There comes a time when every homeowner will spread their arms, look around, and say, “This house feels too small.” Perhaps your kids have outgrown their bunk beds, or your partner’s startup blew up, and now every inch of your bungalow is occupied.
One way or another, you need more room. But do you break ground on your current home or break your budget on a new house? The decision to move or improve can be complex and emotional. On one hand, you love your neighborhood and the memories you’ve made. But on the other hand, you love space. So how do you choose?
The answer depends on your neighborhood, your budget, the housing market, and (sorry) your mom. Here’s how to tell whether you should start over in a new place—or transform your existing property.
First, ask yourself the tough questions
You might be salivating over the houses for sale or dreaming of your double-size, custom-built master bedroom—but don’t make a snap decision based on a fantasy.
Instead, start by making a classic list of pros and cons. What is it about buying a new home that tickles your fancy? Or does the process stress you out? Are you pumped for renovation—or would you rather ditch the dust?
“Essentially, these are two different paths to the same destination: a home to love,” says Michael Hausam, a Realtor® in Irvine, CA.
Hausam suggests that the mere act of listing your ideas might make the decision. Maybe your “move” column vastly outweighs your “stay” list—but you want that new bedroom, dammit! Then you have your answer.
And if you’re struggling still? We’ve done the heavy lifting for you. Take a peek at the following scenarios to determine whether you should move or improve.
Move: If your city gives your plans the thumbs-down
You’ve drawn up elaborate plans for popping the top of your two-bed bungalow. But your city might not be on board. Before breaking ground, find out if your proposed idea meets zoning requirements.
“The local government is where you’ll need to go to find out if you can even expand your current living space,” says Realtor Kaylin Richerson of Prime Real Estate in Valparaiso, IN.
To figure out if your new expansion will pass muster, you’ll need to gather a pile of documents. Plan to get a property survey and detailed drawings just for the permit alone. And if your city says no—well, it’s time to start house hunting.
Improve: If your home is unique
Your first house hunt was hard enough. Now you want to do it again? Oh, but where will you find the perfect home? You need only an indoor-outdoor shower, built-in library (of real mahogany), and double-vanity bathroom for the kids.
If your current home already comes with the special features you require, add on instead of buying new.
“The more unique the needs and requirements, the more difficult it may be to find another home with those features,” Hausam says.
Move: If your current home is in a seller’s market
The best part of being in a seller’s market is taking advantage of the seller’s market. If your home has dramatically increased in value during your tenure, it could be “more beneficial to sell your home and buy a bigger and better home than to expand,” Richerson says.
But make sure to check with a local real estate agent before finalizing your decision.
“In certain areas and price ranges, some houses are sitting on the market a bit longer,” she says. If that’s you, a renovation may be in order.
Improve: If you love your location
Time for a caveat: Just because your home is in a seller’s market doesn’t mean you should always sell. If you love your location and home prices are skyrocketing, remodeling may be the only way to stay put in your neighborhood.
After all, if your home increased in price, every other house in the area did as well. You might be profiting $100,000 by selling your place—but good-stinking-luck finding anything else in your price range, especially if you want to upgrade. Adding a wing might be the cheapest way to get space without sacrificing your A-plus location.
Move: If renovating will be an ordeal
Say you’re snug in a three-bedroom ranch, but you’d like at least five bedrooms and a new playroom. That’s a lot of work. Figure out how big the gap is between what you have and what you want. If it’s enormous, undergoing a massive renovation might not be worth it.
Start by considering remodeling costs, the length of time your home will be under construction, and whether you plan to live in the home during construction, Hausam recommends.
“A significant remodel project is an extremely big deal—far more involved than would be packing up your things and moving them,” he says.
Improve: If your parents want a say
“But my folks don’t get a say in my house!” you might be thinking.
Except when you need additional space to accommodate aging parents. You’ll likely be looking for an in-law unit—which can be tricky to find on the market, much less one that said mother-in-law actually likes.
“We deal with many people struggling with this decision,” says Christina Souretis, a Realtor in Duxbury, MA. “The ones that decided to expand usually have parents that need to move in with them, so there are more people involved in the home-buying process. Not everyone can decide on a house.”
Expanding makes it much easier to take your parents’ taste into account by designing an add-on specifically for them.
Move: If you’d be building the biggest house in the neighborhood
Take a look around. Have a lot of your neighbors expanded? Or are they mostly chilling in the original square footage?
“Before expanding, families should make sure they’re not adding on in a neighborhood with smaller homes,” Souretis says.
Why? When it comes time to sell, unloading the priciest home on the block typically will be a challenge. If you expand and decide to sell in the future, you might be restricting your buyer pool. So before you make any decisions, think about the long-term consequences—not just what makes you happy right now.