest of the house. It isn’t an afterthought.”

Investing in good bedding is essential. So is mood lighting. “And if you must have a TV or a computer, put it behind doors,” he advises. “It should not interfere with rest and relaxation.”

Homeowners are rethinking formal dining rooms, converting them to play rooms or dens.//Courtesy of Nile Johnson

Homeowners also are rethinking formal dining rooms. Johnson has had four requests from clients to turn the dining room into a playroom. His designs include such elements as a rotating gallery for children’s art, a craft station and window seats to store toys.

“If the door is open, it’s still a visually appealing space,” he says.

In another project, the dining room became a library in which shelves that might have held china and crystal are now lined with books. “It still functions wonderfully for intimate dinner parties,” he says.

There’s good news for homeowners intent on one-of-a-kind pieces. In response to consumer demand, many custom workrooms have decreased their lead time for such niceties as upholstery, bedding and cabinetry.

“Clients want things quicker,” Johnson says. “The days of waiting and waiting for custom pieces are over.” 

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