"I live around the corner," the gentleman said while visiting me at last Sunday's Open House (the real reason Realtors host Opens). "I'm not sure if we're selling or staying put, but we're getting ready to make some improvements and I wondered if you'd come over and give us your thoughts before we do."
While doctors gave up the practice of "house calls" years ago, Realtors are asked to make them all the time, and not surprisingly, we've no shortage of opinions about what we think is a wise investment with respect to your return on investment: updated kitchens, bathrooms, primary suites, custom closets, indoor/outdoor space, ADUs, and what isn't: wine cellars, hot tubs, billiard rooms, and swimming pools.
Of course, there's a difference between: "We plan to stay in the house forever and have always wanted a home theater "(I love the movies too), as opposed to "We are likely selling in the next few years and want to know what appeals most to Buyers."
If you really are planning on staying until you are carried out in a pine box, DO WHATEVER YOU LIKE. However, if you think you'll be downsizing, upgrading, changing jobs, transferring across the country, moving through the tunnel, returning to San Francisco, or just getting out of Dodge, then the home improvements you are contemplating should probably make good "cents" since they won't come cheap. One small caveat, what's "trending" now, may prove outdated in a matter of just a few years, so think about "flow" above all else, with the understanding that counters and backsplashes are cosmetic fixes that are easily replaced, while boxy floor plans are ever thus.
While Sarah and I are happy to come over and visit your wonderful home (we bring cookies as well as our experience), it doesn't take a "house call" to tell you that what appeals to Buyers today (drum roll please) is an open floor plan and casual living, which, unfortunately, is often at odds with the architecture of most older homes. As full of character as they are, 100-year-old homes harken back to a lifestyle more in keeping with "Downton Abby" than "Modern Family."
Be that as it may, our houses can, do, and should evolve to meet today's more active lifestyles. With the understanding that ALL choices are not created equal (greenhouse rooms are NOT a good idea, although garden structures might be), first on the hit list is the formal dining room which is the most underutilized space in nearly everyone's home. Ditto for the proverbial "maid's room." If you've got a live-in maid, kudos to you, but most of us don't, and that defunct little room can often be incorporated to expand the kitchen considerably and even add a pantry or a mudroom.
Most importantly, the kitchen is not only the "heart of the home," it's the all-purpose gathering spot for budding chefs, family and friends, homework, Zoom calls, late-night talks, and casual dining. In short, the BIGGER, the better. If you can remove the wall between the kitchen and dining room, I encourage you to do so, and if space allows, add a beautiful island with a breakfast bar. This isn't to say that the dining table should be abandoned altogether, but tables shouldn't command their own rooms. Even during Opens, the kitchen is where Buyers congregate to inquire: "How difficult would it be to remove this wall?"
A close second to the open kitchen/family/great room concept is creating a large and serene primary bathroom. It needn't have a fancy steam shower or a jacuzzi tub, but it should have a generous-sized shower, a tub large enough to sink into with a good book, and a double vanity (bonus points for linen storage.) Remember to use upgraded finishes and fixtures in the primary bathroom; the kids' bathroom can be utilitarian in nature, but adults want luxury in their dedicated bathrooms, and they want a place to escape!
While giving serious consideration to the primary suite, also give some thought to the closets. Older houses tended to employ wardrobes and armoires to hold clothing (pieces of furniture that are rarely utilized any longer), and as a result, the closets are often too small for today's mass consumers. Fortunately, closets tend to back up to one another when viewed on a blueprint, so steal space from another room if need be.
Have you got a basement? That's bonus space! Capture it to add a family room, media room, home gym, au pair, or guest room with a separate entry. In other words, utilize your envelope, but do it well. and please, please, PLEASE pull a permit! Non-conforming or unpermitted improvements will NEVER add the same value as conforming, permitted spaces. Moreover, permits not only prove the legality of the construction, but establish the required codes for time and place. Wait ten years to "final" your permit, or worse, try to "retroactively permit" space after the fact, and you will undoubtedly walk into a host of "fixes" you never saw coming. Building codes change every few years and they only ever get more stringent. (You've been warned.)
Finally, it should go without saying (although we have to remind Sellers all the time) that curb appeal is the first impression Buyers perceive. Is there a more inviting way to utilize the front yard than a dying lawn? (Yes, there is.) Do you have the opportunity for better indoor/outdoor utilization? Would a deck, courtyard, or patio provide seamless access to the outside? Have you considered accordion or Nano doors instead of sliders?
if you've never planted a tree out front; if your garden is overgrown and now shields the house entirely; if you've let the flower beds get crowded out with weeds; if the wisteria has taken over the roofline; if the windows haven't been washed in years; if the bricks are mossy and slippery; if the deck is falling off the house . . . I suggest you give the yard and grounds some careful consideration and set aside a budget. It will be well worth any expense incurred.
Given that we live in California and enjoy some of the best weather in the world, creating a house that captures both the inside and outside space should be high on your list of priorities. In fact, done well, you're more likely to entertain outdoors, so think al-fresco dining, think pergolas, think outdoor kitchens, and think "Sunset Magazine" living. Your Buyers definitely want the yard to serve a purpose and you'll enjoy the house far more as a result.
As a final aside, if you will ultimately be making changes in the future for the purposes of selling, why not make them NOW and enjoy them? They'll only be more expensive down the road, and it's a sad thing to hear: "I wish we'd done that while we lived here." (Don't wish it, do it!) BTW, if you are planning on budgeting or borrowing money to improve your house, please hire an architect or designer to professionally guide you. (They are worth their weight in gold.) Realtors have GREAT ideas and real-world experience, but we are not trained architects, engineers, or contractors, and DIY projects can, and often do, miss the mark.
So that's my two cents for what it's worth. Did you still want Sarah and me to come over?
How can we help you?
Julie Gardner, has been writing The Perspective for 15 years and has published more than 600 essays. She is also a frequent contributor to the Sound Off column in the Real Estate section of The San Francisco Chronicle.