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Building a Case for Remodeling

The story of one man's decision-making process and how it can help you decide whether to remodel, or move, or just stay with what you've got

By Will Andrews

"Oh, by the way," my wife casually began over dinner one night, "Carol Brady called."

I'm a good sport, and a passable straight man, so I rose to the bait. "Oh really? What did she have to say?"

"She said our kitchen looks dated."

I sensed she was going somewhere with this. And she was.

"But she says she did see our cabinets featured in a leading magazine."

"Oh, really? Which one—House Beautiful? Architectural Digest?"

"Smithsonian."

In my own dim fashion, I was starting to get the point. We both had agreed that a kitchen remodel and expansion was something that needed to be done, but we hadn't quite gotten around to it. The cabinets, countertops, and floor plan were original to our circa 1960 split-level. And while nostalgia has its place, it gets wearisome when you've run out of room for the KitchenAid mixer, the espresso maker, and the 15 or so boxes of breakfast cereal that our family of three seems to require.

Not to mention trying to accommodate a rather large extended family during holidays. We had longed for enough space for Thanksgiving dinner in our dining area without having to seat Grandma at a card table in the next room.

DOWN TO WORK.

With visions of vastly increased storage space, new appliances, and a bright, airy floorplan with lots of natural light dancing in our heads, we got right to work lining up the essentials: a reputable architect, favorable home-equity financing, and the artfully presented catalogs and magazines with the spiffy furnishings, fixtures, and appliances that make the process so enthralling—at first.

Then we set about asking the key questions: Granite or solid-surface countertops? Gas or electric oven? Drawer dishwasher or traditional built-in? High-hats or fluorescent light fixtures? Debt or overdraft protection? Should we really go through with remodeling, or should we just move? (O.K., so I got the priority order a little mixed up.)

I'll get to our ultimate decision later on. But first, I'd like to say a little bit about our special report, Home Improvements That Count. As the housing market continues to soften, and homeowners survey the changed landscape, we've tried to provide some useful information—and advice—to help you make a clear-eyed assessment of the value equation when considering home-improvement projects.

STAY WITHIN THE LINES.

It all begins with the finances. "A common misconception among homeowners when it comes to home remodeling and renovation is that cost equals value," Richard Powers, MAI, SRA, president of the Appraisal Institute, explained to BusinessWeek's Peter Coy in our Hot Property blog. "However, not every renovation or remodeling effort will pay off at closing."

According to Powers, homeowners should avoid over-improvement by sticking to what's standard in their neighborhoods. Indeed, we made sure to do a careful survey of our development to determine if our project would be in line with what other homeowners had done. After doing our homework, we scaled our project to the dollar and square-footage amounts we thought would be suitable for our house and our neighborhood.

Of course, financial considerations are vital, but there are other things to consider, ones that may ultimately tip the scales. Do you really like your current neighborhood? If you did move, would your new home be in a more convenient location for your commute? What about Junior's school? Even if you could swing the monthly financing, would the new location come with notably higher taxes? Well or city water? Closer to or farther from the nearest Starbucks?

OLD FRIENDS.

My wife and I agreed that our long-established neighborhood, which sports a plenitude of mature trees and nicely landscaped homes, was more aesthetically pleasing than some swath of former farmland dotted with newly built McMansions. It would be hard to give up the springtime blossoming of the fruit trees in our backyard.

Other factors on the "stay" side: It's nice to have good neighbors of many years' standing. Our house is within walking distance of two town parks and a short bus ride from our daughter's school. And we didn't think our 19-year-old cat, like many geriatrics, would adapt well to a sudden lifestyle change.

I admit, any major project (herein defined as one where one of the workmen takes out a Sawzall) will create messes, disruptions, and displacements. While the job is under way, the downstairs decor will be defined by those classic elements of worksite chic, plastic tarp and canvas ground-cloth, for several weeks. We weighed the potential inconvenience and decided that we could deal with it.

HIGH HOPES.

Your own preferences may tell you something different. It's incumbent on homeowners to examine all the available options and weigh the costs, both financial and psychic, of any significant change in their living space. Ultimately, the decision must be based on your own needs.

As for our family, we're hoping our contemplated project gives us the spacious, useful kitchen we've always wanted, and allows us a good chunk of room to entertain our friends and relatives in comfort so they don't talk about us that much when they leave. Next Thanksgiving, Grandma, you can sit next to me. But Carol is definitely not invited.

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