Secrets of house flippers

Marcelle Sussman Fischler

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When it comes to revving up a home’s curb appeal, house flippers, remodelers and stagers have the inside track. Rather than spend a fortune to make a home a standout in the current real estate market, go for the tricks professionals use that give the most bang for the renovation buck.

“Most houses have been lived in by families for years,” says Raymond Derrien, a house flipper in Sea Cliff, N.Y.  “When they go to sell, it’s very dated.” The solution is to remove elements of what’s outmoded.  It could be as simple as a fresh, neutral-toned paint job, changing the knobs on the kitchen cabinets, replacing a vanity top or getting rid of the curtains.

“People make a mistake when selling a house and they have all these heavy drapes,” Derrien offers as an example. “That is not in the vernacular of today.”      

Remodeling Magazine’s “2011-12 Cost Vs. Value Report,” a nationwide survey conducted with Realtor Magazine and, compared the estimated cost and the amount that can be recouped on 35 different remodeling jobs. The results showed that it's not necessarily the most extensive remodeling projects that provide many happy returns. 

A new front entry door, minor kitchen and bathroom remodels, creating an attic bedroom and replacing the garage door are among the low-budget yet high-yielding home improvement projects that may even make you want to stay put for a while.

David Peterson, operations manager and project coordinator for in Portland, Ore., said that buyers are attracted to homes that are blemish-free, “Q-Tip clean” and move-in ready. “Busy, dated wallpaper can feel distracting and overwhelming to potential buyers,” he says, an immediate turn-off. “Removing wallpaper, painting walls, changing light fixtures, adding hardware to cabinets, and de-cluttering” help update a house and make it “more appealing to potential buyers,” he adds.

For a kitchen remodel, replacing “that 1970s look” of laminate countertops by switching to quartz or granite may do the trick without the larger expense of changing kitchen cabinets.  New stainless steel appliances also help. “You will collect that back in the end. It will make the price higher,” says Vita Burdi, a kitchen and bath designer and an owner of DJ’s Home Improvements in Valley Stream, N.Y. 

“Redo it enough that they’ll say they can live with it for 10 years and then do it,” Burdi says. “You won’t have to cut your price and you haven’t done a tremendously costly renovation.” Otherwise, she says, buyers will complain that the kitchen needs a redo, and “shave $50,000 off their offer.”

There really is gold – and living space – in the attic. Instead of using it as a storage catch-all for luggage, old clothes or a discarded crib, converting attic space under the eaves into a stylish – and private – bedroom is one of the top and easiest ways to maximize living space. “If you want a cozy private space, that is a good place to get it,” says Stewart Davis, the principal architect and design director of CG&S Design Build in Austin, Texas. “You are infilling space that is already there.”

Here’s a look at remodeling projects with a great payback.

Project: New Front Door
Typical cost: Under $1,300
Secret: Bright colors impress
Payback: 73%

Knock, knock. What’s more inviting than what buyers see first? A welcoming new front door, preferably steel and in sassy hues like red, tangerine or indigo blue can make a snazzy first impression. A well-insulated low-cost steel entry door that seals like a refrigerator “is the threshold to the kingdom,” says Carl DiPresso, a project design specialist for the Major Homes Corp., renovation specialists in Williston Park and Bayside, N.Y.

DiPresso adds, “The front door is the most important thing in selling a home that people overlook.”

(Photo: cdsessums / Flickr)
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(Photo: cdsessums / Flickr)

Project: Attic Bedroom
Typical cost: About $50,000
Secret: No need to add on
Payback: 72.5%

An eyebrow dormer in the attic provides light and space for a teenager’s private retreat or a cozy master bedroom, complete with its own bath and dressing area. Using space that is already there doesn’t impinge on the yard, though room for a staircase was carved from a ground floor office and hallway.

“If you build it under the rafters, it gives you a comfortable protective feeling to be underneath that sloped roof, says Davis of  CG&S, creator of the attic hideaway. “It’s a whole different feeling than being in a 9-foot ceiling room.” While there is expense in moving around HVAC equipment and other utilities, the resale value is great.

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Project: Minor kitchen remodel
Typical cost: Under $20,000
Secret: Bling makes a difference
Payback: 72.1 percent

Skip new cabinetry, often the most expensive part of a kitchen makeover. Instead, says Burdi of DJ’s Home Improvements, clean them up, then swap an outdated 1970s mica countertop for quartz or granite. “Once you put in a stone countertop and put in an undermount sink, you hide the age of the kitchen.” Then add kitchen bling – new glam knobs and pulls on the cabinets, a brushed nickel faucet and soap dispenser along with a new stacked-stone-style glass tile, metal and slate backsplash that “dazzles and pops.” For far less than a total redo, such kitchen jewelry “makes the kitchen look young again,” Burdi says.

Project: Bathroom remodel
Typical cost: $16,552 full remodel; $500 minor remodel
Secret: Removing busy wallpaper
Payback: 62.2 % full; 172% minor

Busy, dated wallpaper makes a home feel less move-in ready, said Peterson of Synergy Staging. Removing the wallpaper and painting the walls a soft, neutral shade allows buyers to enjoy the spaciousness and serenity of the room. Installing a new light fixture and replacing the faucet add to the transformation.


Project: Garage doors
Typical cost: $1,512
Secret: Style matters
Payback: 71.9%

Swapping an old colonial door for a modern linear model is key to transforming a nondescript high ranch into a mid-century modern home, says home flipper Derrien.  

When it comes to curb appeal, garage doors take up to 20 percent of a home’s façade, expressing style and a home’s personality. Choose heavy duty, low maintenance, energy-efficient steel doors over wood in carriage-house style, wrought-iron ornamental doors or with a clean, simple, contemporary look. Personalize with windows, colors and decorative hardware.

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Left: carriage garage doors; right: glass garage doors (Photos: carywaynepeterson / Flickr)
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Left: carriage garage doors; right: glass garage doors (Photos: carywaynepeterson / Flickr)