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You dream of having a book display reminiscent of Hogwarts’ great library. But built-ins are a permanent, “no-take-backs,” addition to your home, and they don’t come cheap. On average it costs around $2,500 to have a carpenter put in a custom bookshelf, according to data from HomeAdvisor. For the ultimate dramatic effect, floor-to-ceiling shelves can be installed, but that’ll cost upward of $5,000 to $14,000 in total.
Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Kerouac deserve nothing less, but you need to consider: Do built-in bookshelves add value, or will you someday wish you’d picked out some freestanding shelving from the hardware store and called it a day?
In this guide, a real estate appraiser weighs in on how built-ins play into property value, and a custom furniture builder talks about why some clients love built-ins for their magic space maximizing potential. We rounded out our research with a top real estate agent who’s got the inside scoop on how built-ins affect your selling chances, too.
Built-in bookshelves and value: An appraiser’s perspective
According to Dan Fries, a certified residential appraiser based in Cumming, Georgia, built-in bookshelves can increase a property’s value if they’re made with high quality materials (such as hardwood, rather than medium-density fibreboard) and expert craftsmanship. However, a lone shelf or two isn’t going to trigger any kind of major adjustment in the value of your property.
“Built-ins tend to add the most value when they are part of a bigger package that contributes to the overall quality of a home,” Fries further explains. “One single upgrade is really difficult to quantify.”
So, let’s say you add new cabinets in the kitchen, create a home office with a bookshelf Zoom background, or put in a linen closet with extra storage for towels and toiletries as part of a larger bathroom renovation.
These are the types of large-scale projects in the “built-in” family that increase value in a noticeable way. For example, according to HomeLight’s Top Agent Insights Survey for Q2 2020, a home office costs a total of $12,119 to build, but it will add $10,526 in resale value, recouping 87% of your costs.
Whether built-in bookshelves will add value to your property also depends on your home itself and its location. If you have a mid- to lower-priced home in an outlying location, Fries counsels built-ins likely won’t be a good investment.
“However, if you’re in a more expensive home that has other upgrades and custom items, then built-ins might be more expected,” Fries says. In that case, putting in built-ins could help your home better match the neighborhood competition when you eventually do put your house on the market.
When built-ins win: Why some homeowners love custom shelves
You’re tired of cluttered floors, mismatched furnishings, and having nowhere to display your amazing collection of paperbacks and hardcovers. You’d like to solve your storage woes once and for all by installing built-in shelving and maybe some lovely cabinetry. If this sounds like you, here’s what you stand to gain from going all-in with built-ins:
1. Optimize limited space and awkward layouts
You can measure a room until the cows come home, but nothing will fit a space like a glove quite like a design that’s made to order. And that is where built-ins can rise above their freestanding counterparts.
“A well-designed built-in maxes out the space within the area you’re working with,” explains Tyler Merson, a New Jersey-based former custom furniture maker who now offers home consulting services. “They enable homeowners to create ample storage without leaving unusable, dead space.”
By adding more dedicated storage, built-ins also make it easy to keep a room clean and tidy. You can choose to create a unit with closed cabinets or large drawers on the lower third to conceal unsightly office supplies or the kids’ toys. And considering that 71% of employees who can perform their jobs from home are working remote, space and storage for stuff like office supplies has become a coveted home feature.
2. Create a focal point and add charm
If you live in a newly built home that doesn’t have architectural elements such as wainscoting or crown molding, built-in bookshelves can add in character and interest, says Christine Tuttle, a Boston area interior designer who’s worked on the award-winning show This Old House and trained with Sotheby’s.
“In a big, boxy room that lacks ceiling molding or other details, a bookcase — or a pair of them flanking a fireplace or a media zone — can help create a focal point and give the room structure,” explains Tuttle.
To make yours memorable, consult with your builder about integrating the bookshelves with a kitchen desk, a built-in banquet, or an alcove/reading nook.
3. Add more display space
Since the number one rule for creating a clutter-free zone is not using countertops as storage or to display your favorite curios, the most successful built-ins include space that can be used as a showcase. They also include adjustable shelving that can accommodate oversized books or other items such as picture frames or vases.
4. Define what a space should be used for
A well-designed built-in unit can help define a room’s purpose. Install them on more than one side to turn a room into a study or office, or along one wall with widespread shelves to house electronics and voilà — you’ve got a media room.
But as you ponder where to install your built-ins, keep your home’s future marketability in mind. Installing bookshelves in a less common location, such as an upstairs bedroom that you use as an office, might work for you at this moment in time. However, the personal choice could narrow the appeal of your home for some buyers who’d prefer to use the space as a traditional guest room down the line.
The drawbacks of built-ins: They’re not exactly flexible!
We won’t lie: built-in bookshelves aren’t a slam-dunk in the value department, and they have other disadvantages, too. Before you ask your carpenter to add custom shelving or cabinets in every unused corner, keep these challenges in mind.
1. Upfront costs
Renée Normandy-Shane, a top real estate agent in Port St. Lucie, FL, who sells properties 77% faster than average, cautions against overspending on built-ins when great looking, cheaper options can be had for a few hundred dollars.
And when trends change, Normandy-Shane points out, you’ll be glad you have freestanding shelves that you can sell off easily on Facebook Marketplace of Craigslist. Any money you earn can go toward purchasing a new style.
2. Getting stuck with one look
“Today, people change a home’s design and furniture as fast as they change shoes,” says Normandy-Shane. That’s why she favors semi-permanent shelving that’s finished around the edges, which is a look that often can be DIY-ed or achieved with minimal help from a carpenter or handyman.
Freestanding shelves can also be used as a room divider, and modular units can be added to as needed. You can also get creative with their shape and placement, thereby making them more of a statement piece than simply functional furniture.
3. The risk of overcrowding a room
Since the 1990s, newly built homes have been prioritizing square footage — and lots of it. “Furniture is not the focal point anymore,” Normandy-Shane says. “Expansiveness is.” So be wary of filling your home with permanent pieces that can make it appear smaller and hurt its future marketability, especially since the top feature home buyers seek is more space.
4. Dating your house
Just as the avocado green kitchens popular in the 1960s and 1970s eventually went out of style, so too will built-in shelves. “They’re a timestamp,” says Normandy-Shane. “Like furniture that was passed down from our grandparents. Or gray cabinets, which will be out in a few years.”
5. Not being on trend for your market
Wish lists are constantly changing, says Normandy-Shane, and permanent pieces can’t evolve with shifting tastes. For instance in Florida, which has been welcoming close to a thousand new residents a day since summer 2020, the trend is toward contemporary decor in light, neutral colors rather than the classic vibe and richer tones that might be popular elsewhere.
“Northern folks come down with older, heavier furniture that has been in their family for years, and then they find none of it works,” explains Normandy-Shane. The lesson: Classic, permanent additions like built-ins won’t always appeal to buyers where you live, so a freestanding or semi-permanent option might be a safer choice from a resale perspective. That said, if your heart is set on a beautiful library that can only be achieved with custom carpentry, no one is going to stop you!
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