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Posted February 13, 2009 | comments Leave a comment

Home improvement: Experts say now is the best time to fix up a house to sell

By M.K. Luther -- Daily Staff Writer

Some are struggling and some are riding out the economic downslide, but small home improvement businesses agree that fretful homeowners should not hesitate to loosen their purse strings when it comes to fixing up their houses.

Now is the time to invest money in remodeling projects, said Kelley Miller, vice president of New Look Kitchen and Bath. The Front Royal-based kitchen and bath remodeling business has been redoing area houses for more than two decades.

"You can get absolutely a great bang for the buck by doing things now," Miller said. "And we have a lot of savvy clients out there right now who are doing exactly that."

Home remodeling customers have typically fallen into one of three categories: those interested in remodeling for aesthetic purposes; those who refurbish and repair because of a maintenance issue; and those who wanted to add value to their property.

Miller said she is seeing an increase in the number of clients who are interested in taking advantage of the fact that this is actually a buyer's market.

"You have two different types of people with different mindsets -- people who have to do some remodeling work, and those that want to take advantage of the great deals to be had in the market," Miller said.

The topsy-turvy economy has resulted in falling prices for both goods and services and a clever consumer can expect a substantial savings on most small-scale residential projects.

"All the pricing I am getting in -- everyone has a super, super sharp pencil," Miller said. "The deals are there."

While manufacturers are not necessarily making deep price cuts to products, many are adopting the same marketing strategy as large-scale real estate developers and offering incentives and promotions -- free add-ons, upgrades or extras -- to lure customers to purchasing the product.

Miller said customers could rack up between 11 percent and 22 percent savings on renovations, depending on the size and range of the project.

For some residential home improvement businesses, however, the economic slide has cut into their profits because, despite the lower costs, customers are simply too scared to spend money right now.

Mike and JoAnne Dunbar of A1A Home Improvement in Front Royal have been in the residential additions and improvements business for five years, working mostly with decks and finished basements.

"I bet we have seen a good 75 percent drop in business," JoAnne Dunbar said. "It has been really difficult."

Finding customers who are willing to spend money has proved challenging for the privately owned business. Dunbar said she is encountering homeowners who are taking a wait-and-see approach to investing in their homes for right now.

Dunbar advises homeowners to take stock of their current housing situation. If a homeowner knows they want to or will need to sell in the future, they should prioritize remodeling projects -- like kitchen and bath renovations -- that will increase the resale value of the house.

"Don't just let it go. Go forward with that project and in the long run it will pay off," Dunbar said. "Don't let the economy keep you from doing those sorts of projects."

Some specialized home materials businesses like Winchester Windows have seen sales decrease, but the niche market of window and door replacement helps the business to stay afloat.

Winchester Windows has a client base spanning both the Northern Shenandoah Valley and the Northern Virginia areas.

"It has been a little slow -- not as great as we would like it," said sales manager Eric Williams. "I know a lot of companies have struggled mightily in the wake of this recession."

The business has recently reduced overhead and staff and is able to pass some savings on to customers. The reductions, combined with manufacturer product incentives, allow the small company to give customers a broader price range.

"We try to offer products that will accommodate any budget," Williams said.

When the housing market rebounds, consumers are not going to be willing to settle for a do-it-yourself, fixer-upper house when real estate options again become abundant.

Sellers are also going to be competing with the numerous foreclosed properties and low sale prices, said Sharon Cales of Weichert Realty.

"Condition and pricing are everything right now because you are competing with all these foreclosures," Cales said. "These houses have to be spit-shined and polished."

Realtors are encouraging homeowners to make the investment now to give themselves a competitive edge in the future, and Cales said she is seeing many "hot button" items like woodburners and outdoor living room items make the difference in home sales.

Cales said homebuyers are no longer looking to purchase a real estate investment, but a place to settle in, and these small details can make an on-the-market property stand out.
"It is a home now, it is not an investment," Cales said.

With contractors finding steady work to be scarce and product manufacturers offering value-based deals, the timing is right to pay an expert for even a smaller, less expensive home improvement job, said Debbie Wiener, owner of the full-service interior design firm Designing Solutions and author of the decorating book, "Slob Proof! Real-Life Design Solutions."

"It is a great time to hire a team of professionals," Wiener said.

Wiener advises homeowners to consider small touches like fresh paint or new-styled window treatments.

"Even an empty, unfurnished room you can't afford to furnish right now will look better painted anything other than white," Wiener said.

Home renovations in this turbulent economy might seem like an exorbitant expense to those wary of what the future holds, but Wiener said it is a calculated risk.

* Contact M.K. Luther at mkluther@nvdaily.com

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