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Illinois Country Living

Time to remodel?
Homeowners weigh improvements against market values
By John Bruce

Child eating a banana

Jeff Lancaster of Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative performs a blower door test on the home of Cindy Ladage, a member of RECC and a resident of Virden.

Americans are staying put. A down economy is driving most people to hunker down in their homes instead of moving, and many wonder whether to finish that attic or replace the front door as they try to out-wait hard times.

Only 10 percent of the general public feels that now is the time to sell their home, according to Fannie Mae’s National Housing Survey released in November 2011. The survey shows 75 percent of Americans believe the economy is on the wrong track.

It stands to reason that long-term homeowners want to make their property as livable as possible. How do electric cooperative members get the most bang for their buck in home improvements during a down economy? Which specific home improvements are shown to deliver the most value right now, according to the experts? On the flip side, can a home improvement actually reduce property value?

Exterior home improvements typically deliver the most value for homeowners. A cost vs. value report from the National Association of Realtors (NAR) ranks exterior improvements among the best home investments on, their consumer website. The report “shows the value of putting your home’s best façade forward, so to speak,” says NAR President Moe Veissi, broker-owner of Veissi & Associates Inc., in Miami. Exterior projects are important to a home’s regular upkeep and are expected to recoup far more than many other improvements. Plus, they add instant curb appeal when times are finally right to sell a home.

A home’s attractiveness, the indicator of initial appeal, makes a big difference. Exterior elements covering large areas such as siding, entry and garage doors have the greatest visual impact. Updated exteriors give sellers an edge because buyers are attracted to a home before entering.

According to the NAR, seven of the top 10 most cost-effective projects nationally in terms of value recouped are exterior projects. An upscale fiber-cement siding is judged as the number one improvement value by the NAR, with an estimated 78 percent of costs recouped upon resale.

Two other siding projects ranked in the top 10, including foam-backed vinyl and upscale vinyl. Both are expected to recoup roughly 70 percent of costs. A steel entry door replacement, the least expensive project in the report, averages little more than $1,200 and is expected to recoup 73 percent of its cost.

Garage door replacement, a wood deck addition, and vinyl window replacement are all expected to recoup around 70 percent of costs, as well.

But good deals aren’t limited to the exterior. Conversion of existing space, such as a minor kitchen remodel, turning an attic into a bedroom or finishing a basement, is more likely to bring a better return than an addition.

On the interior, NAR considers attic and kitchen remodeling projects worthwhile investments. The least expensive way to add a bedroom and bathroom within a home’s existing footprint is an attic bedroom, expected to return 72.5 percent of costs. A minor kitchen remodel is expected to return 72 percent of costs.

Least-return improvements are a sunroom addition and a home office remodel, both estimated to recoup less than 46 percent of costs. An in-ground pool can add to a home’s value, but there’s little chance of recovering the money spent on upkeep, and the NAR advises that an above-ground pool can actually reduce a home’s resale value. Many people don’t want pools because of the high upkeep.

All homes can benefit from increased insulation and sealing, regardless of climate. Older homes are usually under-insulated compared to new homes. Adding more can help you realize a return on your investment, and beefing up the R-value (rating for insulation efficiency) in an attic or crawlspace helps cut energy use.

Most homeowners can handle routine maintenance projects and cosmetic touchups, but it’s recommended they consult with qualified professionals for larger remodeling jobs and major changes to a home’s structure. After deciding on one or more projects, how can a homeowner get started? What to do first on a project can be daunting in itself, so what’s the best solution to avoid confusion?

Jerry Fedewa, president of The Greater Lansing (Michigan) Home Builders and Remodelers Association, suggests the priority should be to stick to the scope of work unless you become aware of additional items that make sense to complete at that time. “It’s best to know exactly what you want done and to be able to communicate the scope of the project. If the builder or remodeler sees additional work that needs to be done they will suggest it.”

Fedewa recommends contacting the local home builders and remodelers association for a list of licensed and insured contractors. “I would choose three contractors to visit your project,” he advises.

The down economy offers homeowners any opportunities for savings, he relates. “Additions and remodels really did not slow nearly as much as home building has, so more homebuilders started taking on more additions and remodels. There may be a few more contractors chasing the same amount of work, so there is probably some savings there. Customer service has improved and project time has improved.”

John Bruce is a professional editor and writer who specializes in electric cooperatives. He lives in Monterey, Virginia, and is a member of Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative.

Sources: National Association of Realtors, Cost v. Value, Home Improvement,

Know what to ask

Asking contractors important questions makes all the difference, according to Roger Weymouth, broker/owner of Weymouth & Associates in Holt, MI, with 20 years of experience in the real estate industry. “Regarding the best questions to ask, I would say, ‘as many as you can think of,’” he says. For instance:

  • Are you licensed and insured? (Make a copy of the license and insurance)
  • Do you carry workman’s comp insurance? (Make a copy)
  • How long have you been in business?
  • Can you provide me a list of the last three projects you did with names and phone numbers of the people that hired you?
  • Is this your best price?

Get it in writing

“I personally prefer to pay when the job is complete,” Weymouth advises. “Be careful of the contractor that wants money up front. Always make sure your agreement with the contractor is in writing,” he adds. “Everything should be written out and understood beforehand.”

“It’s very important to always include a project completion date in your contract, and what happens if the project isn’t finished by that date,” Weymouth continues. “For example, include wording such as ‘contractor to pay owner x amount each day thereafter completion date if project is not completed.”

Illinois experts recommend quick-fix projects, products

The year 2012 is showing improvement in home sales over 2011, a positive for prospective home sellers. The first two months, according to records provided by the Illinois Association of Realtors (IAR), indicate increased sales of 16.1 percent in January and 25.4 percent in February which included Leap Day. At the time of publication, sales in March had not been released.

While the increase in sales is a positive, the IAR reports that selling prices remain somewhat lower than previous years, down 9.3 percent in January and 8.2 percent in February.

Investing wisely in your home improvement projects can help close up that difference, according to several Co-op Connection Card businesses who offer discounts to members.

Whether for aesthetic reasons or energy efficiency, making improvements can help move the house quicker, which in turn saves the seller money. But spending wisely is the key – so you recoup the greatest amount of your investment.

Becky Kistler, store owner of True Value in Savanna, Ill. believes new windows are the way to go. She says a lot of people at this time of year venture in with tax refunds asking for more energy-efficient windows. Not only do they improve appearance, but they save in heating and cooling costs.

For ease in cleaning and strong energy values, she suggests the Tempco line, saying she has personally experienced the quality they offer in her own home.

Pam Wheelwright of Hoskins Building Center in Elizabeth believes in the benefits of new windows, too, but doesn’t limit her recommendations to that.

“Sometimes it’s getting it to sell. A roof is a big one I see,” says Wheelwright. While it’s a costly improvement, buyers want to move into a new dwelling that is relatively low maintenance.

Another higher end improvement is fiber cement siding. Wheelwright says you want to look at the investment before leaping because it costs nearly twice what vinyl costs. However, depending on the neighborhood, it may be the best choice. For example, putting vinyl on a house surrounded by others sporting fiber cement, will devalue your home. Other selling points for cement siding are its warranties. The brand recommended, known as Maxitile, if ordered with two coats of paint, will have a 25-year warranty on the paint and a 50-year warranty on the product. In short, it won’t need replacing.

The ability to choose it in any color also makes it a standout. It comes in any paint or stain color, direct from the factory.

Wheelwright believes strongly in any improvement, including indoor granite, new kitchens and baths.

“It’s that first impression – that wow factor,” she says.

John Jackson of Jackson Concrete and Construction, East Dubuque, is in the remodel business, too. He believes ranch homes from the 70s and 80s particularly, can take attract new buyers with a façade upgrade. He leans toward craftsman style pillars.

“It dresses up the front of the house,” Jackson said. “I think it’s better than siding.” He suggests building a dormer or covered porch on for a new structural feature and using cedar covered posts, noting that he’s done three or four recently. He says customers often opt for brick or stone at the bottom and finish the support with the cedar. They can then be painted white or just clear-coated to maintain their integrity. If 4 x 4 posts already exist, he said using these sturdier pillars can add character.

The businesses quoted in this story have partnered with their local cooperative to offer discounts to members. You can contact them:

  • Hoskins Building Center in Elizabeth, Ill. – 815-858-2444
  • True Value in Savanna, Ill. – 815-273-4304
  • Jackson Concrete and Construction, East Dubuque, Ill. – 815-747-2170

A personal experience

Energy audit better defines cost-saving improvements

By Cindy Ladage

February is the time of year when utility bills seem to be the highest and as you gaze at your energy consumption you begin to think, how can I reduce my bill? The light bulb goes on and the word “energy audit” comes to mind. While this is something I always say I am going to do, this year I decided to follow through and I called Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative, which is my energy provider. Dana Smith came to the rescue and hooked me up with my very own energy audit.

The first question to Dana before finalizing the home energy audit visit was, “What will this cost?” The wonderful answer was “nothing.”

Lucky me, I just happened to call at a quiet time of the year and my energy auditor, Jeff Lancaster, came out that very afternoon. Keep in mind that this is highly unusual. There is usually a wait, but on this day my timing was just right.

The first task that Jeff performed on my 1994 two-story was a blower door test. Pulling out equipment from a bag that reminded me of a Ghost Buster episode. He hooked up a plastic sheet at the entry to my garage and turned on a powerful fan that sounded like an airplane taking off. The fan that mounts to the frame of an exterior door is designed to show how much air loss our home was losing. It works by lowering the air pressure inside so the higher outside air pressure flows in through all unsealed cracks and openings and shows the leaks in the home. It was an eye-opening experience.

The next step was a walk around the house with an infrared camera to do thermographic measures throughout. The camera really caused a flashback to the day my son got a Ghost Buster backpack for Christmas and “blasted” the rest of the family. This camera didn’t blast anything, but used surface temperatures to find cold spots in the house. The camera literally “lit up” showing a blue/grey cast for cooler areas.

For years, my family had complained that upstairs was colder/hotter than downstairs and Jeff found the reason why – lack of insulation where our wraparound porch joins the house.

Jeff was brave enough to maneuver around our cluttered basement and check out the airducts, furnace and water heater downstairs. He traveled where no man should go! The end result showed that we need to caulk around our air ducts and should invest in a new energy efficient water heater and water softener. The good news is RECC offers a nice rebate for an electric hot water heater.

RECC did its part and I took the first step to reducing our energy use through a home energy audit. Armed with a list of ways to reduce our energy bill, and do my part to reduce our energy burden on the grid, the ball is in now in our park – we just have to take step number two!

You too can utilize energy-audit services offered by your rural electric cooperative. Keep in mind that references to rebates, costs and time frames for getting the audit vary according to the cooperative serving you.

Cindy Ladage of Virden is a freelance writer and member of RECC.

Smart moves to save money

To get more ideas and accurate information on energy-saving ideas, go to The Energy-Savings Home Tour gives members information on landscaping for efficiency, and interior and exterior home tips to save money on your electric bill.


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Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives

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