Real Estate: Know What Can Be Fixed and What Can't, What's Profitable and What Isn't

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It's a well known fact that not all factors in real estate are equally important, and not all property investments perform equally well. A critical part of successfully choosing the right property, whether it's for investment or personal use, lies in realizing that some things about a given property are completely under your control once you purchase, some things are only controllable by large groups of people acting in concert, and a few things can't be changed at all.

There are graduations among the three, in fact, it's more or less a continuous spectrum from picking up a piece of trash to weather and earth movement. Just because you can't control it doesn't mean you can't take it into account before you decide on where to spend your money. Once you've bought, of course, you're stuck with what events happen to have an effect upon that given location. Just because there hasn't been an earthquake there in 6000 years of recorded history doesn't mean it's impossible for there to be an earthquake. But if the area has a history of earthquakes, fires, landslides, you name it, or even just a known susceptibility, you're wise to take it into account. This extends into human controlled areas as well. Never been so much as loitering within ten miles? Nice, but that doesn't stop the head of the local mob from buying the house next door to yours later on, or the FBI from renting it for their Witness Protection Program (and no, that's one neither you nor I am likely to find out unless and until gunfire starts, but that doesn't stop the crooks looking for those witnesses!). One of the aspects of this being a free country is that bad people are also pretty much equally free to go where they want unless they're actually in confinement somewhere.

There are, however, all sorts of known factors about a property that you can consider, and a good agent can really hep you with. Sometimes it's a matter of capability (whether you can), sometimes of knowledge, sometimes of willingness, and sometimes, of visualization, whether you can really visualize the place with the changes made.

Knowing that difference is money.

Serious money, especially in a high cost area like mine. Knowing what you can change and what is beyond your control. Knowing what stuff costs, in general, is a really valuable piece of knowledge for an agent, and whether it's likely to be worth the money you spend.

Some stuff, like trash in the yard, paint on the walls, and carpet on the floors, is so easy to change it doesn't hardly register. Yes, good carpet costs thousands of dollars, but it's worth every penny at sale time. Paint is cheaper. Window coverings, All of this is superficial, and can be changed easily, but unless you're an experienced agent you would not believe how many times I've heard arguments against purchasing a property that amount to "I don't want to have to spend $4000 to save $40,000!" Then they go out and buy another property for that $40,000 more, and stillspend that $4000 - or more - changing out the already good looking stuff that was already there for other good looking stuff, when they could have saved $40,000 off the purchase price by simply realizing they were going to replace it anyway, and buying the property with trashed carpet in the first place. I don't care how often I've seen it. It still blows my mind, every time. And if you're looking to sell, by all that's holy, you'll make a lot more dealing with it yourself than giving Martha Stewart Jr. a carpet allowance. The idea is that you want as much of Martha's money in your pocket as possible! With an allowance, you not only pay several times over in the sales price, you're also volunteering to pay some of the money you do get right out again!

Appliances. Why in the nine billion names of god are some buyers so particular about the appliances? The vast majority of appliances are personal property and are going to go away with the current owner. Who cares if the refrigerator is avocado green now? It's going away. If the owners do leave it, I know places that will pay you money for the privilege of hauling away functional appliances, and then you can put your burnt orange one in its place. Even if the appliances are attractive, unless they're built into the property, they're going away. It's not like it's going to be hard finding a stylish modern replacement. But when you're selling, it really is a good way to sucker more money out of people, and unless you build it in or agree to leave it in the sales contract - a concession the buyers will pay dearly for - you get to take them with you! How cool is that?

Surfaces are a little harder, but I do not understand why people are willing to reward current previous owners who built in things like granite counter tops or travertine floors. Actually, I do. It's all part and parcel of that same desire that Mr. and Ms. Middle Class want to have their home be beautiful, so they'll spend $50,000 more to buy the property that's beautiful now, and then they'll come along and replace all that beautiful stuff with equally beautiful stuff that's more in line with their taste. But granite counter tops, travertine floors, etcetera aren't all that expensive to put in (why do you think they're so popular with developers now?) and they do age. If you stay in the property twenty years, you're going to want to put in new ones before you sell. But guess what? You paid all of that opportunity cost, and interest on all of that cost, all of these years, and now you're having to install new ones just to come close to breaking even on what you've already spent. Smart Investors are looking for the properties where they can get those bumps up in value themselves by putting them in and flipping the property off to Mr. and Ms. Middle Class.

Similar to all the preceding examples, lighting is a relatively cheap investment that pays off. Lots of nice bright soft lumens. Some people will pay big bucks without realizing why, not to mention that light bulbs are both cheap and easy to change and the wiring lasts basically forever, so you can fix it up after you own it, enjoy it all those years you live in it, and still get the bump up in value when you go to sell. Providing, of course, you or your agent has the presence of mind to recognize the opportunity, and you don't insist on having it already in place.

Not quite so easy are windows for natural light. It's very hard to go wrong with too many windows, or too big. Just don't sabotage your structural support. And of course, you're cutting through walls. This isn't cheap; but it is often worth the money. Just like electrical lights. It'll make lots of folks willing to spend big bucks without understanding why.

This contrasts to bad or old wiring. It just won't hold the load modern dwellings need to, or doesn't have enough outlets. Back in the 1930s, one outlet per room was plenty. These days, code requires one per six linear feet of wall in new housing. The house I grew up in had a thirty five amp master fuse. That may not be enough for a linen closet, nowadays, but those houses are still out there. It isn't cheap to upgrade their wiring, but if you've got to do it, overkill isn't much more expensive. If you're running all new wiring and putting in new breakers and new outlets, the cost differential to make it way more robust than absolutely necessary is perhaps 1%. Instead of 500 amp service, consider at least doubling that. As long as you're putting in one outlet every six linear feet, make it a four or six plug outlet (with wiring robust enough to match). Point of fact, investors who flip rarely upgrade wiring - it doesn't pay off in sales price. But if you need to do it in order to make your family comfortable, overdo it. It doesn't cost any more per hour for an electrician to run bigger wires, install bigger breakers, or put in a bigger socket. So you spend $1 extra per outlet - if it keeps you from having to do it again. There's been a steady increase in the amount of electrical load for the average house over the last eighty years or so. I wouldn't bet on that trend changing any time soon, and when you go to sell in five or twenty or thirty years, the electrical situation will still make buyers happy. Unless that house falls down around your ears in the meantime, you'll be glad you did. Here's another thing I don't understand: People will act like it's no big deal to upgrade the electrical service, even though it's much more costly than any of the stuff you've already read about. Maybe because they don't understand what's involved, or maybe because it's not obvious on the surface, but a house where the electrical grid will handle your requirements is easily worth $30,000 or more than one that won't - because if it won't, guess who's spending that money?

Towards the high end of the subspectrum involving personal control, you're pretty much stuck with the architecture. Put another room on that doesn't match, and people will start describing the house as "ramshackle". Houses where everything matches get more than houses where there are obvious mismatches. Short of hiring a bulldozer and starting over, your architecture is your architecture. Ditto basic construction. If it started with adobe, you'd do well to stay with adobe. If you don't like adobe, don't buy adobe.

Right at the extreme of possible personal control is the lot you're buying. Unless you can persuade one of your neighbors to sell, it is what it is. Don't count on that happening. If it's 4700 square feet, it's always going to be 4700 square feet. If it's next to a beach or next to a toxic waste dump, it's always going to be next to a beach or toxic waste dump.

Getting into things you can't control, but can influence, is the homeowner's association. If there's a homeowner's association, you can influence it by getting involved. You can't control it by yourself, and you can't make it go away, except by not buying where there's a HOA. Learn the rules, and learn the neighborhood, before you buy. If your rules aren't something you can abide by, be certain Mrs. Grundy is going to do her best to harass you into doing so. This starts at letters and goes through fines, and might even include foreclosure. If your neighbors are at war with each other before you buy, that's likely to continue indefinitely afterwards. Just because there's no war right now doesn't mean one won't start the instant you buy. The more recently it was built, and the higher end the property, the more likely it is there will be a HOA. If you buy where there's an HOA, it's more likely one of my grandfathers will give birth to triplets than that HOA will go away (FYI: if being old and male in a species where it's the female who gestates and rarely to more than one child at a time isn't enough for you, my grandfathers are dead). HOAs really are a good guardian of property values, but they sure can make an ordinary person who just wants to enjoy their property miserable.

You can't do a darned thing as an individual about the surrounding property, or the neighborhood. If all around you are 3 bedroom 1.75 bath properties that sell for $400,000, that's the mean your property will tend towards and be judged by. In some areas, $400,000 is a mansion. Around here, it's nothing nearly so grand. You may be able to get a little more if you've got a fourth bedroom, or an extra large lot, but a 6 bedroom 4 bath place will not be worth twice as much, simply because of the surroundings. In fact, it's unlikely you'll get more than 25% extra even if the property is a mansion, that being a relevant appraisal standard. Even if someone agrees to pay it (they won't), lenders won't lend based upon it. That property is a misplaced improvement. It's fine if you just happen to like the neighborhood, but don't expect that your house will sell for twice as much because it's twice as big or twice as nice. Three words: Not. Gonna. Happen. Keep this in mind when you're buying or upgrading your property, also. On the flip side, this can help properties that are below that neighborhood average. Everything around them pulls them up. But it also means that there's a sharp limit to the improvements that are worthwhile.

Traffic, whether you're on a busy street or a busy corner, parks, shopping and other neighborhood amenities, you can consider to be essentially fixed characteristics. No one individual controls them. Even if you get yourself elected mayor, you'll find yourself checked by the power of the rest of the government. There's nothing you can do to advantage yourself without disadvantaging someone else, and if you want the most primal scream of most suburban dwellers, talk to them about lowering property values. It sends people completely around the bend, mental health wise. Sometimes you get lucky and something good happens. Sometimes you get unlucky and the opposite occurs. But it's not under the control of any one person. Know this ahead of time. Acknowledge it to yourself, and worship at the altar of accepting these things as they are. By the way, if I were selling, I'd make certain your prospective buyer is aware of upcoming issues that may negatively influence the neighborhood. Even if you didn't know, if they can make a case that you should have, that may be good enough to win in the courts. It depends upon the jurisdiction. Talk to a lawyer in your area to be certain.

The geography of the land you can consider as fixed. Weather also. Even if you own a large enough parcel to move your house to a better location on the lot, or even to level that hill that's threatening to slide down on top of you every time it rains, your return on that investment is not going to repay the cash it costs you. Earthquakes, wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods. You might was well consider that the price tag includes a certain probability per year of each, be it large or extremely small.

Knowing, or learning, the difference between what you do and don't control, and what is and isn't profitable to upgrade, is a large part of the battle of finding a good property to invest in, whether you intend to flip in two months or whether you intend to live there for the rest of your life. A good agent, who's not dependent upon the tollbooth model of business, will be an immense help to the selection process or the sales process, and likely to make - or save - you enough money to pay their commission several times over, and more so if you include them in your planning process.

Caveat Emptor

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2 Comments

Nick said:

It does seem like a large number of people buy or sell property based on unrealistic assumption. Granite countertops are exorbitantly rewarded, while an ugly refrigerator or old washing machine are discounted heavily.

Is everyone still chasing the fad and myth of the American Dream of Home Ownership? And if they are, why do they ignore any and all objective considerations of the home they're buying?

But I don't know what else to expect from people who still believe that their homes will appreciate in value in the coming years, and once believe that 20% yearly appreciation rates were a long term, sustainable trend.

Dan Melson Author Profile Page said:

We are going to see value appreciation, not just in absolute but in real terms as well, to reflect 1) increasing regulatory hurdles to build new housing 2) lack of space to build new housing in many areas (including mine) and 3) increasing population. 20% per year wasn't real. But 3% or 5% or 7% (depending upon your area) is.

Please be civil. Avoid profanity - I will delete the vast majority of it, usually by deleting the entire comment. To avoid comment spam, a comments account is required. They are freely available, and you can post comments immediately. Alternatively, you may use your Type Key registration, or sign up for one (They work at most Movable Type sites) All comments made are licensed to the site, but the fact that a comment has been allowed to remain should not be taken as an endorsement from me or the site. There is no point in attempting to foster discussion if only my own viewpoint is to be permitted. If you believe you see something damaging to you or some third party, I will most likely delete it upon request.
Logical failures (straw man, ad hominem, red herring, etcetera) will be pointed out - and I hope you'll point out any such errors I make as well. If there's something you don't understand, ask.
Nonetheless, the idea of comments should be constructive. Aim them at the issue, not the individual. Consider it a challenge to make your criticism constructive. Try to be respectful. Those who make a habit of trollish behavior will be banned.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on December 19, 2012 7:00 AM.

My Sixty Second Public Service Announcement about Buying Real Estate was the previous entry in this blog.

Pretending the Service Equation is Simpler Than It Is is the next entry in this blog.

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