You may have noticed the lines at home-improvement stores getting longer or heard the whirring of buzz saws in your neighborhood. After years of economic recession and housing-market malaise, people are starting to fix up their homes again.
According to an April 15 report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, annual spending on remodeling is expected to accelerate this year, with nearly 5% growth over 2009. "This year could produce the first annual spending increase for the industry since 2006," the peak of the housing boom, says center director Nicolas P. Retsinas.
But the forces driving today's action couldn't be more different from those during the boom. Back then, people wanted to renovate their places so that they could trade up to bigger homes, or because their home equity was soaring and they wanted to reinvest some of the spoils.
Now, the opposite is happening: Many people who bought during the boom years are accepting the reality that they won't soon be swapping up for a sybaritic spread. Their mortgages may remain above water, but after years of falling home prices, their equity is so low that the transaction costs of buying a new house would leave little for a down payment.
In short, they are stuck.
"People have seen their down payments kind of wiped out," says Harvard economist Jeremy Stein. "They are locked into their house. They can't really move, even if they thought the other house was cheap and a good deal."
So these people are making their homes more comfortable for a longer-than-expected stay. Setting aside old calculations of how much a particular improvement will add to resale value, they are making smaller tweaks that can make a big difference in livability. You might call it "psychological return on investment."
Nowadays, say real-estate agents and contractors, smaller projects like updating kitchens and baths and humble attic-bedroom conversions are more popular, while two-story master suites and $100,000 kitchen blowouts are decidedly out of fashion. Hidden improvements like insulation also are on the rise, as people realize they won't be able to pass on their drafts, leaks and other problems to the next guy. Tax credits that expire in 2010 are enticing people to make energy improvements, too.