When buying an existing home, there are things you know you want to change after the house belongs to you. We've covered the things that you really can't change (location and some house features), so this article focuses on the most common house upgrades new home owners make in their first year. Yes … most new homeowners shift their focus to other priorities in their life after a year!
The advice here stems from my homeowner journey and first-hand experience running a handyman business for eight years. Buyers are overly optimistic about updating their new home so I always recommend prioritizing what's most important, as inevitably you'll run out of energy and/or money.
- Add the cost of your top two or three upgrades to the house price before making an offer or applying for a mortgage. Without the money to cover these projects, they might not happen for years.
- Setup an emergency fund to cover your biggest homeowner expense, typically replacing the roof or HVAC system.
- Prioritize your wish list to identify projects that will be easier or more cost effective before moving in, like new flooring and painting unless you'll be doing this yourself over weeks/months.
We'll start with a few of my personal stories of which I have many, having owned 15 houses. In fact I never realized until now, that I remodel most of my kitchens … having done this in three of my last four homes (San Jose, California in 1995; Portsmouth, NH in 2001; Orlando, Florida in 2018).
Table of Contents
Table of contents
- Stories About New Homeowner Upgrades
- Timing & Benefits of House Upgrades
- Common House Upgrades Made by New Homeowners
- Before You Decide on House Upgrades
Stories About New Homeowner Upgrades
These four kitchen remodels (in five house) have one thing in common. They were all identified before we bought each house. Three were completed within months of moving into the house while the scope of the fouth remodel grew and took more than a year.
A Kitchen Island in San Jose, CA
When we found our house in San Jose, the 20 year old kitchen was in need of an upgrade. The clue was the ugliest tile countertops that were once popular in California but never adopted in the northeast where I grew up. The challenge was finding a cost effective way to add an island, the one feature my husband insisted had to be included.
Starting with a budget of $50,000, we worked through several different approaches to remodeling the kitchen without breaking the bank. Two bonuses were raising the ceiling to the roof and a six foot wall of floor to ceiling cabinets, 12 inches deep … for a pantry.
- The first idea was to enclose the deck to create a larger kitchen that would easily accommodate the island. Finishing the 8 by 10 ft deck would have swallowed up our entire budget, so that was an easy decision.
- The second idea was to bump out the back wall with a bay window to get the extra foot we needed but that too was costly, and would cause us to succeed our budget.
- Finally my idea to punch through the interior kitchen wall and grab one foot from the dining room worked perfectly.
100 Year Old Victorian Kitchen Upgrade
We loved this house with great neighbors and a ten minute walk to downtown. We had three floors but the Victorian kitchen was tiny because cooking was done in the basement by servants when the house was built in the 1890s.
At first we tried to work with a kitchen design company. When we questioned the measurements used for the cabinets, along with the promised contractor recommendations, we realized they couldn't be trusted. So we found an architect we loved and through our discussions, decided to expand the project to … a 4-story addition. It gave us a wonderful kitchen / eating area / family room which became the heart of the house (read: Kitchen Remodel in 100 Year Old Victorian to learn more).
Kitchen Island at the Beach
The kitchen in this brand new condo wasted lots of usable space, leaving the center of a 10 by 10 sq ft kitchen empty. By replacing the cabinets, I was able to add an island with lots more storage … and during the winter, my handyman technicians build the window seat for even more storage space.
Replacing Builder Kitchen Design & Cabinets
Production builders rely on home buyers who know nothing about the cost of building materials. Be aware when you visit a builder's “design gallery” that everything is orchestrated to get you to add another ten to thirty percent to the prices of your home … giving the builder obscene profits of 200 to 300% on these upgrades. For example:
- Cabinets – were $8,900 to upgrade to white, wood shaker cabinets. Contrast this to my retail price of $5,900 with no credit for the cabinets included with the house? Learn more here, Replacing Cheap (Builder) Kitchen Cabinets.
- Countertops – are another profitable upgrade for builders so I found a fabricator and had their pricing before my visit to the builder design gallery.
- Flooring – was quoted at $42,000 for wall-to-wall porcelain tile versus the $17,000 I paid for my flooring.
So what did I do. I told the builder to put in whatever was free and ordered what I wanted from ProSource in Orlando (find your local ProSource). Everything was delivered the week after the closing while my kids and I gutted my new house. One week for painting, two weeks for flooring (2,200 sq ft), two days for cabinets to be installed, then the countertops and sinks (1 day) and the plumber to connect everything (1 day).
The reason I've shared them is to illustrate that planning house upgrades takes time so you need to give it serious thought as you make decisions about which house to buy. The first two remodels used experience gained building a custom house; the last two kitchen remodels also had the benefit of my running a handyman business.
Timing & Benefits of House Upgrades
When you buy a house, you have visions of your dream house. You start to think about the upgrades you'll make after closing on the house. Some changes aren't feasible (read: House Features that Can't Be Changed) but there are many things you change. As you prioritize the house upgrades you want to make, consider how they will impact your life.
- Consider how long you expect to live in your new house. If you expect to sell the house in five to ten years, factor this into how much you spend on upgrades (read: Home Addition Costs & Value at Resale).
- Think through how much time you're willing to spend on home maintenance. Use materials like composite decking that don't have to be sealed, stained or painted. And consider making repairs to the items identified by your home inspector.
- Energy efficient upgrades can lower your utility bills. If you have a new hot water heater or HVAC system on your list, you might want to move it towards the top.
Before you spend all your renovation money on upgrades, make sure you set aside an emergency fund to cover the most expensive home feature in your house. This typically will be a new roof or HVAC system, if they're 15 years or older.
Common House Upgrades Made by New Homeowners
Wondering what the most common house upgrades made by new homeowners? Three of them are fairly obvious and one not so much, so we'll start with that one.
Flooring to Replace Carpeting
Flooring is a popular home upgrade for new homeowners for two reasons:
- Buyers don't like the existing carpeting which most home builders install throughout the house, except for wet areas (kitchen, bathrooms, entryway). Carpeting doesn't wear well and even a professional cleaning can't get it truly clean.
- Replacing flooring is easier when there's no furniture to move. It's sometimes possible to temporarily store your furniture in the garage which I've done.
Painting to Match Your Decorating
Your furniture and decorating preferences probably don't match those of the seller. That's why interior painting is the number one house upgrade of new home buyers. I can still remember my first house. We used liquid sandpaper to prep the kitchen cabinets before we painted. The cabinets didn't look any better after six long nights of work, so my advice is to test first, to make sure your effort will pay off.
- When possible, paint your ceilings before moving in. This will make it easier to paint individual rooms after you move in to avoid having to cover furniture up.
- Don't buy wall paint until after you move it. You'll want to test your color choices with full sunlight and nighttime, artificial lighting.
- You don't have to paint all the walls in a room. If rooms have neutral colors on the walls, a single accent wall can work well … and it's easier to change every few years.
- We've got lots of painting tips here … and you'll be doing lots of painting, so you'll save time and get better results when you invest in quality painting tools.
Kitchen & Bathroom Remodels
My kitchen remodeling stories at the beginning of this article illustrated how challenging it will be to stay within your budget. That's why it may be tempting but not very smart to remodel everything at once, unless you're not planning to move in for three or more months. Here are a few tips to manage the scope of these projects.
- Get creative about adding space to a kitchen or bathroom by removing walls to an adjoining room, using a closet or punching through a wall. All these approaches will be far more cost effective than putting a addition on your home.
- Drywall isn't expensive but moving plumbing and electrical can get rather costly, so look for ways to avoid this or minimize the distance wires and pipes have to move.
- Don't assume you have to upgrade everything to create a new look. Changing cabinet hardware and/or countertops can change the personality of a room more than you can imagine. Check out Budget Kitchen Renovations For Under $5,000.
Before You Decide on House Upgrades
Finding your house is exciting and then the real work begins if your decision included one or more significant changes to the house. But there are a few important steps you should take before you pick your house and plan for updates.
- Where you live is really important, so start by picking several locations for your search because it really is all about location (read: Why House Location is So Important).
- As you tour communities and learn what houses cost, review your finances and make sure you're able to buy a house there as sometimes you'll need to move to an area with less expensive houses.
- Always work with an experienced realtor who knows these locations, someone who knows the statistics on schools, health car and so much more!
- Learn which house features you can't change easily and if their at the top of your wish list, get ready to walk away as you might regret these problems for years.
- Learn about easy changes you can make to your new home (this article). When I walk through a house with crazy paint colors, I'm glad because that means less competition from other buyers.
- A great realtor will lead you through the steps but just in case, here's a A 9 Step Guide to Buying a House from a realtor friend of mine.
- The work begins with moving in, so once you're settled be sure to check out 30 New Homeowner Tips You Don't Want to Skip.