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The Dos and Don’ts of Upgrades

When it comes to optioning the house, the main question an investor should ask when making an acquisition is whether or not the chosen option will contribute to the house’s ability to sell, compared to the real cost. Obviously, there is a point of diminishing returns if one builds a Taj Mahal in a land of plot houses. Despite the urge to go all out and decorate the place to the tee, please resist the temptation. This will only reduce your return. This is especially important considering that since this is an investment, an investment of unknown value, it is not prudent to jeopardize some of the potential gain by purchasing upgrades unnecessary design changes that are not critical.

More often than not, home builders are aware of this vulnerability. This is more true than ever for investors, for whom they will provide an overabundance of options and grossly increased upgrades. This type of financial exploitation provides a much-needed revenue stream for many homebuilders, such as KB Home, who are known for their exuberant cost upgrades and options. This system is so elaborate that their design department is a full-fledged company, known as KB Home Studio, and rivals that of most high-end design centers. Not only are these standalone profit centers, KB Home has a separate business unit with senior vice presidents, AVPs, regional heads, etc., to take care of this organizational behemoth. The great thing about this device is that it offers a plethora of design upgrades and options that are truly top of the line. The only problem is that you usually have to pay an arm and a leg to get these wonderful amenities.

To tell a story, the first time I went through a KB Home Studio was a baptism of fire. I spent over eight hours in the design center, spread over two days. At over $35,000 worth of upgrades, I estimated it was costing me around $4,300 an hour to shop at their design center. You can see why I was happy to get out of there. Also keep in mind that you may have to pay a fraction of the upgrade costs as a deposit soon after selection. It’s almost a certainty and an industry standard. On average, the deposit amount is 25-50% and is usually non-refundable. The consequence of this deposit requirement is obvious, in that it makes it more difficult, especially as an investor, to walk away from a trade.

Despite this, you can see on pure convenience factor, it’s hard not to love that a home builder can give you so many options. Having the “convenience factor” available is great; however, it becomes a bit of a trapping issue when the manufacturer offers a plain vanilla box with no or few upgrades. In these cases, builders will sometimes only go within the meaning of “code”, providing only what is necessary for the local housing department or building and safety, at the city or county level, to approve. the property and give it a certificate of occupancy. This, for example, can mean no gutters, no front or back landscaping, unfinished garages, which usually consist of drywall with a layer of primer, or an unfinished garage of these but with exposed 2×4 studs, drywall, chicken wire, and black installation cover sheet. Other more obvious “standards” include all vinyl flooring and small white 4×4 tiles for kitchen counters, or cheap laminate for that matter. To top it off, in terms of complete ugliness, you could get the builders special quarter-inch clustered marble countertops in the bathroom.

There’s a reason even Home Depot or Lowe’s Home Design Centers highlight these amenities, and it’s because they’re cheap and no one really wants them. Therefore, many home builders offer the standards in order to get the most money out of every home they build. As a result, a new owner and/or investor is essentially forced to purchase options and various upgrades in order to keep the house from looking like a simple Jane. Having too much of a regular Jane can actually hurt a home’s value. As an investor, it’s up to you to set the balance without spending too much on a new flip flier. It’s the nature of making a business decision: you have to use your judgment. I’ve seen homes that have literally been destroyed from the inside out given the extreme unattractiveness that has permeated the home due to the lack of renovations. For example, spending an extra $4,000 to $6,000 to upgrade kitchen floors and counters is probably wise. Most rugs, even if they don’t have stain protection, should be fine for most homes. Don’t have to upgrade to thicker mat padding. Just go for the standard quarter inch as most builders will try to get an extra $700 to $1200, if not more, added to the cost of the house just for upgraded padding.

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