What kind of return is there on remodeling jobs?
Remodeling magazine produces an annual "Cost vs. Value Report'' that answers just that question. The most important point to remember is that remodeling a home not only improves its livability for you but its curb appeal with a potential buyer down the road. Most recently, the highest remodeling paybacks have come from updating kitchens and baths, home-office additions and extra amenities in older homes. While home offices are a relatively new remodeling trend, for example, you could expect to recoup 58 percent of the cost of adding a home office, according to the survey.

What repairs should the seller make?
If you want to get top dollar for your property, you probably need to make all minor repairs and selected major repairs before going on the market. Nearly all purchase contracts include an inspection clause, a buyer contingency that allows a buyer to back out if numerous defects are found or negotiate their repair. The trick is not to overspend on pre-sale repairs, especially if there are few houses on the market but many buyers willing to buy at almost any price. On the other hand, making such repairs may be the only way to sell your house in a down market.

How do building codes work?
Building codes are established by local authorities to set out minimum public-safety standards for building design, construction, quality, use and occupancy, location and maintenance. There are specialized codes for plumbing, electrical and fire, which usually involve separate inspections and inspectors. All buildings must be issued a building permit and a certificate of occupancy before it can be used. During construction, housing inspectors must make checks at key points. Codes are usually enforced by denying permits, occupancy certificates and by imposing fines. Building codes also cover most remodeling projects. If you are buying a house that has been significantly remodeled, ask for proof of the permits involved before you purchase to avoid future liability for fines.

Resources:
* "The Ultimate Language of Real Estate," John Reilly, Dearborn Financial Publishing, Chicago; 1993.

Where do I get information on remodeling?
Try these sources:
* National Association of the Remodeling Industry, 4301 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 310,Arlington, VA 22203; (847) 298-9200.
* "Rehab a Home With HUDs 203(K)," published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 7th and D St., S.W., Washington, DC 20410.
* "Cost vs. Value Report," by Remodeling magazine, 1 Thomas Circle, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, DC 20005. $8.95 per copy; call (202) 736-3447 for credit card orders.
* "The Do- able Renewable Home," by the Coordination and Development Department, American Association of Retired Persons, 601 E St., N.W., Washington, DC 20049.

What are the pros and cons of adding on or buying new?
Before making a choice between adding on to an existing home or buying a larger one, consider these questions:
* How much money is available, either from cash reserves or through a home improvement loan, to remodel your current house?
* How much additional space is required? Would the foundation support a second floor or does the lot have room to expand on the ground level?
* What do local zoning and building ordinances permit?
* How much equity already exists in the property?
* Are there affordable properties for sale that would satisfy your changing housing needs?

Ultimately, the decision should be based on individual needs, the extent of work involved and what will add the most value. For more information, check out "The Do-able Renewable Home," a free booklet available from the American Association of Retired Persons, Fulfillment Department, 601 E St., N.W., Washington, DC 20049; (800) 424-3410.

What are some guidelines to follow when trying to find a contractor?
While hiring contractors recommended by friends is usually a safe route, never hire a construction professional without first checking him or her out. If your state has a licensing board for contractors, call to find out if there are any outstanding complaints against that license holder. Also, call your local Better Business Bureau to see if there are any complaints on file. If you are satisfied with the answers you find there, interview the contractor candidates. Ask what kind of worker's compensation insurance they carry and get policy and insurance company phone numbers so you can verify the information. If they are not covered, you could be liable for any work-related injury incurred during the project. Also be sure that the contractor has an umbrella general liability policy. If they pass the insurance hurdle, next check some of their references. A good contractor will be happy to provide as many as you want. Finally, don't let yourself be rushed into making a decision no matter how competitive the market may seem. Also, never pay a deposit to a contractor at the first meeting. You may end up losing your money.

Are there government programs for rehab?
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 203 (K) rehabilitation loan program is designed to facilitate major structural rehabilitation of houses with one to four units that are more than one year old. Condominiums are not eligible. The 203(K) loan is usually done as a combination loan to purchase a fixer-upper property "as is" and rehabilitate it, or to refinance a temporary loan to buy the property and do the rehabilitation. It can also be done as a rehabilitation-only loan.
Plans and specifications for the proposed work must be submitted for architectural review and cost estimation. Mortgage proceeds are advanced periodically during the rehabilitation period to finance the construction costs. For a list of participating lenders, call HUD at (202) 708-2720. If you are a veteran, loans from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also can be used to buy a home, build a home, improve a home or to refinance an existing loan. VA loans frequently offer lower interest rates than ordinarily available with other kinds of loans. To qualify for a loan, the first step is to apply for a Certificate of Eligibility. Another program is the Federal Housing Administration's Title 1 FHA loan program.

Resources:
* "Rehab a Home With HUD's 203(K)" brochure, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 7th and D St., S.W., Washington, DC 20410
* "Cost vs. Value Report," by Remodeling magazine, 1 Thomas Circle, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, DC 20005. $8.95 per copy; call (202) 736-3447 for credit card orders.
* "The Do-able Renewable Home," by the Coordination and Development Department, American Association of Retired Persons, 601 E St., N.W., Washington, DC 20049.

How can I improve the value of my property?
The biggest factor outside of a homeowners control is market conditions. But other issues -- including the condition of the property, specific home improvements and neighborhood stability and safety -- can influence property values. The greatest rise in home prices occurs when the economy is strong and the number of home sales is increasing. Though markets vary, that has occurred several times in recent history -- including the early 1970s, late 1980s and late 1990s. Specific home improvements can increase the value above the cost of the improvements. According to Remodeling magazine, which publishes an annual "Cost vs. Value" remodeling report, a remodeled bathroom returns 81 percent to the owner, a bathroom addition, 89 percent and a master bedroom suite, 82 percent. Remember, quality pays. Well-planned and well-executed remodeling jobs are a good investment while bad work seldom enhances value or livability. The safety and security of a neighborhood can affect property values, too. If you live in a high-crime area, an organized community watch program not only will lower the crime rate but give home values a boost, too.

Should I add on or buy a bigger home?
Consider these questions before making a choice between adding on to an existing home or moving up in the market to a bigger house:
* How much money is available, either from cash reserves or through a home improvement loan, to remodel the current house?
* How much additional space is required? Would the foundation support a second floor or does the lot have room to expand on the ground level?
* What do local zoning and building ordinances permit?
* How much equity already exists in the property?
* Are there affordable properties for sale that would satisfy housing needs?

Ultimately, the decision should be based on individual needs, the extent of work involved and what will add the most value.

Where can I get a list of architects?
If you need an architect, contact a local chapter of the American Institute of Architects or the national organization itself at 1735 New York Avenue, N.W.; Washington, DC 20006; (202) 626-7300. Also contact friends or colleagues who have recently worked with an architect for referrals. Take the time to interview several before choosing an architect.

Will a neighbor problem reduce the value of my property?
While it may not reduce the actual value, a cluttered landscape next door can detract from the positive aspects of your home. Review your local laws, which should be on file at the public library, county law library or City Hall. A typical "junk vehicle" ordinance, for example, requires any disabled car to either be enclosed or placed behind a fence. And most cities prohibit parking any vehicle on a city street too long. It also may be worthwhile to check into local zoning ordinances. An operator of a home-based business usually is required to obtain a variance or permanent zoning change in residential areas. In addition, if a neighbor's repair work produces loud noises, he may be breaking local noise-control ordinances, which are enforced by the police department. Before bringing in the authorities, you may want to make a copy of the pertinent ordinance and give it to your neighbor to give them a chance to correct the problem.

Resources:
* "Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries and Noise," Cora Jordan, Nolo Press, Berkeley, Calif.; 1991.

How much will I spend on maintenance expenses?
Experts generally agree that you can plan on annually spend 1 percent of the purchase price of your house on repairing gutters, caulking windows, sealing your driveway and the myriad other maintenance chores that come with the privilege of homeownership. Newer homes will cost less to maintain than older homes. It also depends on how well the house has been maintained over the years.

How do you increase the value of your property?
The biggest factor that can affect property value -- market conditions -- are outside of your control. But other factors -- including the condition of the property, certain home improvements and neighborhood stability and safety -- are not. For example, specific home improvements can increase your property value above the cost of the improvements themselves, such as remodeling a kitchen, adding a bathroom, finishing a basement or upgrading landscaping. Just be sure that quality pays with remodeling. A bad remodeling job will do little to boost your property value. If you live in a high-crime area, an organized community watch program not only will lower the crime rate but can enhance property values, too. It also helps to live in an area where other homeowners are upgrading their homes, which can help pull up your property value, too.
The bottom line is to measure the cost of any improvements you want to make against the overall values in your neighborhood. If you over improve for the neighborhood, you may not necessarily recover your costs or boost your property value significantly.

Can you deduct the cost of home improvements?
What you spend on permanent home improvements, such as new windows, can be added into your home's cost basis, or amount of money invested in a home, which reduces capital gains when it comes time to sell. Capital gains are determined by the difference in price from the time a home is purchased and the time it is sold, minus the cost of any permanent improvements. However, the 1997 tax changes virtually eliminates the capital gains tax for most homeowners (the exemption is $250,000 for single homeowners and $500,000 for married homeowners.). Still, it is worthwhile to save all receipts for permanent home improvements just in case. They also can be useful documentation when it comes to marketing your home when you sell.

What are some resources for info on home improvements?
If you're getting ready to embark on a home improvement project involving contracting help, "Ready, Set, Build: A Consumer's Guide to Home Improvement Planning Contracts" lays out a road map for selecting the right contractor, obtaining competitive bids up to what to include in a contract. There also is information on consumer rights, liens and financing. The book is available for $9.95 through Consumer Press and Women's Publications, Inc., Dept. SR01, 13326 Southwest 28th St., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33330-1102; (954) 370-9153.

Resources:
* Profiting From Real Estate Rehab, Sandra M. Brassfield, John Wiley & Sons Inc., New York; 1992.
* Remodeling magazine's annual "Cost vs. Value Report", available for a nominal fee from the magazine; call (202) 736-3447 to order a copy.