Housing & Mortgage
Planning to Age in Place? A Recession Can Be a Good Time to Remodel
Contractors are less busy and material costs are lower
If you’ve done the hard number-crunching and are confident you can afford to stay put in retirement, your home likely needs a few tweaks to make it safer for an older you.
If your household finances are not under stress due to the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis, now can be a smart time to start tackling age-in-place renovation projects.
A slowdown in the remodeling boom means contractors and architects are likely more motivated to return phone calls. For the past few years, spending on remodeling grew at nearly triple the rate of inflation. The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard recently issued a “downside” update to its remodeling forecast that projects spending growth will turn negative into early next year due to the economic impact of the coronavirus.
A slowdown in business should make contractors more willing to negotiate price, and timing may be more flexible, as their backlog and waitlist on projects may have already shrunk.
Material costs are also lower. The National Association of Home Builders reported a record 4.1% decline in material costs in April. The -5.4% year-to-date decline eclipses the previous record slide of -1.3% in 2009.
Appliance costs should also decline amid reduced consumer demand.
And though some banks are making it harder — if not impossible — to qualify for a home equity line or loan, there are still lenders out there (hint: Check out credit unions) willing to make deals with qualified borrowers. If you have $400,000 in equity and are looking to borrow 10% or so of that to polish off an age-in-place project, you could get a more receptive greeting than if you have $100,000 in equity and want to borrow more than half of that.
Here’s how to create a sensible age-in-place renovation game plan:
Focus on needs, not aspirations. Sure, aesthetics matter, but so too does cost. Reworking the bathroom so there is a level-in shower that won’t require an older you to climb over a bathtub rim is a valuable age-in-place project. But it’s on you to decide if you’re going to spend $20,000 for the bathroom you need or $40,000 for the HGTV-ready bathroom you want.
And keep reminding yourself that every dollar you spend will never be fully recouped by you, or your heirs. A quick web search of “remodeling cost v. value” will land you at sites that show the typical payback can range from 65% to 75% for many projects, such as a kitchen or bathroom remodel.
Polish off the low-hanging fruit first. Age-in-place renovations fall into two camps: smaller less expensive projects, such as installing grab bars in bathrooms and replacing trip-tastic rugs with carpet, to big-time construction, such as a new full bathroom on the first floor.
What you always want to avoid, especially right now, is stretching your renovation budget. If you have any queasiness about household income as we work our way through the coronavirus crisis, focus on affordable projects first.
Get three line-item bids The standard advice to get at least three bids is especially useful now. Quality and reputation remain paramount — especially for big projects — but having multiple bids gives you valuable intel to negotiate the best rate with the best contractor for your project.
There is never a good reason to accept a bid that does not carefully line-item every expense, but right now, with demand expected to be weaker, contractors should be more than eager to provide this breakdown to you.
Drill down on materials. Carefully reviewing the bid is essential before you hire anybody. Is the estimate based on using the materials and appliances you want? A low bid can be based on using cheap materials that you don’t want. Conversely, you may find that your contractor has assumed a higher quality material than you deem necessary. Make sure you are comparing apples-to-apples bids that use the same materials and assume the same quality of appliances and mechanicals. For instance, does the bid include the cost of the most energy efficient new HVAC system — which might cost more upfront — or is it based on a more middle-of-the-road model?
Discuss subs. If you ask, you can often learn there are a variety of qualified subcontractors your contractor can use. Again, work quality is important, but there can be a wide range of rates among providers for certain projects.
And if your contractor suggests sticking with a certain sub, don’t be shy asking if there is any give in the cost. In a slower market a smaller profit margin is better than having no work. But you’re not going to get a break unless you ask.