Courtesy of the Virginian Pilot

First, the good news. With 1,164 homes sold in the region last month, Hampton Roads’ housing sales are up 87 percent from November 2008, according to the Real Estate Information Network Inc., the local multiple listing service.

Now let’s temper that: The competition among sellers is fierce, with an inventory of almost 12,979 houses in November, REIN reported.

The right upgrades – even small ones – may be the determining factor between a buyer choosing your pad and the one down the street.

According to Remodeling magazine’s 2009-10 Cost vs. Value Report, projects faring well now include entry doors and siding replacement, the addition of an attic bedroom and minor kitchen remodels.

According to the report, the national average cost of a mid-range major kitchen remodel is $57,215 and returns about 72.1 percent at resale. A minor kitchen remodel averages about $21,411 and returns 78.3 percent.

Real estate agents say that great kitchens and bathrooms traditionally score high in buyers’ minds. But don’t go overboard trying to tip the buyers’ mind in your favor.

“The money you’re going to spend depends on the price of the home” and what you can afford to do, Inglis said. Don’t make changes that won’t return the investment…”

David Alderman, president-elect of the National Kitchen and Bath Association and a partner in Dave’s Cabinets Inc. of Chesapeake, offered another viewpoint: An outdated kitchen “is an automatic $20,000 to $30,000 deduction in a potential buyer’s mind.”

Naval aviator John Chewning and his wife, Chris, of Virginia Beach considered all this when embarking on a kitchen renovation this year.

While they’ve no plans to sell in 2010 (though “you never know in military life – things can change,” Chris Chewning said), the couple took cues from expert remodelers and market trends. Alderman, a certified master kitchen and bath designer, and Matt Hylton of Hylton Builders informed the Chewnings about buyer preferences and cost-efficient solutions during the $40,000 upgrade.

“Buyers are looking for a solid investment,” Alderman said. “They are looking for materials and construction that will hold their value.” They want long-lasting, low-maintenance and water- and energy-efficient appliances and fixtures that will still be in demand 15 years from now. He cited a recent trade survey in which buyers stated they’d even pay more for certified “green” features.

For their Middle Plantation home the Chewnings chose dark granite counter tops, Energy Star appliances in stainless steel – the most popular finish today – and rigid Thermofoil cabinets with deep drawers, a lazy Susan, soft-close drawer slides and roll-out shelves in the pantry.

The kitchen also features a refrigerator garage – matching cabinetry and panels built around the refrigerator, which can be done for as little as $450 while increasing the ever-essential storage space and making an impact, Alderman said. The couple also made structural changes for better flow, which aren’t always necessary but will appeal to buyers.

Renovations don’t have to break a seller, Inglis said. Three of her recent listings, all in the $250,000 range, sold for full price within one month after sellers had each invested only $15,000 in improvements and upgrades. One received multiple offers and sold for $5,000 more than asking price.

“New and clean is good” and not necessarily expensive, Inglis explained. “Often it’s simply good taste and organization that adds value.”

White flat-panel cabinets are fine, she said, and dark Formica counter tops that mimic granite contrast beautifully.

Save by avoiding cabinetry “up-charges,” like glass doors, wine racks and open shelf cabinets, Alderman suggested. Instead, spend on lower-ticket upgrades, like brushed nickel or oil-rubbed bronze fixtures and hardware, under-the-cabinet lighting in the kitchen, replacing or adding light fixtures and adding crown molding.

And while a 4-inch backsplash in granite or stone is nice, the same money can buy an entire backsplash in tile. A tiled focal point costs even less.

Bathrooms are frequently another deal maker or breaker with buyers. Go smart and frugal with wood-framed mirrors, grab bars and shower seats to add value. A tile shower surround’s still the most popular and economical choice, Alderman said, and always choose non slip tile for floors.

Rethink adding a jetted tub, he cautioned. “Everybody thinks they have to have one for the master bath,” but most people hardly use them. They’re not energy-efficient and can use three or four times the water a shower uses.”

However, do consider a secondary heat source, like a wall-mounted electric heater. Shallow cabinets built into walls behind doors and above toilets add valuable storage space and are easy upgrades. And if they need replacement anyway, install tankless hot water heaters and dual-flush comfort-height toilets.

Consider adding a second bathroom to a one-bath home if you’ve been advised that you can recoup the investment.

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photo of real estate agent Steve Southerland
Steve Southerland
Steve is the founder of Southerland Real Estate. And while he takes pride in having turned his dream into a robust reality, all that takes a back seat to the customer care he provides.