Roadmap to Renovations for New Homeowners

While new homeowners dream of renovating their home into a model of sustainability, they sometimes bump into the reality that fixing their leaky roof takes priority over installing solar panels and an EV charger.

The frenzied housing market of recent years led many buyers to make a split-second decision on a home that needs some work, often without a home inspection. Among buyers who purchased a home in the past two years, 75% said they had at least one regret, according to a February 2022 survey by Zillow. Among the biggest regrets: buying a fixer-upper that needed immediate and costly repairs. 

Renovation experts can help these unhappy homeowners work through projects in the smartest order while balancing their finances, aspirations, and sustainability.

“The homeowners’ intention for how long they will stay in the house drives all our advice,” says Michael Winn, owner of Winn Design + Build in McLean, Va. “For instance, some things like a metal roof are significantly more costly to build but have a longer life span and are more sustainable than an asphalt roof. But if someone plans to move in a few years, that investment may not make sense.”

Renovation experts can help homeowners understand the return on investment of sustainable choices for their home improvement projects, such as reduced utility bills, higher resale value, and resilience to the impact of climate change.

Most homeowners, especially if they just purchased an older home, don’t have an unlimited budget, and will need to make tradeoffs.

“Anything new you install will be an improvement on an older home and older systems,” says Jim Kitchin, owner of InterWorks, a home renovation and remodeling company in Portland Oregon. “But once homeowners decide which upgrades are the most important, they often want to go a little above the standard level to achieve higher levels of efficiency.”

An important element of sustainability is smart planning, says Neil Bubel, president of Traver Construction Co. in Dallas.

“If you don’t do something right the first time, you end up redoing it and the materials you used the first time end up in the dump,” says Bubel. “Limiting rework is good for the environment and the pocketbook, so it pays to develop a master plan area by area and system by system even if it takes 10 years to complete.”

What Homeowners Need

While most homeowners are tempted to start with the projects they’re passionate about such as a kitchen remodel or a solar panel installation, if they don’t take care of the necessary projects, they expose themselves and their home to potential damage. Depending on the home, “must-do” projects may include:

New Roof

A leaky roof must be repaired or replaced before it causes more costly interior damage to a home. Replacing a section can be more cost-effective and reduces materials going to a landfill, says Bubel.

“You have to balance the tradeoff between durability and money,” says Kitchin. “We recommend concrete tiles or a metal roof because they last years longer than the standard composite roof, but those are more expensive options.”

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Image courtesy Greenfiber

Better Insulation

American energy expert Amory Lovins, chairman emeritus of the Rocky Mountain Institute, says improving energy efficiency is the most effective way to combat climate change. One of the most economical methods to improve efficiency is insulation. 

Closing penetrations to the house and adding more insulation on top of existing insulation in the attic can make a huge difference, especially in an older home, says Bubel. The payback is lower utility bills and a more comfortable home.

New HVAC

Replacing the HVAC system is a more expensive upgrade, but it will have a big impact, especially when you’re replacing a system that relies on increasingly costly fossil fuels.

“Homeowners concerned about minimizing their carbon footprint may be interested in going to an electric ductless mini-split system,” says Kitchin.

Repairing an already energy-efficient HVAC system may be the better option, suggests Bubel, to avoid putting adequate equipment in a landfill.

“The sweet spot for an HVAC system in terms of cost and value is about an 18-SEER system, which is likely to be more energy efficient than an older system yet not as expensive as a 23-SEER system,” says Bubel. “You also may want to consider adding a zoned system for greater efficiency.”

Updated Plumbing

First, inspect the house for leaks or other plumbing issues. Installing leak and water usage sensor systems such as Phyn Plus, which automatically shuts off the water if a leak is detected, can save water and prevent damage to the home. Bubel also recommends replacing fixtures and faucets to save water. 

Also, check out the condition of existing copper or galvanize plumbing pipes. Because water tends to be chlorinated and sit longer in pipes, you may want to look at CPVC or PEX piping as replacement alternatives.

Smart Thermostat

A smart thermostat is an inexpensive add-on to any existing system that provides the benefit of monitoring and managing energy use, says Bubel.

Ventilation Systems 

Tighter homes need bath fans and range hoods, preferably quiet ones that the homeowners actually use. An energy recovery ventilation (ERV) system may be considered to make sure fresh air is circulating in the house, although Bubel says that can be an expensive option to retrofit.

Hybrid Heat Pump Water Heater 

A hybrid heat pump water heater is extremely efficient, says Winn, who is nudging his clients towards remodeling to an all-electric home. One caveat, says Bubel, is that they’re typically taller and wider than traditional water heaters, which may make them more difficult to install.

Updated Wiring

Overhauling the wiring in a home can be a costly endeavor, but it’s a safety and efficiency issue, says Kitchin. If the walls of the house are open for a remodel, that can be an ideal time to update the wiring.

What Homeowners Want

Once the necessities have been addressed, homeowners can turn to their wish list for upgrading their home and make sustainable choices.

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Image credit: Whirlpool

Kitchen Remodel

Discussing the benefits of an all-electric house is ideal at the beginning of a kitchen remodel, says Winn.

Appliances

All-electric, Energy Star appliances including an induction cooktop are recommended. “The annual cost of an all-electric home may be higher, and you may not get an immediate return on investment, but it’s the right thing to do socially,” says Winn.

Countertops

Countertop options such as Cambria, Caesarstone and Durat are sustainable choices to consider. Some brands use more recycled content than others, says Kitchin, so you want to be careful of which manufacturers you choose.

Cabinets

Most manufacturers now use low- or no-VOC adhesives and paint. A lot fewer use no-formaldehyde products. In fact, greenwashing is common in this category of green products. 

Companies with a reputation for green materials don’t always live up to their hype. Ikea, for example, gets numerous complaints after the fact about the powerful odors from its particleboard type products.  “It’s important to think holistically about the lifecycle of a product, not just where it comes from but how durable it is and whether it can be recycled when it will be replaced,” says Winn.

Winn suggests choosing locally sourced and fabricated cabinets for greater sustainability benefits. “If you’re trying to save money on a lower cost cabinet, you need to find out what it’s made of and whether it’s a low-VOC and low-formaldehyde product,” says Kitchin.

Bathroom Remodel

The EPA’s WaterSense label certifies that a fixture meets efficiency and performance standards. A bathroom remodel is also a good time to add water monitoring devices such as the Phyn system that can learn your usage and help you save water, Winn suggests.

“Some of the digital products out there can reduce water waste and the power used to heat the water,” says Winn. “For example, Kohler has a programmable thermostat to set the shower temperature with individual settings ahead of time.”

Bubel recommends picking environmentally friendly tiles such as porcelain tiles with fewer chemicals.

Floor Replacement

While LVP and LVT are durable and economical products, they’re vinyl and often made overseas, so Kitchin says they’re among the least sustainable products.

“The greenest flooring is still wood if it’s sustainably harvested as close as possible to the house,” says Winn. “FSC certified wood has an added cost, but it has a chain of custody report to prove its provenance.”

Sustainable Practices Homeowners Would Adopt

After the practical and aesthetic renovations are complete, homeowners can plan their larger sustainability projects, such as:

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Image credit: JinkoSolar

Solar Panels

Solar power requires a significant investment, particularly if homeowners want to add battery storage, says Kitchin.

“We’re not at the break even point yet, but solar is definitely coming down in price,” says Bubel. “The new Ford F150 electric truck may change the formula because you’re not using gas, and it has a back-up power system so you can run your house with it.”

Electric Vehicles

Installing the capability for an EV charger is a relatively small fix, but it requires the capacity for an outlet in the garage or driveway, Kitchin says.

High-Performance Windows

Replacing every window with a high-performance window can be an expensive proposition, but some homeowners manage this by replacing them in phases. Installing the windows on one side of the house at a time over several years can be easier on the renovation budget.

Graywater Systems

Some jurisdictions have rules about how graywater can be used and collected. Bubel says a graywater system can be an inexpensive way to save water and reuse it for gardening. In the Pacific Northwest, collecting rainwater with barrels and installing rain gardens are more common than graywater systems, says Kitchin.

Smart House Features

Systems such as Panasonic’s Swidget, Broan’s Overture, Vivint and Orro can manage everything in the household to work seamlessly, but they vary in terms of the complexity to install and troubleshoot, says Winn.

“We usually need to bring in a third-party integrator to set these up with the customer,” Winn says.

“Fundamentally, homeowners need to decide what they want to change and then figure out their budget,” says Kitchin. “It’s a balancing act. If they can’t afford perfect, we need to figure out what’s worth doing and where to compromise.”

Estimating a Renovation’s ROI

While new homeowners may not be thinking about resale value, it should be part of the renovation calculation. The “best” return on investment for renovation projects depends on the condition of the home, the location, the price range, and the homeowner’s budget. The Remodeling 2022 Cost vs. Value Report offers some insights into which projects are likely to have the highest return on investment based on the cost and estimated additional resale value.

For example, replacing vinyl windows costs an average of $20,482, with an estimated ROI of 67% when the home is sold. Wood windows cost more at an average of $24,388, with an ROI of 66%.

Installing a new asphalt shingle roof costs an average of $31,535, with an ROI of 60%. Installing a steel roof, which costs an average of $51,436, has an ROI of 55%. However, that doesn’t take into account the longevity and durability of a steel roof.

Solar panels cost an estimated $15,000 to $25,000 before any tax incentives are applied, according to the Center for Sustainable Energy. Homes with solar panels sell for an average of 4.1% more than similar homes without them, according to a 2019 study by Zillow. The ROI for homeowners also depends on their savings on their utility bills while they own the home. So, for example, a $300,000 home with solar panels might resell for $12,000 more than one without, about enough to cover the price of installation. That’s a 100% ROI.  Keep in mind, however, that the homeowner has been “repaid” every month with lower utility bills. If the tenure of the occupants is long enough, the panels could have an ROI of 200% or more.


Publisher’s Note: This content is made possible by our Today’s Home Buyer Campaign Sponsors: Whirlpool, Vivint, myQ, Sonos and Jinko Solar . These companies take sustainability seriously, in both their products and their operations. Learn more about building and buying homes that are more affordable and less resource intensive.