Every homeowner has a to-do list, from the have-tos (leaky roof) to the hope-tos (new kitchen). And when your house is an old one — in Boston, it usually is — that list grows quickly. But while you can probably name 10 things you want to fix or update around your house, it's less likely you know what any of them should cost or which should come first.
Short of soliciting bids from multiple contractors — a waste of everyone's time if you're simply batting around ideas — a simple ballpark estimate of a given project's cost can be tough to find. So we set out to solve the mystery: What should you expect to pay for your next remodel? And which projects will bring the best return on your investment when it's time to sell?
National surveys try to nail down these numbers, but their figures can vary dramatically. In a 2015 report, the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) estimated the cost of a new roof to be $7,600 based on a nationwide survey of its members. Meanwhile, the Remodeling 2016 Cost vs. Value Report for Boston, which uses contractor bidding software to gauge the expense, pegged the price at $26,182 — nearly four times as much for the same job.
So beyond those surveys, we talked to local contractors and analyzed price data from hundreds of Boston-area Angie's List reviews to find out what you should really expect to pay for an update such as a new roof or kitchen renovation. Then we spoke to a local realtor with decades of experience to learn which projects pay for themselves when it comes time to sell — and which ones could be a bust.
We'll start in the hub of the home. Everyone we spoke to agreed that remodeling a tired kitchen is almost always a good idea, if an expensive one: It could run you anywhere from $20,000 to $80,000.
"Kitchen and bathroom projects are always the most popular," says Angie Hicks, founder of Angie's List, a subscription website and online marketplace where members review and hire local contractors and businesses. Boston-area Angie's List members reported paying an average of $25,000 to $40,000 for a kitchen remodel over the past two years; the national average on the site was $31,545 in 2014.
Bill Farnsworth of Custom Contracting in Arlington agreed that kitchens are a popular project, and for good reason. "Kitchens and bathrooms bring the best return on investment," he says. Farnsworth, who works in some of Boston's more expensive suburbs, says his kitchen remodels "range from $35,000 to $80,000."
The price of a new kitchen will vary depending on the quality of the appliances, the countertops, the cabinet finishes, and whether any structural work is involved, says Jeff Veglia, owner of Veglia Remodeling in Lynnfield. "A rule of thumb is that the more you pay for the material, the more you'll pay for labor, because it's a little more difficult to install," Veglia says. "But in general our average kitchen today is about $70,000, soup to nuts."
Scaling back on finishes can make a big difference, though. Homeowners who go with in-stock cabinets, as opposed to custom-built ones, "should be able to get a full kitchen renovation for $20,000-$25,000," says Martin Egan, owner of Breffni Construction in Quincy.
And kitchen upgrades, particularly with lower-priced homes, can yield the best payoff when it comes time to sell. "If you put in a buck, you're going to get $2.50 back with the right improvements," says Jim McGue, co-owner and a broker with Granite Group Realtors in Quincy. Just be careful not to overdo it, he says. "If you get crazy with a wild-color counter or backsplash, you'll kill a kitchen."
renovations are another perennially popular and pricey project. "For a bathroom with everything included, you're around the $22,000-$24,000 range" for an average bathroom with average-quality materials, Veglia says. Egan placed the cost at between $15,000 and $20,000, while local Angie's List users reported paying an average of $13,500 to $15,000 over the past two years.
Updating an old bathroom offers about a dollar-for-dollar increase in your home's value, McGue says — meaning a $15,000 renovation should lift your home's resale value by roughly the same amount. "The ancillary value to that is the house is going to sell quicker," he added. "One of the things that people don't like dealing with when they buy a house is someone else's bathroom."
Another good investment, McGue says, one that can boost a home's value by about $1.50 per dollar spent, are well-installed replacement windows — meaning the contractor used care to preserve the trim work. "Good ones, though," he says. "People like the Andersen 400s; they like Marvins. Harvey is a good window."
Jim Shields, owner of Northshore Window & Siding in Somerville, favors Harvey windows and says he charges $390 to $420 each for a standard installation. Still, Shields noted, "larger or custom windows can cost more," and prices "up to $1,500 per window aren't uncommon."
Luckily for those of us with dozens of windows, it's something you can chip away at by replacing a handful at a time. Unlike, say, a roof — which cost Boston-area Angie's List users an average of $9,000 to $12,000. Egan and Farnsworth say they charge roughly $4.00 to $6.50 per square foot (or $8,000 to $13,000 for a 2,000-square-foot roof), depending on the pitch, the number of dormers, and other factors.
A new roof may not be glamorous, but neither is water damage — and a failing roof can be a deal breaker for prospective buyers. McGue estimates that a new one adds as much value to a home as it costs.
And while it can be tempting to ignore boring-but-expensive maintenance upgrades such as a roof in favor of more exciting projects, that's a mistake, says Hicks. When prioritizing your home improvement budget, "fix the fundamentals first," she says. "If it's a choice between adding a new deck and fixing the leaky roof, go with the roof."
Not that the deck is a bad idea. McGue says adding a good-sized deck in the right spot can mean a $1.50 return for every $1 invested in terms of resale value. The Remodeling 2016 Cost vs. Value Report estimated a new wood deck would recoup 72 percent of its cost at resale.
Boston-area Angie's List members reported paying about $10,000 to $12,000 for a new deck in the past two years, an average that includes both pressure-treated wood and composite. Egan says he charges about $12,000 to $15,000 for a new wood deck, while Farnsworth says he does mostly composite decking now, in the range of $15,000 to $25,000.
There are other, smaller ways to improve a home's value and make it more attractive to future buyers, too. "If you can locate a full-size washer/dryer on the first floor, if there's a way you can open up a closet for that, then I think that's a slam-dunk," McGue says. "It's an atypical feature in the vintage houses we have."
McGue also recommended refinishing or adding hardwood floors and looking for low-impact ways to expand your living area. "Finishing a three-season porch, that to me is huge," he says. "It's square footage you didn't buy." Is that renovation really worth it?
However, while finishing a basement is another easy way to add space and value, McGue says it doesn't recoup the full cost of the work in most cases. Farnsworth echoed that caution. "You really need to be sure about creating a finished space in the basement," he says, warning that water can easily spoil the space if it's not done right.
Ready to get started? Before you call a contractor, Hicks says, "know what you want and how much you can afford." Reading Angie's List reviews of similar projects in your area, she says, can help you set your expectations on the price and process. "It's a great way to find out what other homeowners with houses similar to yours are paying for home improvement," she says.
"You don't want to waste time on a project, so you want to have all your choices made before you start," Veglia added. "Otherwise what happens is the job starts dragging out."
Then, when you're ready to go forward with a project, get at least three bids, Hicks says, and don't be surprised if they're all over the map. Every home, homeowner, and project is different. In addition to the cost of materials, labor, and subcontractors (e.g., plumbers or electricians), Egan says he considers a range of other factors when pricing a job, such as parking limitations and whether he can use a Dumpster on the site.
"Don't go into this thinking you want the lowest bid," Hicks says. "You want the best bid, which could be the lowest, but may not be."
Veglia shared that sentiment. “Don’t cheapen your job just to afford it,” he says, noting that homeowners who cut corners often end up spending twice as much because they don’t like the results. “If it’s something you really want, save up the money until you can afford it.”
Jon Gorey is a freelance writer in Quincy. Send comments to email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey.