Top 11 Smart Home Improvements, Plus Costs & ROI

Billions and billions and billions of dollars. That’s what Americans spent on home remodeling projects last year. More like hundreds of billions.

And this year has certainly been following the suit so far! Major home improvements and significant additions to a home are key factors in why that figure is so astronomical! But, if we’re all honest, remodeling is the type of project we all consider doing or want to do.


According to the National Association of Remodeling Industry (NARI), around 50% of homeowners surveyed in suburban and urban areas say they are willing to remodel their living space, and over two thirds of rural homeowners convey that willingness. While a third of all homeowners consider it easier to just move to a new home than tackle a remodeling project.

People remodel for many reasons, and 75% of us report feeling a major sense of accomplishment as a result of a completed project.

Better functionality and livability, or what we will refer to as the ‘enjoyment factor’, is generally cited as the top reason for why remodel at all. Other factors like knowing better materials are in place, appreciating the beauty of an upgrade and making changes to fit the owner’s feeling of their living space are considerable factors. But it is the joy factor that we wish to emphasize.

Above that however is the overall cost to value ratio. Also known as ROI, or return on investment, this factor is our primary consideration. Money spent for home improvement is usually seen as an investment that is recouped at the time of sale.

For our purposes, it works out best to understand that as if the home is being sold within a year of a remodeling project. Yet, certain improvements have lasting value, of more than 1 year. So longevity is certainly a consideration for all home remodeling considerations.

Our top list is intended to be easy to read, simple to understand and intending to provide advice should you be considering any of these projects going forward. Or perhaps you are wondering which one(s) may be better to tackle than others. As this isn’t the only list of its kind, we chose to go about things a bit differently than others. Here is the basic scale of what into which items made our list and the order in which they appear:

Cost to value return at resale (or ROI) is the most weighted factor. A few items on the list will actually return more in terms of recouped value than what you, the owner, put into it. Pretty sweet, huh? Unlike some other lists, we’d rather not overwhelm you with a long list of percentage points and so instead we go with a scale of:

  • 100% or higher ROI = Supreme (cost to value return at resale)
  • 90% to 99% = Great
  • 75% to 89% = Very Good
  • 67% to 74% = Good

Anything lower than a return of two thirds the cost you put into it, was not good enough for our list.

Enjoyment Factor is second highest consideration. This is the element that makes homeowners want to be in their home environment more as a result of the completed project. NARI and other organizations will survey homeowners periodically to check on such data. This scale is:

  • 100% = Top Notch (rare, but it happens)
  • 95% or higher = Great
  • 90% to 94% = Very Good
  • 80% to 89% = Good

Curb Appeal is what prospective buyers are going to notice about a home from the street. If the home upgrade is an item that fits into this category, we decided it deserves to be considered third highest factor in terms of overall value. This is essentially a yay or nay type notation.

Energy Efficiency is a strongly-trending item in recent years and 2021 is certainly continuing on that trajectory. Some items on our list have very little to no impact on energy savings, but most do. This is the 4th most important factor we make note of.

Cost – inexpensive (lowest) to very expensive (highest) is something we chose to make note of as a factor that at least some owners would wish to consider. As cost value is already being considered, and most weighted, we decided to keep this as the lowest factor, while still realizing for some homeowners, it may be what is most doable for them.

We’ll also make notes regarding what each project entails, the longevity you can expect from completion of the upgrade, alternatives to the entry on our list, and some advice from us in how to implement the project or weighing of pros and cons among the entry item and its alternative(s).

An added note regarding cost. The ROI is our primary focus, as this means whatever the cost you actually spend on materials and labor, is what you can hope to get back at time of sale, but this does assume the sale is done relatively soon after the job is completed (generally within a year).

We also indicate a cost range and median pricing point, or national average for the remodeling project. There are many factors that go into pricing any job and so the averages are likely best taken with a grain of salt, which is why the range is meant to provide a decent estimate of what is low and high end for the costs. — This assumes a professional contractor is in charge of the project, and in general it assumes the house is around 2,000 square feet. Where applicable, we all add in a price per sq. ft., which ought to help with realizing the price you can expect to pay for materials/installation of the work.

For the fun of it, we’ll go in reverse order. Our highest value item will be at the end and we’ll start with an item that is actually highly coveted by many home buyers. Cue up the gong sound, the top 11 list starts…. now.

#11. Major Kitchen Renovation


Originally, our list was going to be 10 items, but in paraphrasing the wise words of Nigel Tufnel (Spinal Tap), “this list is better than the ones by those other blokes, because this one goes to eleven.” Actually, it goes to eleven for another reason, as a complete kitchen renovation is the third highest item on our list in terms of enjoyment factor.

Usually, when any homeowner considers a first project for improving their living space, the kitchen is most desired. It is also the type of remodeling that prospective owners report as top consideration for what they look for inside a home, a well-designed kitchen with all the modern conveniences.

The alternative to this project is a minor kitchen upgrade. The difference between the two is the renovation will physically change the design of the room, whereas minor upgrade will not. Both will address and refinish any surface in the room that needs a makeover.

And both projects will likely replace older fixtures and appliances with up to date, energy efficient products. With a room redesign comes additional energy efficiency concerns that any professional home designer is fully taking into account.

The complete renovation though is overall more costly and is tied with most expensive item on our list (see #9). A minor upgrade, if truly an upgrade and not just a superficial upgrade is going to cost about half the total price of a major renovation, or at a median price point of around $30,000 (for upgrade).

ROI = Good

Enjoyment Factor = Great

Curb Appeal = Not Applicable (N/A)

Energy Efficiency = Yes, but minor

Cost factor = Very Expensive

Cost range / median price = $50,000 to $80,000 / $60,000

Cost per sq.ft. = Not available

Longevity = 20 years or more before minor upgrade would be considered

#10. Patio Addition

Patio-Fire-Pit Traditional Patio Area with a Fire Pit by Conklin Limestone

Adding a patio or deck to a property increases livability space, and so no surprise the enjoyment factor of the home environment will increase. This is the first of 7 items on our list that are an exterior upgrade.

As this type of addition usually occurs in the back yard of a property, the curb appeal is low to nonexistent for this improvement. Yet, once a human notices this is included in the property, the appreciation for the premises increases.

Patios are constructed of stone type materials, such as concrete, flagstone, pavers, or gravel. It edges out a deck in terms of ROI because it entails less maintenance and is likely to last much longer, so more return in terms of time on the investment.

A deck is usually made of wood material or wood composite. The con, and reason for slightly lower ROI, is wood is subject to more wear and tear plus it tends to cost considerably more than a patio. But part of the reason it costs more is it offers a greater opportunity to manipulate the design of the overall structure than a simple patio.

For some future buyers, that will work well, while others may dislike the design choices and dislike the considerable investment it would mean for them to transform it into something they like. Yet, the enjoyment factor is high for the current owner and provides a way to enjoy the outdoor portion of your property unlike any other aspect.

ROI = Very Good

Enjoyment Factor = Very Good

Curb Appeal = N/A

Energy Efficiency = N/A

Cost Factor = Inexpensive

Cost Range = $1,750 to $6,000

Cost per sq.ft. = Concrete patio is $10.50 per sq.ft; Gravel is $1.50 to $2.00 per sq.ft.

Longevity = 50+ years, subject to cracking but it’s stone and will last a mighty long time

#9. Additional Bathroom

Energy-Efficient-and-Water-Saving-Bathroom Is it any wonder that 100% of the homeowners surveyed about the addition of a new bathroom to their house were very pleased? Were that not the case, this item might not even be on our list as it is tied for most costly item.

While new buyers care about the amount of bathrooms, they more or less take the amount in that home for granted, whereas a current owner is very happy to add this type of room to the home.

The alternative here is just a matter of whether the addition is a full bath or half bath. In our figures below, we are assuming full bath. While the con for that consideration is the added cost, the ROI is simply better when compared to a half bath. A full bath will fetch a full 20% in increased value of a home, while the half bath can only get 10% added value.

Half bath generally means toilet, sink and mirror, but what combination of fixtures is really up to the homeowner. A half bath will not include shower/tub, while the full bath does. Both additions are adding room, and the full option obviously needs extra space.

The cost is challenging to estimate for half bath as size will vary, but it is possible that it would cost as much as a (small) full bath, and likely will be more than half the cost regardless of how small the half bath is.

Due to the great expense, it is an item that can’t be justified for higher position on our list. But given the incredibly high enjoyment factor, it can’t be kept off of a top list where overall value is being considered.

ROI = Good

Enjoyment Factor = Top Notch

Curb Appeal = (Hopefully) N/A

Energy Efficiency = Yes, some due to fixtures likely taking advantage of modern standards

Cost Factor = Very Expensive

Cost range / median price = $40,000 to $80,000 / $60,000

Cost per sq.ft. = N/A

Longevity = 20+ years before upgrade or renovation would be considered

#8. Vinyl Window Replacements

Vinyl Window From this point on in our list, energy efficiency increases, and very expensive projects are gone. Though this is the third most expensive project, but far less than the two others (#9 and #11) that are costly upgrades.

Window replacements will naturally deal with energy efficiency as many homes have lots of windows on most, if not all, sides of the residence. These areas represent what would otherwise be enormous gaps in the home design. However, window replacements have an added bonus of boosting the curb appeal, though not quite as much as some other entries on our list.

double-hung-vinyl-window Vinyl windows are considered a great investment as the need for maintenance is low and the paint or color is baked in during manufacturing.

Factory produced vinyl windows come in a wide array of color options, which won’t fade for a long time. Plus, vinyl windows cost less than the traditional alternative of wood.

Wood windows are preferred by some homeowners because the natural look is not something vinyl can achieve. But wood windows cost considerably more, like hundreds more per window or a good 80% increase if not higher.

Window replacements, especially vinyl tend to have a high enjoyment factor. Numerous areas of the home are all receiving upgrades, and visible to anyone that looks. People take pride in window upgrades, and new buyers appreciate it, though tend to take it for granted as all homes have windows, so expectation to be wowed is fairly low.

ROI = Very Good

Enjoyment Factor = Very Good

Curb Appeal = Yes

Energy Efficiency = Yes, and is primary consideration for why owners do this project

Cost Factor = Expensive

Cost Range = $11,000 to $15,000 (assumes home has 20+ windows)

Cost per vinyl window = $550 to $750

Longevity = 20+ years

#7. Vinyl Siding (Foam-back insulated)

vinyl-siding-on-a-house The variety of options for adding / updating siding to a home is many, though vinyl and fiber cement are the trending favorites in recent years. Wood, brick, and stone are the traditional offerings.

When it comes to getting the most bang for the buck, vinyl siding usually wins over fiber cement. It costs less, and in reality, it has roughly the same quality as fiber cement. The cost value is therefore better with vinyl, which surprises some homeowners, especially those who adore fiber cement.

The pro consideration for fiber cement siding cannot be overstated. It carries an enjoyment factor that is unsurpassed by any other entry on our list, though is matched with #9.

On average, fiber cement siding costs about $5,000 and is very good in terms of cost-to-value, as is vinyl siding. If this guide were strictly presenting exact percentages, it would be roughly 75% for fiber cement, while vinyl recoups costs at 80%.

Both types of siding offer great variety in color, more than essentially every other material available, and are far more durable / long lasting than wood. Brick and stone win on longevity but not on cost.

All new siding is going to contribute to energy efficiency, as well as to curb appeal.

Ultimately, siding is a rather subjective decision, and to our tastes, as wonderful as fiber cement is according to all those owners that choose it, we believe its perception of being the premium material for siding is rather arbitrary when an honest comparison is made with vinyl, whose colors hold up as well if not better.

ROI = Very Good

Enjoyment Factor = Good

Curb Appeal = Yes, arguably a top 3 consideration

Energy Efficiency = Yes, for our list it is 3rd highest contributor

Cost Factor = Moderately Expensive

Cost Range / Median Average = $13,000 to $21,000 / $17,000

Cost per sq.ft. = $6.50 to $10.50

Longevity = 30+ years until color fades enough to be noticeable and surface is possibly worn

#6. Manufactured Stone Veneer

Stone veneer is the type of remodeling project that works for both interior and exterior improvements. And is the only item on our list that has this going for it.

We are generally sticking to the idea of it being used as a siding material, and in many cases it is mixed with a second material where the stone is on lower half of a facade and wood or vinyl is the upper material.

Manufactured stone veneer (MSV) has been trending as a top 5 consideration for several years now. It just misses our top 5 because it scores lower on energy efficiency and doesn’t offer a look that has consistency in terms of curb appeal.

It’s also not a low-cost option for improving a home. Still, its cost to value return is fairly high because enough people do appreciate the look of stone and the perception of durability that comes with it.

MSV is also known as faux stone, which might seem like an obvious con, but not really. Not when you consider the price of natural stone veneer (at least twice as much for the material) and MSV is far less labor intensive, and therefore less costly, to install. Plus, MSV has a lighter weight factor which means it can be applied in locations where natural stone would necessitate a stronger support structure.

The idea that it can complement with interior design to match exterior is a huge plus. Get the right interested buyer that appreciates the veneer look and the value is hard to compete with.

The con with MSV is that while it is usually marketed as easy to install, but it can pose problems if not properly installed. So, saving on the cost for installation is tempting, but could lead to a product that is collecting water and trapping it below its non-exposed surface. Plus, easy-to-install is a bit of hype as it it is fairly labor intensive compared with other remodeling jobs and relies on a sense of timing or dedication to setting the material, so it is properly stuck into place.

The longevity factor and less cost compared to the natural stone veneer are the the biggest things it has going for it.

ROI = Great

Enjoyment Factor = Good

Curb Appeal = Yes

Energy Efficiency = Yes, but not substantial

Cost Factor = Moderately Expensive

Cost Median = $15,000 to $25,000 for material and installation

Cost per sq.ft. = $12 to $20, depending on who is installing

Longevity = 50+ years

#5. Hardwood Floor Refinishing

refinished-hardwood-floors Welcome to the first of the top 5 items on our list. Three of them have Supreme cost value, and hardwood floor refinishing is one of these.

For many lists this is a top 5 consideration, or even top three. Because it offers no curb appeal nor contributes to energy efficiency it is slightly lower on our list. What it lacks in curb appeal, it makes up for with in-home appeal. It is easily noticeable for anyone who may visit your home and is second on this list to Kitchen renovation/upgrade in terms of what home buyers covet. Plus, existing homeowners will love it when the job is completed. How can you not appreciate a project that increases the natural beauty of wood?

The con, if there is any, is the time it takes to do, and what it entails. A homeowner must remove all furniture from the area being refinished and because coats of finish need a couple of weeks to apply, it can be a bit inconvenient during its application process. Other rooms are sectioned off with plastic, so the dust and fumes stay only to the area being worked on, though adequate ventilation is necessary.

The alternative for refinishing is new wood, and in some cases that is easily the better way to go. While that doubles the cost, it lessens the time as new finished wood has its coats applied in a factory setting.

New wood flooring also doesn’t have the same cost value because it can only be brand new for a short period and like anything new, it loses value almost immediately. Not a lot, but enough to rationalize why new wood flooring is not the entry on our list while refinishing is. Wood floors in general will last a long time (100+ years), but to maintain the quality of a finely finished wood floor, they need to be refinished every 3 to 10 years depending on amount of traffic or use they get.

If wood is warped or greatly damaged, then new wood is the obvious choice and refinishing would either be a bad choice or not possible.

ROI = Supreme

Enjoyment Factor = Great

Curb Appeal = N/A

Energy Efficiency = N/A

Cost Factor = Inexpensive

Cost Range = $650 to $850 per room; $1,500 to $4,000 for a home

Cost per sq.ft. = $3 to $6, depending on the amount of sanding and applied coats

Longevity = 3 to 10 years

#4. Insulation Upgrade

energy-efficient-attic-insulation Home insulation generally deals with adding blown-in cellulose or sheets of fiberglass foam material into the attic of a home. It may entail adding similar material to the walls, but for our purposes we are assuming the upgrade is strictly for the attic.

Chances are most homes already have some insulation and so an upgrade is needed to get to a desired or standard thickness.

The standards for insulation will change over time and can vary by local building ordinances. The level of thickness is measured by an “R” value which stands for ‘resistance to heat flow.’ The greater the R value, the better the insulation. R-30 is generally considered standard minimum.

Were our list based solely on ROI, insulation upgrade would top the list. Whatever you spend on it, a return of up to 120% of that cost is not unheard of and 100% or more is likely. It is one of those things new buyers don’t want to think about having to do, and if it is already done, it shows the previous owner dealt with a fundamental consideration for home maintenance and exercised concern for energy efficiency.

As our list includes other factors, this appears outside the top three because it offers no curb appeal, and the joy factor isn’t all that great. It probably wouldn’t come up at all for a new buyer except when they have a home inspector review condition of the house and inform them that this remodeling upgrade is up to standard.

ROI = Supreme

Enjoyment Factor = Good

Curb Appeal = N/A

Energy Efficiency = Yes, a top consideration

Cost Factor = Inexpensive

Cost Range = $1,500 to $3,000

Cost per sq.ft. = $1.00 to $2.00 (for either type of material)

Longevity = 25 years or when standards relating to R value change, whichever comes first

#3. New (Steel) Garage Door

Check any list in the last few years, and this remodeling upgrade will surely be in the top 5. If it somehow managed to contribute to energy efficiency, it would be higher on our list, but alas that is not the case.

For a basic, inexpensive new steel door the curb appeal factor is decent. This is a fairly large item that is likely contrasting in color with other exterior items on a home’s facade. It may be a subtle color that blends in as a background item or may not even be noticeable from the front of a home, but it provides immediate bang for the buck. Steel is added parenthetically because it is not the best option necessarily but is the least expensive and holds lasting value.

Wood or wood composite are generally more aesthetically pleasing alternatives with design options that can be bolder than steel. Steel garage doors will provide better variety in terms of color with no additional labor and are easier to maintain.

A wood door when done right offers curb appeal unmatched by almost every other item on this list. Though that comes with a cost, and a well-designed, wood garage door can be as much as five times the expense of a simple steel door. Go with the wood composite instead and it’ll still be more expensive than steel but provides a middle of the road type option to save on cost.

ROI = Very Good to Great

Enjoyment Factor = Very Good to Great

Curb Appeal = Yes, wonderful

Energy Efficiency = N/A

Cost Factor = Inexpensive

Cost Range = $1,200 to $2,300 for 16×7 steel door, more for extra design elements like windows

Cost per sq.ft. = N/A

Longevity = 15+ years before replacement would be considered

#2. New Steel Entry Door

The front door to a home is the entry to a whole new world, or life, for a potential buyer. So curb appeal for this item is fairly high. Like a garage door, it can be designed to contrast with the rest of the home’s facade and provide a bold or elegant appearance. Unlike a garage door, this remodeling project does contribute to energy efficiency, though not as substantially as other items on the list.

For pretty much all other top remodeling lists, this item appears at number 1 and has for many years running. It’s an inexpensive job, the enjoyment factor is high, and curb appeal is great. But the cost value is actually not as great as it could be, or perhaps better stated as not as high as our #1 item, nor #4 and #5.

The alternatives to steel are fiberglass door and wood. All three have such extensive variation in designs that they truly do deserve to be considered a top 2 choice on a list such as this. Steel tends to be the least expensive, while wood can be around two to three times that cost, though depends on what the designs entail.

Same goes for wear and tear or the longevity factor, steel may have basic options that have it less durable than wood, but in general wood is the least resistant to wear and tear and fiberglass the best for longevity and yet the most expensive.


ROI = Very Good to Great

Enjoyment Factor = Great

Curb Appeal = Yes, Wonderful

Energy Efficiency = Yes, though not substantial

Cost Factor = Inexpensive

Cost Range = $1,200 to $2,800

Cost per sq.ft. = N/A

Longevity = 30 to 100 years, lower end depends on wear and tear and desire for change

#1. New Solar-Reflective Asphalt Shingle Roof

asphalt-shingles-roof If you’ve read the other items on our list, you realize we take several factors into account and new roofing scores well on all factors. Sure, the cost is higher for a new roof than the other four items in our top 5, but with asphalt shingles it is only moderately expensive, and we feel strongly it provides the best bang overall for the cost value it delivers. In our analysis, there really wasn’t a close second place project.

A front door may be wonderful in design, more appealing at first glance from the curb and again less expensive. It is the entry way to a new life for potential buyer. But the roof is fundamental to all homes in providing protection, plus contributing to energy efficiency and far exceeding cost value of a entry door or garage door.

New roofing can also provide ample design and performance options that professional contractors can best explain. Items such as flashing material for vents, chimney updating, skylights are all considerations here.

Solar paneling is an improvement that may not be on these type of lists because solar doesn’t always work for all rooftops/locations. A roofing upgrade will have you consider this, and thus improve what is already a substantial energy efficient home improvement option.

Metal Roofing Installation using a diagonal methodology A viable alternative for asphalt shingles that we’d have you consider is metal roofing. Color options increase dramatically, it’s a lighter weight, far more durable material.

Plus, with cool roofs increasing in popularity, there is even greater energy efficiency available. Yet, cool metal roofs also take what is a moderately expensive upgrade and makes it very expensive. The cost to value ratio, though, is still going to be great should you decide to go with metal roofing.

A new homeowner doesn’t want to move into a house that needs a roof upgrade, insulation upgrade or anything that is fundamental to very basic energy efficiency. They’ll expect that is already taken care of.

Many of the other items on this list are somewhat subjective design related features (like doors, patios, siding) and you could conceivably count on a new buyer wanting those items to be different. With a roof, all of us want to know it is good to go for many years. It’s icing on the cake if the current roof takes into account additional design elements.

ROI = Good at the higher price range, supreme at the lower end of the price range

Enjoyment Factor = Good, especially given the peace of mind of not having to worry about the roof

Curb Appeal = Yes, substantial

Energy Efficiency = Can be substantial with CRRC rated solar reflective shingles like Timberline HDZ reflector series, especially when coupled with a well-insulated attic space

Cost Factor = Moderately Expensive

Cost Range / Median Price = $7,000 to $14,000 for professional installation / $10,500

Cost per sq.ft. = $3.50 to $7.50

Longevity = 25+ years, warranties for asphalt shingles may be as high as 50 years

So, there are the top 11 projects we see as the best values for home remodeling. But that’s not all! We have other projects deserving honorable mention. For cost to value return and home comfort, those not on our list that provide good ROI are: HVAC Replacement (71% return) and Converting Basement to Living Area (69%).

Our list does cover all remodeling upgrades that are known to be Very Good or better. Those less than 67% and say better than 50% are still okay, but not worthy of honorable mention by our standards. The fact is any remodeling job you choose will recoup some costs as you are adding some value to the overall property.

With enjoyment factor, the only addition worthy of honorable mention (besides the two mentioned in previous paragraph) is Converting Attic Space into a Living Area. As you can see, the desire for extra living space or renovating existing spaces usually leads homeowners to a greater desire to be at home, enjoying their current accommodations.

Yet, there are some common, or more traditional items many owners think are a quick bang for the buck which will surely please a potential buyer. Items such as: bathroom renovation, master suite addition and closet renovation are actually not so good when it comes to what appeals to new buyers. But if these appeal to you as current owner, then don’t let our factors dissuade you from what will make you happy. Our data is obviously emphasizing what are the trends for current home buyers.

For energy efficiency, the two honorable mentioned items are Backup Power Generator and PV Solar Power Panels. Both of these came close to being on our list, but other factors kept them out of top 11, and would still have them be top say 25 considerations.

We did briefly mention PV Solar Power Panels and wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years that type of remodeling improvement is a top 10 consideration for cost to value return.

With curb appeal, it really is about the primary items on the facade of the house that matter most. We covered all of that, but honorable mention must make note of landscaping. Much of that can be superficial changes, such as decorative lights along the sidewalk or temporary yard fixtures and floral arrangements.

Many people find that appealing when pulling up to a new home. The basics of landscaping such as a well-kept lawn and proper balance of green plants or trees are items that are taken for granted by potential buyers. If they are lacking or in poor condition, it would benefit any homeowner to address those first.

Renovating and upgrading has been our focus for this article and we’ve provided enough information for what to improve in a home, for at least the next year. Repair ought to come first wherever that is needed in your home. But you already know that, and in the off chance you do not, then allow a renovation or upgrade project to take care of those repairs, so you are able to address both needs at once.

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