When you’re in the market for a new house, you naturally imagine yourself in the home of your dreams.

Not only will it be priced right for your budget, it’ll include all those items on the wishlist you’ve been compiling while binge-watching home improvement shows: polished concrete floors, open shelving, and a reclaimed wood kitchen island, for starters. And of course, it’ll also include white cabinets and open-concept kitchen that are absolutely to die for.

Sounds perfect, right?

All too often, we meet with home buyers who have a long list of “must-haves,” which read like a short list from Fixer Upper or Rehab Addict. They’re in love with elements like shiplap walls and waterfall counters…so much so that they put excessive emphasis on design and overlook what really counts.

It’s not unusual for those shiplap walls to be covering electrical wiring issues, or the waterfall counters in the kitchen to distract potential buyers from the fact that the furnace is on its last legs. And by the time those shortcomings are revealed, the potential buyers are wearing rose-colored real estate glasses and downplay the bad news — to the tune of thousands of dollars in repairs and upgrades.

This phenomenon occurs often enough that there’s even a name for it: “HGTV Syndrome.” It covers both buyers and sellers who overemphasize the trendy, become enthralled with buying — or selling — the “perfect” home, and end up spending a ton of money in the process.

Don’t let the quartz countertops, open shelving and shiplap distrat you from bigger issues hiding in the basement or behind walls.

After all, what good is “curb appeal” on a gorgeous exterior if the home inspection reveals issues like a dying roof, drainage issues, and dry rot?

Read on to hear more about how “HGTV Syndrome” affects buyers and sellers, as well as its symptoms and risks, and what you can do instead to maximize your home purchase or sale.

 HGTV: Handing out Rose Colored Glasses to the Masses.

When HGTV came on the cable scene in the mid 1990s, there was no sign that it would skyrocket to one of the most popular channels of all time, behind only Fox News and ESPN.

But that popularity comes at a cost. Millions of homeowners, sellers, and homeowners-to-be are enthralled with the channel’s stars and their ability to turn junky, run-down shacks into pristine, jaw-dropping showcases, all under budget and in less than 30 minutes.

While we’re in favor of anything that helps people enjoy their living spaces more, HGTV’s top shows like Fixer Upper and Flip or Flop often bring a huge dose of residential dissatisfaction along with their desire for built-in bookshelves and barn door sliders.

Suddenly, home buyers were creating their must-have lists based on what Chip and Joanna used in the latest Waco makeover, rather than what made sense for them and their lives. And home sellers were insisting on painting kitchens and retiling baths, rather than paying attention to the items that knowledgeable and discerning buyers (like ours!) would care about, such as working appliances and toilets that don’t leak.

The bottom line: buyers and sellers can get caught up with the bells and whistles.

They focus on transitory trends rather than investing in elements that will, on the buyer’s side, serve your family for years to come… and on the seller’s side, get you a higher asking price. That’s not to say that trendy items won’t get you a higher asking price, but typically the return on investment just isn’t there.

As real estate professionals, we want our buyers to get the most house for their money. And we want our sellers to get the most money for their house. “HGTV Syndrome” strikes buyers and sellers who get too caught up in mosaic floors and apron front sinks, causing them to miss the giant crack running along the home’s foundation.

While there’s nothing wrong with wanting a home that rivals something the Property Brothers would put on the market, the problem hits hard when you waste your money. Not every seller uses the best contracting team to get the work done, and the quality of the improvements can vary a ton. In addition, buyers ignore red flags in the house’s performance, and sellers over-invest in cosmetic changes that may end up actually deterring potential buyers, rather than bringing a higher purchase price.

The solution? Look beyond the trends and invest where it’s going to pay off.

What to Look for as a Buyer

Look, we get it. Buying a house — particularly your first house — is an exciting process and likely one of the biggest financial transactions you’ll make in your life. When you start looking for your next home, you’re in search of perfection.

And many times, real estate professionals make it worse by telling you to make your “wish list.” And if that means hardwood flooring, antler chandelier, and a farm sink in every bathroom, so be it.

Unfortunately, being too focused on the trends and treating every whim as a “must have” leads to a lot of missed opportunities — and missed issues.

The disconnect occurs when buyers get stars in their eyes and weigh cosmetic issues like paint, light fixtures, and wall coverings more heavily than the “bones” of the home.

In other words, “trendy” aspects can be added on later for pretty cheap, while structural problems can cost a huge chunk of change to fix. Trendy aspects can be changed whenever time & resources allow, but we’ve found that structural and mechanical features usually find the most inconvenient time to crap out.

You might be wondering, “Well, can’t I find both? A house that’s in good working order AND looks great? All the homes on HGTV are perfect!”

Subway tile backsplash: DIY, trendy and timeless.

And that’s true — based on what the producers actually show us. You don’t get to see the tiny bedrooms upstairs or the scary basement with no paint. These television shows are for entertainment, so don’t let them create a false sense of reality when you’re buying a home. Plus, these shows occur in a completely different market in a completely different time.

Yes, it would be great to be able to find a gorgeous, solid house with the right price tag. But when you add in other factors like location, land, and size, you’re typically going to be looking at some tradeoffs.

In our experience, no matter how much money you have to spend, there is no “perfect” house.

We’ve seen million dollar properties that still needed $100k in work, and we’ve seen $100k properties that need $100k in work! There will always be something that you’ll want to upgrade, change, or remove completely. And that’s okay! But wouldn’t you rather replace some wallpaper or remove the carpet to reveal gorgeous original hardwood floors instead of replacing entire roof? You’ll need to balance the structural integrity of the home with cosmetics that can be added later (and are constantly changing).

So how do you know when you’re expecting too much?

That’s where an experienced real estate professional can help. We look at houses all day every day. It’s literally what we eat, sleep and breathe. So if you’re looking at a few houses in a certain neighborhood, we can tell you if something is overpriced or if it’s a great deal. We can also advise you as to what elements will be easy and/or inexpensive to update, and what’s a deal-killer. Get in touch with us today so we can set you up with a loan officer to help establish a realistic budget tailored to YOU.

Some of the critical elements we advise buyers to pay attention to:

  • The roof (Is it leaking or rotting? When was it installed? Is there storm damage?)
  • The furnace (Does it work? How old is it? Is there evidence of recent/regular maintenance?)
  • The gutter(s) (Are there any? Are they attached to the home? Are they leaking or rotted? Do they function as intended? Are they clogged? Do the downspouts pose trip hazards?)
  • The sump pump & drain tile (When was it installed? Does it work? Why do you need it? Is there drain tile? Where does the water drain to?)
  • The appliances (Think water heater, furnace, boiler, radiator, and AC. Are they all in working order? How old are they?)

I know what you’re thinking: This list is Boring with a capital “B” when compared to 360-degree fireplaces and spa bathrooms.

But guess what? Having all of these boring elements in working condition can save you $10,000 – $25,000 or more. That’s enough to redo your kitchen cabinets, repaint every room in the house, and have money left to spend the day at the spa.

The key? As a buyer, you need to really concentrate on making sure those basic (but important) elements are in place, even if you have to compromise a bit on the “look” of the home. If you don’t do your due diligence on the necessary but boring items, it can cause a lot of time, money, and headache in the long run. Even though things can and will break in your home even with the best home inspections – it’s the nature of being a homeowner! Keep in mind that unless you’re buying a brand new home, you’ll need to decide what level of repairs you’re comfortable with.

Your real estate professional can give you an expert’s perspective on when you’re moving away from those “must haves” (solid foundation, working appliances, etc.) and into the “HGTV syndrome” zone. Remember, those white cabinets or open shelving can always be put in later!

What to Address as a Seller

When we work with sellers, our main goal is to advise you to make changes to your home that will pay off either in:

  • a quicker sale.
  • a higher purchase price.
  • both.

From a seller’s standpoint, you want to make changes that are going to be relatively easy for you to undertake and will bring buyers more quickly. For example, spending $200 and a weekend painting your unfinished basement probably isn’t going to increase your home value by $200, but it will bring buyers through your door more quickly because it’s one less thing they have to do.

We don’t want you to spend too much money on updates if those updates aren’t going to get you a higher sales price. And contrary to what you might think, redoing your bathroom or kitchen will not necessarily pay off in the amount you recoup from the deal. In fact, sometimes major renovations will have NO effect, or even worse, a NEGATIVE effect.

For example, we’ve had sellers that improved their homes to an unbelievable level. They renovated almost EVERYTHING. Unfortunately, their neighbors didn’t follow suit so we were unable to sell the house for a price that allowed them to recoup their renovation costs.  They eventually were stuck renting out the property and waiting for the market to improve.

Crazy, right? But it’s true. You could pull a page from your favorite home decorating magazine or get the blueprints for Chip and Joanna’s latest renovation, follow the design to a “T,” and actually lose money.

This is where your agent can really guide you, because we are experts in our field and know the housing market in the local area. Use us as a resource so you’re not in the dark.

Of course, you’ll want to review the list above in the “buyers” section to make sure your home and its critical elements — roof, appliances, etc. — are in good shape, because those are the items that can come up in the home inspection and potentially cut thousands off your sales price. In general, less is more. Fresh paint and clean house go a long way. But beyond that, let your agent guide you.

The bottom line: Once you put your house on the market, stop thinking of it as “yours.” And if it’s not your house anymore, you don’t need to make major renovations that you may or may not see a return on. You’re moving, so you’ll soon have a new place to personalize and put your taste into.

Our advice? Save your money for your next house!

In sum, it’s hard to be an expert. Rely on your real estate professional — someone who sees hundreds of houses a month and can tell you what you need to know and guide you on your way. To help, here are articles we’ve written on buying a house and selling a house. And if you’d like to talk about your next home purchase — or sale — give us a call!

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