You may have noticed the lines at home-improvement stores getting longer or heard the whirring of buzz saws in your neighborhood. After years of economic recession and housing-market malaise, people are starting to fix up their homes again.
According to an April 15 report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, annual spending on remodeling is expected to accelerate this year, with nearly 5% growth over 2009. "This year could produce the first annual spending increase for the industry since 2006," the peak of the housing boom, says center director Nicolas P. Retsinas.
But the forces driving today's action couldn't be more different from those during the boom. Back then, people wanted to renovate their places so that they could trade up to bigger homes, or because their home equity was soaring and they wanted to reinvest some of the spoils.
Now, the opposite is happening: Many people who bought during the boom years are accepting the reality that they won't soon be swapping up for a sybaritic spread. Their mortgages may remain above water, but after years of falling home prices, their equity is so low that the transaction costs of buying a new house would leave little for a down payment.
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In short, they are stuck.
"People have seen their down payments kind of wiped out," says Harvard economist Jeremy Stein. "They are locked into their house. They can't really move, even if they thought the other house was cheap and a good deal."
So these people are making their homes more comfortable for a longer-than-expected stay. Setting aside old calculations of how much a particular improvement will add to resale value, they are making smaller tweaks that can make a big difference in livability. You might call it "psychological return on investment."
Nowadays, say real-estate agents and contractors, smaller projects like updating kitchens and baths and humble attic-bedroom conversions are more popular, while two-story master suites and $100,000 kitchen blowouts are decidedly out of fashion. Hidden improvements like insulation also are on the rise, as people realize they won't be able to pass on their drafts, leaks and other problems to the next guy. Tax credits that expire in 2010 are enticing people to make energy improvements, too.
One of the most cost-effective improvements, say contractors, is removing a wall to create an open kitchen-dining area. The project "makes the kitchen feel bigger and the kitchen and dining room more usable," says Sarah Susanka, an architect and author of "The Not So Big House" book series. "It's such a simple thing to do." It can cost as little as a couple of thousand dollars, according to David Merrick, a home remodeler in Kensington, Md., but can run much higher if plumbing and electrical work are involved.
A surprising number of people fall into the category of being above water on their mortgage but anchored to their property. According to First American Core Logic, at least 24.5 million borrowers in the U.S. have home equity of less than 25%, and of those, 13.2 million are above water. Considering the 9% in commissions and fees that typically come with buying and selling a house, as well as the typical 20% down payment on the new one, it is easy to see why people aren't house-hopping like before.
This applies even to affluent professionals. Paul Sorbera, an executive recruiter in Greenwich, Conn., is seeing it firsthand among his clients. He says many financial-services executives "bought $2 million homes in the good times and have $1.3 million houses now because of the price decline. They have some money in the bank and can afford their current living standard, but moving is very impractical for them."
Economists, whose models often assume the rationality of hypothetical consumers, say remodeling makes sense for such people. "If they don't have a lot of equity in their houses and can't move, they should have a propensity to improve rather than move," says Richard K. Green, director of the University of Southern California's Lusk Center for Real Estate. "When you renovate, you save a lot of transaction costs."
Web sites such as Remodelormove.com offer calculators to help consumers make the decision.
Kate Anderson, 42 years old, of Sunnyvale, Calif., a technical writer and homemaker, and her husband, Scott, 43, a vice president at Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ, News), say they considered buying a larger place to accommodate their growing children, a daughter, 10, and son, 8. But they surmised that buying and selling now would be too expensive. "We didn't think it was worth the whole sale purchase expense … just to get a few extra square feet," Mrs. Anderson says.
Instead, they opted to fix up their 1950s-era tract home, worth an estimated $750,000. Most houses in their neighborhood with new kitchens and baths sell for up to $850,000, she says. While their home "is a little squished," they chose to "gradually improve it," she says.
In December, the Andersons remodeled their kitchen, putting in hardwood floors, cherry cabinets and stainless-steel appliances, ripping out a closet and expanding a doorway to improve the flow. They also installed new incandescent ceiling lights and under-cabinet fixtures, which Mrs. Anderson says she especially loves.
Because they made no major structural changes, they kept the cost to about $50,000, a bargain in the pricey Silicon Valley market. It wasn't easy to hew to that budget, though; the couple decided to ditch a garden window over the sink and self-closing drawers, which would have added several thousand dollars to the cost.
Even in the ever-grander suburbs outside Washington, people are thinking smaller. A few years ago, Mr. Merrick, the contractor, says, more people were doing two-story additions, and most people who remodeled kitchens made them larger. Now, "four of the last six kitchens I did, the footprint stayed exactly the same," he says.
Home-improvement retailers are seeing a clear trend toward smaller renovations. Craig Menear, executive vice president of merchandising at Home Depot (NYSE: HD, News), says there has been strength recently in projects involving simple décor updates such as ceramic tile, interior paint, faucets and bath fixtures. At Lowe's (NYSE: LOW, News), customers were drawn to products to update flooring, cabinetry and countertops during the last few months of 2009, the most recent period for which data are available, spokeswoman Maureen Rich says.
Part of the reason, of course, is money. With home prices slumping, there is less equity for homeowners to tap. An April 20 survey by American Express (NYSE: AXP, News), the first of its kind, found that 72% of affluent homeowners planned to make improvements to their houses in 2010. But they expected to spend an average of just $11,500. And most respondents planned to pay for their projects with cash; just 16% planned to use debt.
Banks also are making credit less available than they used to. Keith T. Gumbinger, vice president of HSH.com, a mortgage-data firm, says that before the housing bust, banks would often lend for projects based on the value of the house after completion of the project, but they are less likely to do so now because "there's no guarantee the improvement or the market will lead to price appreciation." The result: even affluent homeowners aren't able to borrow as much as they used to.
With little reason to expect huge price gains in the housing market in the next few years, some homeowners are thinking especially long-term. Diane Ausavich, a remodeling contractor in Milwaukee, says a pair of physicians, as part of a bathroom renovation, recently installed a barrier-free, walk-in shower and higher countertops in their three-story lakefront home built in the 1890s. They did it "so that as they get older they can wheel in and out with a wheelchair if they should have to," Ms. Ausavich says. The homeowners are in their mid-40s and, "being doctors, I'm sure they see the gamut," she says.
Likewise, Marge Kumaki, 57, a marketing and public-relations consultant who resides in Silver Spring, Md., says she and her husband decided to do some basic upgrades on the post-World War II split-level home they have owned for 21 years after their two children left the nest for good in 2007.
She says she would prefer to move to a new high-rise condominium in downtown Bethesda, but that they decided to stay and renovate because it is more cost-effective and they like where they live now. Last summer's severe thunderstorms, which flooded their finished basement and required repairs, spurred them to get started.
Ms. Kumaki says they are planning to spend in the low $30,000s to update the upstairs bathroom, kitchen and family room.
But the couple have decided to hold off on another dream. "I've always wanted an addition, since it is a split level and you can go up or down," she says. "I'd like another level on top, but that's the future."
The New Remodeling Rules
During the bubble, homeowners sought the biggest, splashiest home improvements to boost resale value. Now they're doing smaller projects that deliver a similar result for far less money.