America, You’ve Lost Your Freaking Mind Over Remodeling

America, You’ve Lost Your Freaking Mind Over Remodeling

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Jon Gorey
Jul 20, 2018
(Image credit: Tana Teel/Stocksy)

There's something to be said for appreciating the home you have. In a way, I feel lucky to have lived in so many bad apartments in my 20s. It made all the fixer-uppers we looked at while house hunting—the only homes remotely near our price range—a little less off-putting. Is it structurally safe, with a working stove? Wow! There aren't any rats or strange midwinter mosquito infestations? Super! It also prepared us to enjoy a merely adequate living space without pining after the spreads in glossy design magazines (or even the IKEA catalog).

But, watch enough HGTV and you'll start to feel like your life is incomplete without stone counters and an open living space. Egged on by perfect Pinterest photos, remodeling shows that gloss over reality, and a frothy housing market, American homeowners seem to have what I can only describe as a remodeling addiction. In fact, I think it might be time for an intervention.

Business is Booming

Americans will spend a projected $337 billion on remodeling this year, a record high, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies. And more than half (58 percent) of homeowners are planning some type of home improvement project this year, according to a 2018 LightStream survey.

One potential reason is rising real estate prices. "Home value is one of the big drivers behind remodeling activity," said Abbe H. Will, a research associate at the JCHS. With homeowners sitting on a record-high $5.4 trillion in available home equity, they might feel more comfortable investing in their homes. "Whether or not they're actually tapping the equity, it's a confidence booster for homeowners who are thinking about doing a project and thinking about the types of projects they want to do," Will told me.

Meanwhile, there just aren't enough homes for sale out there; economists say low inventory has helped push home prices higher in recent years. So whether you're a growing family desperate for more space or a retiring boomer looking for a first-floor bedroom and bath, it's often easier to just change the home you have rather than find a new one with so few options on the market.

But, Is There a Downside?

I'm not saying renovations are a bad thing—not by any stretch. All I ask is that we consider our motivations first. Fixing safety issues—like leaks, old wiring, or structural problems—is always a good idea. Making small upgrades to what you have—like a new color scheme or painting old cabinets—can also be a smart, low-impact way to inject some new life into your home. And if you love everything else about your house, changing the one part of it that frustrates you is generally a better option than packing up your life, paying thousands of bucks in realtor commissions, and moving to a new house with its own as-yet unforeseen problems. Or, sometimes, a fixer-upper is all you can afford, with upgrades all at once or eked out over time.

But, before you succumb to remodeling fever and tear down a wall for no real reason, consider these four downsides to ripping everything out and starting new. Remember, keeping up with the Joneses (or the Gaineses) is not, by itself, a reason to renovate.

Environmental impact

Upgrading an otherwise functional room has environmental consequences. There's no way around this fact: Replacing what's there with something new generates waste (as the existing materials are discarded) and emissions (from the manufacturing process of the new products).

An EPA study found that the average residential renovation produces more than 22 pounds of waste per square foot. So remodeling, say, a 200-square-foot kitchen and dining area would generate more than two tons of construction debris, from plaster to plywood. And while a slim majority of major appliances (refrigerators, dishwashers, ovens, and the like) were recycled in 2014, according to the EPA, 42 percent of them—1.9 million tons—still ended up in a landfill.

If any of the materials you're replacing are still in good condition, consider donating them to a Habitat ReStore or building reuse center in your area.

Health hazards

If you've ever had a major renovation, you know there's just no escaping the dust. It gets everywhere. "Dust happens in remodeling," said Julie Palmer, president of Charlie Allen Renovations in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "No matter how hard we try, there is dust that gets kicked up." Palmer often recommends clients go on vacation during the most invasive portions of a remodeling project to escape the disruption.

And it may not be just sawdust and plaster floating around. While professional remodelers are generally very careful about containing dangerous materials like lead dust or asbestos fibers, DIYers and less conscious contractors may not be so fastidious. If your home was built during or before the 1970s, there's a decent chance that a renovation could expose you to lead paint dust or asbestos particles from old surfaces if you're not careful.

Overspending

Skilled contractors don't come cheap, and neither do most building materials, so the average kitchen remodel costs $25,800 to $42,000, according to Houzz data. And whether you call in the pros or do it yourself, you can just safely assume that any renovation will go over budget for one reason or another.

It's especially easy to get carried away—splurging on fancy fixtures or replacing working appliances to fit the new look—when you're spending on credit. With home values way up, more homeowners are able to borrow against their home equity with loans or lines of credit.

That's not a bad idea—you're putting the money back into the house, after all—but you're still going to have a monthly debt payment afterward, and financing adds the cost of interest. What's more, that LightStream survey found that 30 percent of homeowners planned to use credit cards to fund at least part of their home improvement projects. If it takes a year to pay off a project in full, that renovation will cost them an extra 17 percent or more in the long run.

Irrevocable architectural damage

Sometimes remodeling to get the latest trend, or the most storage, isn't doing your older home any favors. A lot of old homes were built really well—with durable, old-growth wood we'll never see again and careful carpentry and joinery most contractors don't bother with today. Restoration-minded contractors can preserve and protect the best elements of a home while improving the modern functionality, but they're expensive—and that might not be doable with certain budgets.

Even minor improvements can carry surprising costs in a historic home. I had no idea when we replaced our 100-year-old windows that we could have restored them for about the same price and made them equally energy efficient—and, as opposed to the 20- or 30-year lifespan of vinyl windows, they'd have lasted for another century.

And that's the thing about most remodeling projects: If you have second thoughts, there's generally no going back.

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