Why your dream kitchen may have to wait

Home Improvement
. Adobe Stock

As much as we thrill to the idea of new kitchens with quartz counters and glossy backsplashes or luxurious bathroom remodels with walk-in showers, the reality of homeownership is often a lot less glamorous. On average, almost half of our home improvement spending goes toward basic replacement projects and upgrades — boring stuff like a new hot water heater or roof.

That’s according to a new report on the remodeling industry from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. In Boston, the study found, 48 percent of home improvement spending went to replacement projects in 2017, on par with the national average. That share of spending devoted to upkeep has increased, from 39.4 percent in 2005, while discretionary spending has dropped. Nationally, more exciting projects like remodels and additions accounted for only 31.8 percent of home improvement spending in 2017, compared with 41.5 percent a decade earlier.

The nation’s aging housing stock is one reason for the shift in spending, said Abbe Will, associate project director at the housing center. “With new construction slowly recovering from historic lows, 40 percent of the country’s 137 million homes are at least 50 years old,” said Will. In the city of Boston, meanwhile, more than half of all homes were built prior to 1939.

The older your home, the more likely it is to have problems such as outdated plumbing or electrical systems, insufficient insulation, or environmental issues like asbestos or lead paint, said Jen Osterhout, a Boston-area DIY enthusiast who blogs at Such issues have a way of compelling homeowners to put their HGTV-inspired ambitions on hold.

“For the average homeowner like myself, it can be difficult to take on a dream bathroom or kitchen remodel when the majority of time, money, and energy is devoted to tackling basic — and sometimes urgent — replacement and maintenance problems,” Osterhout said. When faced with the choice of replacing a 40-year-old roof or splurging on a new deck and outdoor area for entertaining, she added, “you can probably guess which project ends up on the back burner.”

That can be frustrating, Osterhout said. But she takes solace in knowing that, while repairs made today may get in the way of a dream project, they at least prevent a more expensive nightmare down the road.

Meanwhile, major appliances like washing machines and dishwashers don’t last as long as they once did, forcing homeowners to spend more on repairing (or, more likely, replacing) them more frequently. Steve Sheinkopf, Yale Appliance and Lighting CEO, told me that when he first got into the business, the average appliance had a 12- to 15-year life cycle. “Now it’s a 6- to 10-year cycle,” he said.

Norwood plumber Susan Jacobs-Marshalsea said that, instead of repairing an old appliance or fixture, younger homeowners tend to buy replacement equipment from a big-box store or online. “Quality isn’t a priority — cost and how pretty it looks is more important,” she said.

The types of dream projects we spend on has changed over the years, too. In 1995 and 1997, more than a fifth of all home improvement spending (and more than half of discretionary dollars) went toward room additions; by 2017, new additions accounted for only 7.4 percent of spending. We now devote at least twice as much of our discretionary improvement budget to kitchen and bath remodels and outside attachments (like decks or garages) compared to two decades ago.

Maybe our priorities have changed a bit over the years, too. The study found that 23 percent of Boston homeowners made energy-efficient retrofits in 2017, which get categorized as interior replacement costs. Adding insulation doesn’t exactly impress guests or improve curb appeal. But a desire to burn less fuel heating and cooling our homes is perhaps just as worthy a dream as a new set of kitchen cabinets, even if it’s not as glamorous.

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