Rewarding Renovations

These condo updates could have big payoffs when it’s time to sell

January 25, 2013

Amy Pottberg bought her condo in November 2008 for $230,000 and put about $18,000 into the kitchen renovation. She sold four years later for $252,500.

Amy Pottberg fell in love with a 1950s-era condo. What she didn’t love was its 1950s-era kitchen. So when she bought the two-bedroom in Alexandria’s Belle View neighborhood four years ago, she got rid of the laminate flooring, the cabinets that had been painted and repainted, and the old appliances, and she quickly began a complete makeover.

“I ripped everything out, from the floor to the light fixture in the ceiling,” says Pottberg, 33, who works in marketing for Deloitte.

After the $18,000 renovation was complete, she loved the new wood cabinets, travertine floors, Silestone countertops and stainless-steel appliances. So it’s not surprising that, when she put her condo on the market in October, buyers loved them, too.

If HGTV’s “House Hunters” has taught us anything, it’s that most buyers want a place that’s as close to move-in-ready as possible. Many people can’t look past carpeting that’s seen better days or light fixtures straight out of a bad ’80s movie. That’s why condo sellers who make the right renovations and updates before putting their units on the market are often rewarded with fast sales and higher selling prices.

“Condos where sellers have put in updates are moving quickly and seeing multiple offers,” says Lindsay Dreyer, broker/owner at D.C.-based City Chic Real Estate (202-470-0737). “The properties that are sitting on the market now are in need of work and don’t show well.”

Of course, some improvements pay off more than others. “You want to put your money where it’s going to be more apparent,” says Rick Bosl, an associate broker with Keller Williams Realty in Arlington (703-224-6035).

So before you break out the sledgehammer, start off with simple fixes that provide a big return on investment:

Paint: A fresh coat of a neutral paint color on the walls can help take years off an aging condo or brighten up a unit that doesn’t get a lot of natural light.

“Painting is probably the easiest and cheapest thing you can do, and it makes a huge difference,” Dreyer says. “But keep it neutral. Sellers see that as having no personality, but buyers see it as, ‘I could make this condo my own.’ ”

Lights: Good lighting also helps buyers to envision themselves in your unit. Make sure your light fixtures are up to the job. A Reagan-era brass chandelier or unflattering fluorescent fixture is a glaring indication that your place is stuck in the past.

“Light fixtures are often down on the pecking order,” says real-estate agent Ed Downs (202-326-1300, ), president of the District of Columbia Association of Realtors.Sellers who install fixtures that go a step or two beyond basic cast their place in the best possible light, Downs says. Not only does it make it easier for buyers to actually see the condo, but new lighting is also an easy way to add some modern style to an older or builder-grade unit.

Floors: Flooring can also affect the kind of first impression your condo creates. Hardwood floors definitely have that “wow” factor many buyers are seeking.

New floors won’t be an option if your condo rules require carpeting to reduce noise.

“Before you do any renovations, make sure they meet the condo requirements,” says Jon Wolford, a managing associate broker at Long & Foster Real Estate in Springfield, Va. (703-452-3905). “If you do something that the condo doesn’t allow, you put yourself in a bad spot.”

If new floors aren’t an option, installing new carpeting is a quick and cost-effective way to give your unit a face-lift.

“If you have old carpeting that’s worn out, replacing it makes everything seem brand-new and fresh,” Dreyer says.

Kitchen and Bath: Bigger fixes might be required in the kitchen and bathroom, two rooms that can make or break a sale.

Pottberg saw this firsthand: “The updated kitchen definitely helped [my condo] stand out among other units in the development that were also on the market,” she says. “It went under contract within a week.”

The good news is that a total gut-job like Pottberg’s isn’t always required. Many problems can be solved with easy upgrades that work with what you have.

Older cabinets that are structurally sound can be brought into the 21st century with a little paint and new hardware. A set of new appliances can instantly add a modern vibe.

“Shiny, new stainless-steel appliances that all match are going to make a big impression,” Bosl says.

Dreyer once worked with a seller in Arlington who had a kitchen she classified as “disgusting.” The seller installed new tile and granite counters, painted the cabinets white and changed the hardware before putting her home on the market. She got seven offers, and the competition drove up the price.

“The seller spent just $2,200 on updating,” she says. “It wasn’t all brand-new, but in buyers’ minds, the kitchen had style.”

The same rule of thumb applies in the bathroom. Older D.C. condos might have tiles in color combos not typically found today in the pages of Elle Decor. If the tile is chipped, cracked or very worn, you’ll need to get rid of it. If the only problem is the not-trendy color, you can make it work. Look for stylish accessories that coordinate with the color scheme of your tile, whether that’s a pastel pink or a sunny yellow. You could also install a brand-new vanity or lighting to make the bath feel more current.

“When everything looks cute and tied together, people can see that there’s a way to work with it.” says Pat Kline, a Springfield, Va.-based associate broker with Avery-Hess Realtors (703-451-9797, ext. 322) and the 2012 chairman of the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors.

Be warned: A complete overhaul of a kitchen or bath does not guarantee you’ll be able to add what you spent to your asking price. “If you spend $40,000 on your kitchen, you’re probably not going to get that back,” Kline says.

Pottberg sold her home for $252,500, after buying it for $230,000 in 2008. She did her $18,000 kitchen renovation for herself and got years of enjoyment from it, so her return on investment can be measured in more than dollars and cents.

“I came pretty close to breaking even, when you take my purchase price of the condo and the cost of renovations and compare that to what I’m selling it for,” Pottberg says. “It was definitely worth it.”

The right renovations can help your condo go under contract more quickly, especially if your unit is one of many for sale in your building.

“People still need that competitive edge,” Downs says. “I can’t guarantee how much quicker it’s going to sell, but if you’re going to go to the dance alone, you might as well present yourself as nicely as you can.”

 

Don’t Overdo It

Before forking out for a high-end renovation, sellers need to be sure that the expense is worth  it.

Take granite countertops, for example:  “Do you always have to buy granite? No, not always,” says Jon Wolford, a managing associate broker at Long & Foster Real Estate in Springfield, Va. “It depends on the price [of your unit] and the standards in your building. If the standard fare is granite, then offering Corian counters might be a waste of money.”

It’s a fine balance: You want to keep up with the Joneses, but putting your condo in a completely different league from its neighbors can backfire.

“If it’s an older complex where not everybody sinks a lot of money into their unit, I would caution against that,” says Rick Bosl, an associate broker with Keller Williams Realty. “You don’t want to over-improve your unit as compared to the norm for that building or complex.” B.L.

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