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Real Estate Investors Shouldn't Over-Renovate

Feb 21, 2008
I read an article in The Wall Street Journal titled, "Worried Sellers Splurge On Home Renovations." The gist is this: We're in a Bear Real Estate Market, and sellers fearful of having their houses languish unsold are spending tens of thousands of dollars on renovations and upgrades to make them "marketable." They're installing granite countertops and top of the line stainless steel appliances, and - in my humble opinion - spending a LOT more than they should in many instances.

Yes, we're currently in a Buyer's Market cycle. But that doesn't mean Real Estate Investors have to break the bank on repairs. With the record numbers of houses going into foreclosure, the Real Estate Investor who is uncomfortable getting into major rehab projects can find REOs (Real Estate Owned by Banks) on the market needing very little in the way of renovations that can be bought substantially below value. These are properties needing only cosmetic upgrades. Quite often, $15,000 to $20,000 in renovations will put these properties in top dollar condition.

(Please note: We're making a couple of assumptions here. One is that you're hiring people to do the work and not doing it yourself. The other is that the property is in a middle class to upper-middle class neighborhood. The approach I'm about to go over won't cut the muster on high-priced luxury homes.)

New paint and flooring do wonders. Paint the walls a neutral color, and paint the trim a contrasting neutral color. Replace worn or outdated carpeting with a neutral, lighter colored builder's grade variety with an 8 or 10 pound pad. It looks good, feels good underfoot because of the heavy pad, and is reasonably priced. Replace worn vinyl floors in the bathrooms and kitchen. There is a new rubber backed vinyl on the market I've used that goes down right over the old vinyl floor. This saves a lot of expense in labor and materials because the old floor doesn't have to be removed, and luan underlayment doesn't have to be laid down in preparation for the new floor. Inexpensive laminate flooring serves the same purpose.

Replace worn kitchen and bathroom countertops with wood-trimmed laminate countertops. For just a few hundred dollars you can have them custom fabricated specific to the room layout. Today's new laminates come in a variety of faux marble and granite finishes that look great, not tacky. No, they're not the real thing, but spending a few hundred dollars on laminate counter tops sure beats spending $5000 to $10,000 on real stone.

Most often older kitchen cabinets are solidly built, just dark and outdated. My first preference would be to paint them a light color and replace the hardware. Be sure to hire a professional to spray paint the cabinets and doors to give them a smooth, glossy finish. If they're not in good enough condition to paint, then reface them.

Replace worn or outdated lighting, door hardware and plumbing fixtures with new builder's grade materials. Install new matching appliances. Don't go crazy buying a $5,000 Viking range when a $900 Frigidaire will work nicely in its place. Remove outdated window treatments and replace them with inexpensive blinds. Believe it or not, you can buy disposable vertical blinds at the big box home improvement stores that you cut to length with a utility knife and attach with self-adhesive tape. Sounds hokey, but I've used them. They look great, and only cost about $5 apiece.

Use the same philosophy on the property exterior. Trim back or remove overgrown and ill tended shrubbery. Replace it where needed with inexpensive varieties. Scrape and paint the trim around the exterior doors and windows. If the house has aluminum siding that is oxidized but in otherwise good condition, consider having it painted by a professional. It will costs thousands less than replacing it with vinyl, and will look great when it's done. Don't do something "unique" to the exterior to make it "stand out" from the other houses in the neighborhood. Although it's important for the house to have its own persona, it equally if not more important for it to conform to the established norms of the neighborhood. Going against to those norms in order to give the house "personality" will be a net negative.

What we're doing here - instead of spending tens of thousands on spot renovations like a total kitchen remodel or new vinyl siding - is a comprehensive face-lift on the property. We want to give it a clean, fresh, overall well kept appearance.

If a Real Estate Investor buys a property at the right price, he can afford to make the upgrades I've just gone over and still put the property on the market at a price that is at or just below the competing properties in the market. The first impression he makes on his buyer is the most important. If it's a positive one, he will have a leg up on his competition...
About the Author
Frank Lawson is the Editor of The Profit Blog, the Online Education Resource for Real Estate Investors and Hard Money Lenders. With 10 plus years of experience in Real Estate Investing and Hard Money Lending, Frank has an expert perspective on today's volatile real estate market.
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