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Can you get a return on home improvements in today’s troubled housing climate?

by Bill Healy
Oct 23, 2008

A year and a half ago, Mabel Guzman, a real estate agent in the South Loop, was having difficulty selling a condo for some clients on Printers Row. The problem was obvious, she said. The bathroom was outdated and dragged the rest of the condo down.

So Guzman, who works at Century 21 SGR, advised her clients to make minor adjustments.

The owners spent about $3,000 to get a new faucet and bathtub, change lighting fixtures, and make other minor fixes, such as painting.

There was an offer on the condo within 30 days once it was back on the market.

“They did pretty well,” Guzman said, about the owners. “They didn’t get their list price, but they got close to it.”

That was a year and a half ago. Would minor improvements have a similar impact today?

It’s more likely that the same condo would spend 90 or more days on the market before a potential sale, Guzman said.

For owners interested in selling their homes now or in the future, the important thing is to stay competitive with others on the market, she said. Minor renovations can prove critical, “that little polish that they’re giving their home so that it stands out,” she said.

Local real estate agents and remodeling experts agree: In the current housing market, the type of home improvements and the scale of the improvements matter.

“Now more than ever people are looking for more efficient homes – smaller, more cost-effective, more energy-efficient,” said Marcus Kennedy, a former sales agent who currently works with contractors at a homebuilder focused on the northern suburbs. “People are not looking to heat bigger, larger homes.”

Minor improvements can include sanding floors, replacing doorknobs, painting, and replacing appliances.

And while it’s important to keep up with the Joneses, “You don’t want to over-improve for the neighborhood,” said Bryan Knudsen, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in Oak Lawn.

At some point, you come into competition with brand new homes, he added.

“Inventories are high,” Guzman said. “Competing means that you’re going to have to do some work. It’s not just put a ‘For Sale’ sign on it. Buyers are going to scrutinize every part of that home.”

Two remodelers working primarily on the city’s North Side and northern suburbs said business is steady among their more affluent clientele.

“I guess more people are improving rather than moving,” said Ira Alter of Elite Home Builders.

For people who are thinking of renovating, “smaller investments would be more prudent [in the current housing market]. Do what you can to make it compete on a smaller scale,” Guzman said.