Renovation guide: The better choice - MoneySense

Renovation guide: The better choice

Should you install a gourmet kitchen or a spa bathroom? Our experts reveal the answers to some of renovating’s most common dilemmas.

One day, when you win the lottery, you can indulge in every home renovation known to modern civilization. Until then, however, you have to make choices. Should you install a gourmet kitchen or a spa bathroom? A walk-in-closet or an ensuite bath? A basement family room or a family room addition? A luxurious swimming pool or a beautiful garden?

Believe it or not, there is a right answer and a wrong answer to each of these dilemmas — at least when you factor in payback and all-round practicality. To help you separate the dandy renos from the dud fi xes, we spoke to renovators, designers and real estate agents, as well as the Appraisal Institute of Canada, an organization that tracks the payback on home improvement projects. They offered us frank wisdom on choosing between some of the most common home renos.

GOURMET KITCHEN

What does it cost?

A $20,000 budget will get you a 2.5 m by 3 m (10 ft. by 12 ft.) kitchen full of neat gear: a 48-inch dual-oven gourmet stove (Wolf, $5,000), a 21-cubic-ft. refrigerator (Sub-Zero, $6,500), a counter of natural stone such as granite ($70 per sq. ft.), a hardwood floor ($8 per sq. ft.) and a built-in island.

If you have $40,000 or more to spend, you can add speciality appliances such as a wine fridge (Sub-Zero, $2,500), a built-in cappuccino maker (Miele, $2,000), a couple of built-in refrigerator drawers for overflow of food from the main fridge (Sub-Zero, $3,500 each) as well as an extra-large stainless steel double sink (Blanco, $1,000), a snazzy wall-mounted pot-filler (Moen, $865) and an ultra-modern faucet (KWC, $800).

What can go wrong?

“The biggest mistake I see is people buying the highest priced of everything and throwing it all together,” says Francesco Di Sarra, owner of Capoferro Design Build Group in Toronto. Far better, he says, to pay $400 or so for half a day of a designer’s time. A good designer should be able to present you with intelligent options that will look good together and can actually save you money.

Among other things, a good designer can point out the downside of some trendy products. Shiny ceramic sinks scratch easily (stainless steel is much more practical). Granite countertops stain easily (if you’re looking for low maintenance, go for Corian, which costs about 10% more than granite, but doesn’t stain). Light-colored grout between heavy ceramic tiles looks great in the showroom, but needs to be cleaned (preferably with a toothbrush and lots of elbow grease) to keep looking fresh.

What to watch for

Be on the lookout for sleek kitchen islands featuring built-in stainless steel countertops that slide over an enclosed sink and stove (Norbert Wangen Designs, $38,000 and up). “They’re gorgeous,” says Jerilyn Wright, an interior designer with Jerilyn Wright and Associates in Calgary. “And they instantly double your counter space.”

Payback

If you sell within three years of renovating, expect to get back 75% to 100% of your money, says Joanne Charlebois, director of marketing and communications at the Appraisal Institute of Canada. However, your payback falls quickly after three years as appliances start to look dated. And don’t expect much payback at all if the renovation wasn’t done professionally or used lower-quality materials.

SPA BATHROOM

What does it cost?

A spa bathroom is about more than personal hygiene; it’s about relaxation. The price of that relaxation? About $30,000 for an area 3 m by 3.5 m (10 ft. by 12 ft.). You’ll spend more if you have to reroute plumbing or expand the room.

Most spa bathrooms include an extra-deep airjet therapeutic tub (Jacuzzi, $2,000) and a glass-enclosed shower stall, complete with massaging shower heads that blast you from all angles (Kohler, $4,000). True spa aficionados will want to make room for his-andher sinks (Kohler, $2,500), heated floors (Nuheat, $2,000), and built-in benches for the shower ($500 each). Also popular are high-tech touches like the new programmable electronic thermostats (Kohler, $3,000). Key in your name and the shower remembers your ideal water temperature and pressure.

What can go wrong?

Some high-end showers have so many massaging shower heads that they splash water everywhere. “I’ve had potential buyers of million-dollar homes put on their bathing suits and try out all the sprayers and rain heads,” says Gina Burgio, a real estate agent with Royal LePage State Realty in Burlington, Ont. “They want to make sure the shower heads don’t spray out the shower door or curtain.”

You can also get soaked if you create the bathroom that’s perfect for you, but not for anyone else. Burgio remembers one client who had installed a beautiful high-end spa bathroom — but all in black, with a motif centred around Kiss, the classic rock band. It was perfect for Gene Simmons fans, but horribly out of tune when it came time to sell the house.

What to watch for

Fireplaces built into bathroom walls and sauna closets that bathe you in infrared light are gaining fans. There’s also a welcome trend to much bigger bathroom windows that let in more natural light.

Payback

Sell within three years and you might get back 75% to 100% of your investment, says Charlebois, the appraiser. But that’s assuming that you live in an affluent neighborhood of $600,000-plus homes. The payback falls quickly if the room is perceived to be dated, and it falls to zero if you live in many middle-class neighborhoods. “If you’re living in a more modest neighborhood, you’re wasting your money if you expect big payback on a spa bathroom,” says Bob Beal, owner of Artisan Bathrooms in Toronto, Ont.

Bottom line: If you want payback, put your money into your kitchen, says appraiser Joanne Charlebois. Spa bathrooms are an indulgence, not a moneymaker. “People who put one in aren’t interested in huge payback,” says Bob Beal of Artisan Bathrooms. “Unless you’re doing it for yourself, you’re wasting money.”

SWIMMING POOL

What does it cost?

Prices vary widely, but for $30,000, you can excavate your backyard and install a basic 5 m x 10 m (16 ft. by 32 ft.) vinyl-lined pool with pump, filter, heater and decking. The cost climbs quickly if you add on features such as automated pool cover or a small out-building with shower and change room.

What can go wrong?

It’s easy to install too big a pool for your yard. And huge pools that leave no room for kids to play on the grass make a home hard to sell, says Burgio, the real estate agent.

What to watch for

Consider salt water chlorination systems. These systems add about $1,500 to $4,000 to the cost of your pool, but make maintenance a snap. Unlike conventional disinfectant systems that require you to dissolve chlorine in the water, saltwater systems require only that you put in a small amount of common salt. A special chlorine generator breaks down the dissolved salt into chlorine, which eventually gets transformed back into salt, starting the whole cycle over again. The result is no red eyes and no chlorine taste, as well as lower maintenance costs. “A year’s supply of salt will cost you $50 while a bucket of chlorine for a year will set you back $200,” says John Sulentich, owner of Maui Pools in Vancouver. “You pay more up front for the saltwater system but you’ll save over the years.”

Payback

Don’t count on getting back more than 40% of your pool’s cost, say appraisers. Even that is optimistic. “Pools may even have a negative impact,” says Burgio, the real estate agent. “Families with small kids don’t like them because of the danger of a child drowning.”

LANDSCAPING

What does it cost?

Expect to spend $20,000 to make over your front and backyard including a flagstone pathway to your front door ($2,000 and up), an interlocking stone driveway ($8,000 and up), a cedar deck ($4,000 and up), perennial beds ($2,000 each), a stone patio ($4,000 and up), outdoor lighting with sensors ($1,000) and two Japanese maple trees ($1,000).

What can go wrong?

Many people let their garden fantasies overwhelm them. Remember that landscaping is subjective. “I had a neighbor who planted three huge trees in the front yard,” says Charlebois, the appraiser. “They must have cost him $1,000 or more each. When he sold the house three years later, the first thing the new neighbor did was cut them down. She wanted sunlight coming in through her front windows, not shade.”

Real estate agents say that busy families are increasingly shunning anything that requires time to maintain — extensive flowerbeds and manicured hedges, for instance. “Even big trees like pines and maples just aren’t very popular these days,” says Burgio, the real estate agent. “Who has the time to rake a yard full of leaves anymore?”

What to watch for

Lots of new lighting ideas. “Safety and security have become a big issue for homeowners, more so than trees and shrubs,” says Charlebois, the appraiser.

Payback

Look for a 25% to 50% payback — but only if you stick to mainstream tastes. “Some people put in pebbled walkways, gazebos and waterfalls,” says Charlebois, the appraiser. “You can see they’ve spent a lot of money on the landscaping, but a lot of buyers simply prefer grass.”

Bottom line: Spend your money on some nice landscaping. “Keep it modest, well-lit and low maintenance and you’ll get back close to half of your investment,” says appraiser Joanne Charlebois. Swimming pools are worth the money only if you’re installing them for your own enjoyment and don’t plan to move soon.

FINISHED BASEMENT

What does it cost?

You’ll spend $20,000 to convert an unfi nished basement of 75 sq m (800 sq. ft.) into a bright, handsome family room. That covers the cost of digging down a half-metre or so to give you a minimum of two-and-a-half metres headroom, plus installing new windows, a powder room, wiring for computers and TVs and a 52-inch plasma TV (Sony, $2,800).

What can go wrong?

Don’t try to stuff too much into the basement. A family room is fine; so is a three-piece bathroom and perhaps a small home office; but unless you’ve got a huge basement, you should forget about putting in a couple of spare bedrooms as well. “A basement is generally dark and if it’s separated into six tiny rooms, it feels like you’re in jail,” says Burgio, the real estate agent.

Many people go wrong by scrimping on the quality of the work, because, after all, it’s only the basement. “I’ve seen a lot of work poorly done by fl y-by-night contractors,” says Colin Hine, a general contractor in Ottawa. “I know one person who didn’t like the look of a structural post, so he took it out. Then the first floor began to sag.”

Payback

A well-done family room is one of the most lucrative renos. Expect a payback of 50% to 75% of your costs — much more if the renovation is professionally done. “I’ve seen people put in $20,000 and get back $30,000 or more when they go to sell their home,” says Jim Parthenis, an appraiser with Carrington Appraisal Services in Toronto.

MAIN-FLOOR ADDITION

What does it cost?

You’ll typically spend $30,000 and up for a 3 m by 4 m (10 ft. by 13 ft.) addition, complete with a pair of skylights, electric fi replace, casement windows with movable shades, patio doors and a hardwood floor.

What can go wrong?

The process of putting on an addition can disrupt your life. Count on several weeks of dust and noise right around where your family will be eating meals and doing homework. You may want to tack on the cost of moving out of the house while the renovation is being done.

Local by-laws can also be an issue. Municipal regulations often lay down restrictions on how big an addition you can add on to your house and even the style of addition that’s permissible in your particular neighborhood. An experienced contractor can guide you through the bylaw issues, but make sure to ask if he’s got all the necessary approvals before the first brick comes down.

Payback

You may get 50% to 75% payback on your costs, but that’s only in a best possible case, says Parthenis, the appraiser. A lot can go wrong. If your new addition swallows up too much of your backyard, or is out of scale with the rest of the neighborhood or your existing house, it can actually detract from resale value.

Bottom line: A fi nished basement is the runaway winner — if it’s done properly and the finished product looks airy and bright. “Sure, main fl oor additions can be nice,” says real estate agent Gina Burgio, “but people don’t want to mess them up — it’s the ‘somebody might come over’ attitude. Family rooms in the basement are a different matter entirely. People see them as a place where the whole family can play and relax. Everybody loves them.”

ENSUITE BATHROOM

What does it cost?

Expect to pay $15,000 or more for a 1.8 m by 2.5 m (6 ft. by 8 ft.) bathroom that includes his-and-her sinks ($3,000), a wooden towel cabinet ($1,000), ceramic tiles ($3,000), a small tub (Kohler, $800) and a designer shower head and faucets (Moen, $1,600). And don’t forget indulgences, such as a towel warmer (Aqva, $250).

What can go wrong?

Your costs will soar if you have to install lots of new plumbing and electrical circuits. And don’t get too out-there in terms of design or decor — most people want a soothing, neutral environment in their ensuite, not mirrored walls or fire-engine-red tiles.

One tip: make sure to include an oversized “soaker” tub. “Women especially look at that big soaker tub in that cozy spot and they see themselves in it and immediately fall in love,” says Burgio, the real estate agent.

What to watch for

Double steam showers are an emerging trend; so are two-sided fireplaces separating the ensuite bath and master bedroom.

Payback

Expect a 75% to 100% payback. Also expect to sell your home more quickly. Real estate agents say a nice ensuite is a must if you’re looking to move a higher-priced home in speedy fashion. “All the new homes have one and most buyers have come to expect it,” says DiSarra, the builder.

WALK-IN CLOSET

What does it cost?

You’ll spend $10,000 to $15,000 for a woodpanelled room with mirrors, lighting and specially designed drawers and cupboards for storing jewelry and shoes.

What can go wrong?

Many people don’t put in enough shelves, hooks and drawers. The more you can organize the space, and give people special spots for all the individual elements of their wardrobe, the better. “People aren’t buying armoires anymore, so they want to see a well-organized space in their walk-in,” says Wright, the interior designer. “It can’t just be a few rods. Think stacks of custom-built drawers as well as comfortable benches and large mirrors for easy dressing.”

Don’t scrimp on lighting, either. Walk-in closets often have only one light, way up high — and that light can cast shadows and make it difficult to see how colors will look together. To do things right, install small windows or even track lighting that allows you to aim direct light at each corner of the closet.

What to watch for

A closet within the closet. “Especially in condos, people have started to put small closets within the walk-in to hold skis, tennis racquets and things other than just clothes,” says Wright.

Payback

No payback figures are available, says Charlebois, the appraiser. But she’s hearing anecdotes that suggests a walk-in closet is becoming a real selling point to working couples who want to leave the house quickly in the morning.

Bottom line: Put in the ensuite bath. “Women especially love them,” says home builder Francesco DiSarra, who has put an ensuite into every home he’s constructed over the past five years. Karen Boyle, a real estate agent with RE MAX Chay Realty Inc., of Barrie, Ont., concurs: “Home buyers love cozy and private. A master bedroom with even a small ensuite gives them that.”