How Much It Costs to Keep Up with the Joneses

They’re making a pricey remodeling mistake. You don’t have to.

Image: Library of Congress, Carol M. Highsmith, photographer/LC-DIG-highsm-05567

Jealous of your neighbors’ new master bath? Who wouldn’t be? It’s got heated floors, a sauna, and a massive whirlpool tub. To be honest, your own bathroom looks like the shower station at the public pool in comparison. And you have been thinking about renovating it. Maybe a sauna isn’t such a bad idea after all. And how about one of those new tube lights? Yeah, that’d be cool.

Actually, doing the opposite — resisting the urge to keep up with the Joneses makes you the smarter neighbor. Just ask Michael Kelczewski, a REALTOR® whose client added a spa with a downtown view to his Philadelphia home, which was way out of sync with his urban neighborhood, making the home difficult to sell.

“He liked to sit in the tub with his Belgian ale and look over the city while it was snowing,” Kelczewski says. “But the feature decreased the home’s value significantly. Needless to say, the property sold after a year — with a significant price reduction.”

Renovating your home into the nicest digs in the neighborhood comes with big risks. Best to think twice before replicating the Joneses’ extravagant additions, lest you end up with an over-renovated house that’s undervalued by the market.

Here are the questions to ask yourself before one-upping the neighbors:

Is This Your Forever Home?

It’s hard to believe, but the average American moves 11.4 times, and according to the data-crunchers at FiveThirtyEight, most 25-year-olds still have more than six moves (!) remaining. So, statistically speaking, you’re going to move.

And you’ll need to sell your house when you do. Which means you should think about how any project will affect your home’s value. It’s not as simple as you think. Just because you improve, doesn’t mean you recoup (more details on that coming up — just watch for the tables).

Some people just want to buy a house and turn it into a giant, English estate. That's your prerogative.
Michael Kelczewski, REALTOR®

On the other hand, you may truly plan to stay put. Newer studies find that today’s first-time buyers want to stay in their first homes longer than previous generations. So if you’re one of the ones bucking tradition, then by all means, do what you want to do without regard to resale value.

“Some people just want to buy a house, and live in it and turn it into a giant, English estate,” says Kelczewski. “That’s fine. That’s your prerogative.” (Although you might want to look into any homeowner association rules.)

But if you’re planning a move anytime between now and eternity, let the Joneses keep a good lead on you in the renovation race. You’ll come out better financially. Guaranteed.

How Does Your Home Rate?

“You don’t want to be the best house in the neighborhood,” says Las Vegas-based Cristine Lefkowitz Jensen, a REALTOR® and former interior designer. Otherwise, literally every other house around you looks like a better deal. It’s only smart to keep up with the Joneses if everyone on your block does. Keep an eye on comparable properties nearby, and use those prices to know how much is too much to invest in upgrades.

“Don’t put in Carrara marble and $80,000 cabinets in a market that won’t bear that selling price,” says Kelczewski. It’s just not smart.

If the average home in your area sells for $500,000, and you purchase a fixer-upper for $400,000, don’t invest more than $100,000 — otherwise you’re wasting cash.

Are You Tempted to Finance Your Project?

As a general rule, taking out a loan for a renovation is a bad idea. Any large-scale upgrades that require begging the bank for cash should get an automatic “no” (sorry!). Even if you know for a fact that the Joneses financed their dream bathroom, that’s just all the more reason to march to your own home ownership drum.

Think about it: Even if the Joneses are increasing their home’s value a bit, they’re also paying interest, which eats into the benefit.

That said, don’t feel guilty about financing smaller, low-risk projects that are sure to increase your equity. For example, upgraded insulation may not be sexy, but according to the National Association of REALTORS’® “Remodeling Impact Report,” its median cost is just $2,100, and it recovers 95% of its value in a sale. So a small loan (that you can pay off quickly) might make sense, especially when you consider the energy savings.

Good bets include:

ProjectMedian Cost Recoup in $$
New Roofing$7,600$8,000
Hardwood Flooring Refinish $2,500$2,500
Insulation Upgrade$2,100$2,000
New Wood Flooring$5,500$5,000
New Garage Door$2,300$2,000
New Vinyl Siding$12,000$10,000

Have You Done Your Research?

Some projects — like refinishing your hardwood — are no-brainers because they’re relatively small and recoup most of their value in a sale.

[ Should You Refinish Hardwood Floors Yourself? ]

Other, bigger investments, like updated kitchens, are a big draw for future buyers.

Old, dated kitchens are “the number one killer of all deals,” Lefkowitz Jensen says. According to the “Report,” a typical kitchen remodel costs $30,000 and recovers $20,000 in equity. And no, that $10,000 difference isn’t wasted. You’ll love the upgrades while you live there, and get most of your money back when you move. (And enjoy a shorter selling time, too.)

Here are some popular projects and their typical costs. But a REALTOR® will know what’s ultimately best in your neighborhood.

Project Median Cost Recoup in $$ 
New Vinyl Windows $15,000$12,000
New Fiber Cement Siding $19,100$15,000
New Steel Front Door$2,000$1,500
HVAC Replacement$7,000$5,000
Basement Conversion to Living Area $36,000$25,000
Kitchen Upgrade$30,000$20,000
Complete Kitchen Renovation$60,000$40,000
Attic Conversion to Living Area$65,000$40,000
New Fiberglass Front Door$2,500$1,500
Bathroom Renovation$26,000$15,000
New Wood Windows$26,000$15,000
Closet Renovation$3,500$2,000
New Master Suite $112,500$60,000
Add New Bathroom$50,000$26,000

Another equity-rich option is creating an open floor plan. “Not everyone eats dinner like Norman Rockwell, but that’s how the properties were designed at that time,” Kelczewski says. “Increase the home’s value by knocking down those walls and adding square footage.”

Will Your Project Add Curb Appeal?

Improved curb appeal can increase the price of your home up to 17%, according to a Texas Tech University study, so don’t shirk away from jazzing up your front patio and lawn. So if the answer is “yes,” go with the Joneses on this one.

“That’s 50% of the sale,” says Lefkowitz Jensen. “You only have one chance to make a first impression.”

Get a sleek and modern exterior by replacing your crumbling wooden front door with a gorgeous steel model, which looks stunning and recoups 75% of its cost in a sale, according to the “Report.”

Adding trees and bushes brings dimension to your lawn. Even just maintaining your yard makes a big difference. Additional lighting along the walkway is a worthwhile investment, too — in addition to making your home safer.

Will Your Remodel Bring You Joy?

It’s your retreat, your place. It should bring you joy when you walk in the door. You can’t put a dollar figure on the value of that.

However, the “Report” does give some insight into what projects homeowners are happiest with, regardless of cost. REALTORS® asked some of their clients what renovations brought them the most satisfaction.

Here’s how some popular projects ranked, according to the Report’s Joy Score (with 10 being the highest score); and note that “joy” and “recoup” don’t always pair up like you think they would:

Project Joy Score Recoup in % 
New Fiber Cement Siding 10       79%
Add New Bathroom1052%       
Complete Kitchen Renovation 9.867%
New Roofing9.7105%
New Master Suite9.753%
Hardwood Flooring Refinish9.6100%
New Wood Flooring9.691%
New Steel & Fiberglass Front Door 9.668%
New Garage Door9.587%
Kitchen Upgrade9.567%
New Vinyl & Wood Windows9.469%
Basement Conversion to Living Area 9.469%
Attic Conversion to Living Area9.461%
Bathroom Renovation9.358%
Closet Renovation957%
New Vinyl Siding8.983%
Insulation Upgrade8.795%
HVAC Replacement8.771%

“You only have a short time on this earth,” Kelczewski says. “If you want to paint your house purple and put in a hot tub, that’s your choice. It’s your property. Enjoy.” So, yeah, sip that Belgian ale in your new spa. Cheers!

Penny-pinching woman in her kitchen

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