The Dos and Don’ts of Upgrades
When it comes to optioning the house, the primary question an investor should be asking themselves upon an acquisition is whether or not the option selected will contribute to the sell-ability of the house, relative to the actual cost. Obviously, there’s a point of diminishing return if one builds a Taj Mahal in a land of tract homes. Despite the urge to go all out and deck the place to the tee, please resist the temptation. Doing so will only cut down on your return. This is particularly important given the fact that since it is an investment, an investment with an unknown value, it isn’t prudent to put some of the potential gain at risk by purchasing unnecessary design upgrades that aren’t critical.
More often than not, homebuilders are aware of this vulnerability. This is more then ever true for investors, for whom they will provide a glut of options and upgrades that are grossly marked up. This type of financial exploitation provides an income stream that is indispensable to many homebuilders, such as KB Home, who are notorious for their exuberant cost upgrades and options. This system is so elaborate that their design department is a whole corporation of its own-which is known as KB Home Studio and rivals that of most high-end design centers. Not only are these stand-alone profit centers, KB Home has a separate business unit with senior vice presidents, AVPs, regional heads, etc., to take care of this organizational monster. The great thing about this apparatus is that it offers a plethora of design upgrades and options that are really top-shelf. The only problem is that you usually have to pay an arm and a leg to get these wonderful amenities.
To relate a story, the first time I went through a KB Home Studio, it was baptism by fire. I spent over eight hours in the design center, split over two days. At $35,000 plus in upgrades, I estimated that it cost me about $4,300 an hour to shop in their design center. You can see why I was happy to get out of there. Keep in mind also, that you may be required to pay a fraction of the upgrade costs in the form of a deposit soon after selection. This is almost a certainty and industry standard. On average, the deposit amount runs 25 percent to 50 percent and are usually nonrefundable. The consequence of this deposit requirement is apparent, in that it makes it more difficult, especially as an investor, to walk away from a transaction.
In spite of the latter, you can see on a pure convenience factor, it’s hard not to like that a homebuilder can offer you lots of options. Having the “convenience factor” available is all good and well; however, it becomes somewhat of an entrapment issue when the builder offers a plain vanilla box without any or few upgrades. In these cases, sometimes builders will only go to “code”-meaning, only providing what is necessary to have the local housing department or building and safety, at the city or the county level sign off on the property and give it a certificate of occupancy. This for instance, may mean no rain gutters, no landscaping in the front or back, unfinished garages, which typically consist of drywall with a coat of primer, or an unfinished garage consisting of the latter but with exposed 2×4 studs, sheetrock, chicken wire and black installation coversheet. Other more obvious “standards” include all vinyl flooring and small 4×4 white tile for the kitchen countertops, or cheap laminate for that matter. To top it all off, in terms of complete ugly-fication, you might get the builders’ special quarter-inch clustered marble countertops in the bathroom.
There’s a reason why even home design centers at Home Depot or Lowe’s highlight these amenities, and that’s because they’re cheap and nobody really wants them. Consequently, many homebuilders offer the standards in order to eek out as much money as possible out of each home they build. As a result, a new homeowner and/or investor is essentially forced into buying options and various upgrades in order to avoid the home looking like a plain Jane. Having too much of a plain Jane can actually hurt a home’s value. As an investor, it’s up to you to define the balance without overspending on a new tract flip. That’s the nature of making a business decision: you have to use your judgment. I’ve seen some homes that were literally destroyed from the inside out given the extreme lack of appeal that permeated the house as a result of no upgrades. As an example, spending an additional $4,000 to $6,000 on upgraded floorways and kitchen countertops is probably well advised. Most carpeting, even if it doesn’t have stain guard, should be adequate for most homes. Don’t be pressured into upgrading into a thicker padding for the carpet. Just go with the standard one-quarter inch, since most builders will try to get an extra $700 to $1,200, if not more, added to the cost of the house just for upgraded padding.