How to prioritize home improvements?
July 20, 2021 5:45 PM   Subscribe

We bought a house in pretty good shape, but of course, there are changes we'd like to make so it works better for us. Assuming we have a bit of cash, how should we prioritize these improvements?

The house is livable, clean, with updated systems. Nothing is broken RIGHT NOW and nothing needs to be fixed RIGHT NOW. But we have plans for the future! What should we do right now, what should we do in five years, what should we wait for?

A) New roof - the roof is in good shape, but old. We've been told by contractors in our family to not fix what doesn't need replacing, so we are waiting to replace the roof. When we do, we'd like to add solar panels (it's a south-facing roof).

B) New siding vs. paint - the paint is ok, but needs some upkeep in spots. Again, our family contractors said there's no need to paint yet, we can wait as long as we do the spot painting. But we'd like to consider just getting vinyl siding and being done with the painting and upkeep.

C) Replacing the front yard grass with native plants and trees to provide privacy, shade, and to not have to mow something we don't use - it's not a large yard, but grass is pointless for all our needs. We have a backyard for entertaining and running around.

D) Getting a second car - we have one car, which is fine since my spouse and I are working from home. But once our offices open up, even if we decide to take the train to work, it would be good to have a second car. Because of kids, we're looking at a van (omg) or a large SUV (omfg).

E) Adding a half bath and moving the laundry room upstairs - there's a small laundry room on the first floor that we want to turn into a half bath. There's a closet upstairs that would fit our small washer and a ventless dryer (stackable, but we have to buy the dryer and make a door where there is currently a wall). We'd need to add the laundry hook-up upstairs and close it, along with the gas pipe for the dryer (wtf, I never knew there were gas-powered dryers until I moved in...seems dangerous).

F) If we move the laundry upstairs, we lose a closet, but are considering making our large (too large) master bathroom smaller and adding a walk-in closet.

Currently, I think we need to prioritize a second car and then possibly deal with the front yard because the earlier we plant the tree(s) the sooner we'll have privacy and shade. Prices for materials also high now, so it makes sense to wait on the roof and siding.

What would you recommend?
posted by stripesandplaid to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I would also prioritize C, because those benefits to your energy, water, and financial budgets will grow and increase over time, whereas the other stuff depreciates. You don't have to finish it right away, but I would start ASAP. There's also a range of native plants that could provide food in addition to privacy and shade (eg serviceberry), then you get even more benefits.

If you're willing to consider alternatives for D, consider electric scooters or bikes as part of your overall transportation plan. Eg you could sell your current car and get a van and Vespa-like scooter and have lots of flexibility without the cost of two conventional cars. Especially if you are still in Boston like your profile says.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:59 PM on July 20, 2021 [4 favorites]

Doing C) now will not only invest in its future growth, it eliminates maintenance effort so that you'll have more time for other things.

If you can swing it, I'd do E) and F) at the same time to get it over with and minimize disruption.

For D) start your research now to determine the models and prices that you want, then start watching for good deals and budgeting.

A) and B) can both definitely wait. Keep an eye on things, but those are big ticket items and not currently broken.
posted by jpeacock at 6:06 PM on July 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

If you don't like having a gas dryer, adding a 220v connection for an electric dryer is way cheaper than adding a gas line. If your bedrooms are on the 2nd floor, then that's probably a good expense.

C: really depends on your weather. Contrary to what some believe, grass in most of the US doesn't take particularly large amounts of excess irrigation, and does fine with just rain something like 5 of 6 growing months (July or August are iffy, depending on where you are). You can plant a tree anytime and depending on what type, they probably aren't expensive. Oct-Nov is generally the best time to plant. Also native plants need maintained, so again depending on weather, you might spend more with natives (especially if your grass is dormant part of the year) not less.

D: if you need a car, get it.

E: our roof was 24 years old when we had a hail storm that wrecked it, and was in fine shape. Unless your roof is 30+ years old, I'd put it off until you need to replace it. That depends on weather too. There are places where it doesn't rain much that 30+ years old is fine.
posted by The_Vegetables at 6:10 PM on July 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Deprioritize the second car/SUV/etc. My parents got by with one car and two kids when I was growing up, and there are plenty of people who make do with no cars. If you do get a car, note that the higher the hood, the more dangerous it is when it hits people. I would make a second car the lowest priority. Consider getting an e-bike instead or also. Most of the cargo e-bike users I know of got the e-assist because they have kids.

A & B sounds more important than E & F. I wouldn't fix the roof until it needed replacing, either. But be ready for it.

Prioritize the yard. It benefits everyone who lives near you, attracts pollinators and birds, and benefits the most from going in now. The landscape will grow in over time. So the sooner you start, the sooner it will be well-established.
posted by aniola at 6:12 PM on July 20, 2021 [4 favorites]

Wait exactly one year from when you bought the house. What still bothers you the most?
posted by eschatfische at 6:13 PM on July 20, 2021 [17 favorites]

A) New roof I'd try to add solar panels as soon as possible, especially if you can get tax credits.

B) New siding vs. paint - .. we'd like to consider just getting vinyl siding and being done with the painting and upkeep. Vinyl is very toxic to produce, can't be recycled. Please consider some form of siding that is less crappy for the environment.

C) Replacing the front yard grass with native plants and trees - Stop fertilizing and weed-killing, add seeds for native plants; what will thrive in your garden will arrive and thrive on its own. Do plant trees; I wish I'd planted fruit trees sooner, they're pretty and make food. Even grass produces oxygen, square yards of mulch are just ugly and produce compost, over time.
posted by theora55 at 6:54 PM on July 20, 2021 [3 favorites]

There's a supply crunch for cars right now. If you can wait, you should wait.

E) is going to take a long time. I think you should start there - signed, person with one bathroom.
posted by flimflam at 7:08 PM on July 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Definitely plant trees now. Or by the fall at the latest. "The best time to plant a tree is [x] years ago; the second best time is today." Talk to the tree people at a few local nurseries to find out when they recommend planting in your area (and to get a sense of which you'd most like to deal with). In some climates, planting now will work but require regular deep watering, while planting in the fall wouldn't need the watering.

Like you and others say, A and B can wait. Do them when they're needed, not sooner.

Between C and E, I'd do C now and into the fall, which are good times for outdoor projects, while E can happen during the winter assuming you're not opening any exterior walls.
posted by whatnotever at 7:15 PM on July 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I pretty much concur with everyone else in terms of waiting on A & B until they are needed, and prioritizing the trees/yard. I would also prioritize the vehicle (at least medium term), because it will hugely facilitate getting your kids to activities, taking road trips, etc. & you'll be able to transport extra people (like their friends).

For siding, Hardie Board might be a good option to look into! It's not cheap but it's nice looking, no maintenance, and fairly environmentally friendly also.

E is intense enough that it will likely be a major pain in the ass, so I would try and time that for a period that is low stress for your family when disruption would be minimized.
posted by DTMFA at 7:35 PM on July 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As someone living in their 5th - this is the last one, I promise - home project I concur with eschatfische, wait a year before you set your priorities. This is a good time to wait on used cars as well. The yard, however, you can work on immediately after you've developed a plan for it. The nice thing about yard is you can work on it and then walk away for a week or two and no one is the wiser. But a design plan for that yard is really important. So spend some time talking about what you're looking forward to and then consult (pay) a landscape person to make sure what you want is feasible. Let the landscape person tell you what works and in what order it should be put in. Enjoy the process.
posted by ptm at 8:12 PM on July 20, 2021 [8 favorites]

What is your goal for the improvements? Improve property value for resale, or improve enjoyment and comfort?

Write down a whole LIST of improvements, and rate each of them in terms of cost, time, AND how much you think it will improve either your enjoyment or your resale value, depends on what you are aiming for.

Then pick the one that cost the least or requires least effort but gives the most benefit(s) (i.e. best ratio)

Remember to check the seasons, as some projects have time limits, and can only be done certain times of the year, which would affect your planning.

Repeat the picking until you have prioritized the projects in terms of effort vs impact.

Obviously, if costs change, circumstances change, and so on, you'll need to update the list.
posted by kschang at 8:38 PM on July 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

I try to do the things that make a difference to me right now.

On the roof, replacing a currently functional roof does not change my life, but solar panels will probably be cheaper with the current tax credits which might change things a little.

On the lawn, getting rid of a lawn needing maintenance immediately saves me the maintenance work (plus it is a job you can take slow).

On the car, you don't need a car quite yet so I wouldn't dive in on that (though you might do some leisurely research to see what you'll get when you do do it). Seconding everyone else on the bonkers car market right now.

I would assume the bathroom and laundry is tolerable for a while as well. That I would leave for a while to let me see if other better ideas occur to me. Also, getting contractors to start and finish jobs seems to be very difficult at the moment.

And on the siding, you don't need siding while everything is functional, and you're not sure one way or another, so do the touch ups and buy yourself some time - and the sooner you do the painting the less work it will be.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 11:59 PM on July 20, 2021

Best answer: Right now the cost of materials is really, really high. We are on our third house building or renovating project in ten years, and the prices have gone up in a ridiculous fashion in the last three years.
But costs may not go down for a while, either, so now is a good planning period if projects are not at make-or-break levels. Save some money, set some priorities, don't wait until you have damages before getting a grip on things.

Check with the local planning board about permits and whether you must hire licensed contractors or if you can DIY the jobs.
Find out if the local planning board adds "bring up to code" compliance to any work in that area of the house.
Know where the setbacks are, including utility easements.
Get the utilities in to flag and paint the electric, gas, water, sewer, and telephone underground lines.
You didn't mention termites and other pests.

A) New roof -- I would install a metal roof when the current roof begins to show wear. One and done, and it's good for 50 years. Follow all safety precautions with metal panels, use heavy gloves and safety googles, and never go on the metal roof once it is installed.
B) New siding vs. paint -- I would install Hardie board when the current wooden areas begin to show wear. We replaced some siding on our sunroom a few years ago and it looks much better. We also replaced windows. We now hate French doors, and it's all about sliding doors from now on.
C) Replacing the front yard grass -- We have gone from one thing to another over the decades. Now we have an electric mower and a mulching area and try not to let the weeds get to baling height.
Ask your neighbors and the local gardening clubs about what is easy to maintain.
Don't plant anything near your house foundation or driveway that has invasive root systems.
Ice storms happen. Keep the tree limbs at a distance from anything important.
D) Getting a second car -- You didn't mention driveways and garage space.
Currently we like Toyota hybrids (Honorable Youngest Offspring love her Prius, we love our RAV-4). We put many cross-country miles on our Honda Odyssey with two kids and camping supplies, but the new prices are steep.
E) Adding a half bath and moving the laundry room upstairs -- Take your time on this one, because it gets frustrating long before the project is finished.
Get good estimates. Find out how long you will be without utilities (water, sewer, etc.)
A second bathroom is always a good thing, but getting the water and sewer lines just right is challenging.
I personally am not comfortable with having a washer on an upper floor, due to issues of flooding and the amount of weight and vibration on the current support structure.
F) Adding a walk-in closet to the master bathroom -- Moisture can be an issue.
Would a standing washer/dryer work in the too-large bathroom, rather than the upstairs closet? Is this area structurally sound for the weight and vibration of a washer/dryer system?
posted by TrishaU at 12:18 AM on July 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

With a healthy budget or savings rate, I would probably do C, then E&F, then A&B. My bias is that we really don't enjoy gardening or mowing lawns so prioritising C would increase our quality of life quite a bit if we were in your position. Moving the laundry upstairs doesn't sound too difficult unless you need to run the water and wastewater some distance. I wouldn't move the gas line at all, but would change the electrics. Chang the downstairs laundry to a small bathroom should also be straightforward. One thing that might happen if you make those changes is that you discover more things that need doing eg the plumbing or electrics might need upgrading in part. This is easier to do if you're not tight on money because you just bought a new roof. If you can afford it doing E&F together will be less disruptive. Similarly, it sounds like you'll need scaffolding for the roof, so it might be a good idea to replace the siding at the same time as replacing the roof.

If your budget is very tight or you can't save quickly, I would probably do C, then whichever of A or B is likely to fail first, then the other, and leave E and then F for much later. E and F are more of a nice to have, and I would want to reduce the likelihood of an unexpected expense if possible.
posted by plonkee at 6:01 AM on July 21, 2021

Regarding doing things RIGHT NOW: lots of contractors are overbooked right now to the point where they just don't bother to return calls. We had some open walls for months because we had to get some repiping done and the drywall guys kept falling through. Give it a year, you'll see how you use the house, and maybe prices will have gone down by then.

Also, when you get to doing the bathroom, think about how that will interact with potty training.
posted by madcaptenor at 6:25 AM on July 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

Because it's a hard time to get contractors and supplies are expensive, I would start plannning E, but with the idea that it won't happen for a year or longer. My personal strategy for home repairs is to prioritize projects that will increase quality of life. I think a second bathroom and upstairs laundry is the highest project in that term on your list, which is why I would start at least planning it now. I can give you a ball park that we happen to recently install a water line to an upstairs bath, converting it into a bath plus laundry room, and the plumbing was $3,000. (We have a very old house and it was not an easy installation - perhaps your room would be easier to access and cheaper). A good plumber could look at the project and let you know if it's feasible to add laundry where you want, and help brainstorm how to install it. And about gas dryers: they use less energy than electric. Plan a space for hanging clothes to dry in the new laundry space as well. But I wouldn't rule it out a gas dryer so fast.
About the closet: I would do this the same time as the laundry and bath. You could consider a temporary clothes rack in your bedroom to test out having the closet space in the new space and how much you need.
Plant some perennials and maybe a decorative tree in the front yard this fall, when plant nursery prices are lower.
posted by areaperson at 8:52 AM on July 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd also go for the native plant and tree project first, especially because there are ways you can tackle this yourself if you're into it. I wouldn't plant the tree now--fall is better than summer for that. But you can definitely make a plan and start figuring out what you'd put where. You could start sheet mulching the grass and you won't have to mow. You can also hire folks to do this though I don't think I'd devote huge amount of resources there but might instead do it slowly.

Do you know much about natural gas? I did not, and replaced a gas range with a gas range, and added a gas tankless water heater powered by gas. In retrospect, I wish I had not gotten more gas appliances and had switched to electric because it turns out natural gas is pretty bad! "For decades the American public was largely sold on the notion that 'natural' gas was relatively clean, and when used in the kitchen, even classy. But that was before climate change moved from distant worry to proximate danger. Burning natural gas in commercial and residential buildings accounts for more than 10 percent of US emissions, so moving toward homes and apartments powered by wind and solar electricity instead could make a real dent. Gas stoves and ovens also produce far worse indoor air pollution than most people realize; running a gas stove and oven for just an hour can produce unsafe pollutant levels throughout your house all day. These concerns have prompted moves by 42 municipalities to phase out gas in new buildings." There's a lot more if you start looking for it, and not just about cook stoves.

Also, if your dryer runs on natural gas, you wouldn't be able to take advantage of solar power.

I'd hold off on moving walls and such until you've lived in the house for a while, and then I'd suggest hiring an architect.

If you have two kids (and not more), I'd really nudge you to a sedan or other car that's not an SUV, which are gas-guzzling and dangerous.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:34 PM on July 21, 2021

(SUVs are dangerous to pedestrians, I mean.) There's lots more on that too.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:36 PM on July 21, 2021

Just because I keep seeing horror stories about busybody HOAs throwing a fit when someone has non-standard landscaping, if you belong to an HOA, it might be a good idea to review the bylaws carefully before starting landscaping or exterior projects to make sure they fall within guidelines (or to provide you an opportunity to get them changed before you commit money to the project).
posted by Aleyn at 7:28 PM on July 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Just echoing what Aleyn said--I think native plant and native grass gardens are gorgeous but they often look more wild and less manicured and do not fit into the popular conception of what gardens "should" look like. You may see some pushback from neighbors and HOAs.

Also, please don't just throw down native plant seeds and tend to whatever grows. Many, many places are infected with non-native species that outcompete the native ones if given free reign. Native plant gardens require some careful curation to ensure the right plants thrive, at least until you've really got them healthy and going. There are a number of native plant organizations out there and I encourage you to talk to local people with experience to find out the right plants and designs for your landscaping, soil, sun exposure, water accessibility, etc. If you do have an HOA the native plant organizations may also be able to provide advice on plant choices and garden design that fit into whatever horrible bylaws that restrict you.

Definitely make that your first priority since it's a long-term project. The results are truly stupendous when done right--my mom has built a native plant landscape around her home and it is both beautiful and full of bees, butterflies, and birds. The more wooded areas have even attracted foxes back to the area (though it seems you may not have a big enough space for that?). There is a swale in her backyard that used to collect water, overflow, and flood the entire backyard. It is now completely controlled through native trees and grasses that naturally grow in the marshes and by the rivers and streams where she lives. It's pretty great.
posted by Anonymous at 8:08 PM on July 21, 2021

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