A fireplace is the epitome of ambiance and warmth for some homeowners. Many others, though, see it as a liability at worst or an interior design concern at best. Still, real estate listing sites like realtor.com include “fireplace” among its search filters, a sign that buyers are still keen on cozying up to one – at least in those regions where chilly nights call for one.
Are Fireplaces Still Hot?
“The impact of a fireplace on a home’s value will vary greatly by geography and age of the home,” says Glenn S. Phillips, CEO and chief economic analyst for Lake Homes Realty, a lake-focused real estate company currently operating in 34 states. “In northern states and the Midwest, where humidity is low, any single-family residence will be seen as odd if it does not have a fireplace.”
Aside from a fireplace being a pleasant home feature in wintertime, it’s a critical one in the event power is lost during a snowstorm. In cold weather regions, a fireplace might not add any value – that’s because it’s an expected feature, says Phillips, and the lack of one could actually decrease the value of a home.
Alex Caras, a Realtor and broker at Magellan Realty in Chicago, says Chicago’s harsh winters make fireplaces a hit with buyers, especially in the suburbs.
“Many buyers see them as a nice add-on,” Caras says, noting that homeowners looking to sell often remodel their fireplaces to feature more popular design elements like tile or marble. “A nice fireplace can push a buyer off the fence into making an offer in some cases.”
Should You Add a Fireplace to Your Home?
If there’s no traditional masonry fireplace already in place at your home, you could build one to woo buyers or simply enjoy for yourself. But it won’t be cheap, says Ron Cowgill, owner of D/R Services Unlimited Inc. in Glenview, Illinois. “If you’re not looking to drop $40,000 or more on a masonry fireplace, then you can always use a prefabricated unit,” Cowgill says.
Most fireplaces – electric and ethanol models are notable exceptions – need ventilation. For homes with no chimney, as not all modern homes are built with one, there must be a flue installed with proper roof clearance, Cowgill explains. Some gas fireplaces work with a sealed direct vent unit, which can go through the wall and not above the roof. Permits will be required in most municipalities to do this work, and Cowgill recommends hiring an experienced contractor to install it in compliance with your local building code.
“The last thing you want to do is save a few hundred bucks trying to do it yourself and have your house burn down because (the fireplace) was not installed properly,” he says.
For all the inherent beauty of a traditional masonry fireplace, you won’t see many in new builds that are designed for maximum energy efficiency, Cowgill says. “A masonry fireplace is a great way to lose heat from your house,” he says. “After all, if built correctly, that is what it is designed to do.” (Quick physics lesson: The masonry absorbs the heat from the room and sends it out through the chimney.)
If there are fireplaces in new builds, Cowgill says they’ll most likely be gas or propane sealed direct-vent units that can be vented through the wall. “This gives the builder a way to provide a fireplace and meet the new energy codes,” he says, noting that these fireplaces are also the go-to choice for remodeling projects because they are “economical, efficient, and easy to install in just about any room.”
Of course, there’s always the option of electric fireplaces that are far less expensive and only require an outlet to fire up. “These are great for high-rise condo buildings or basements where you want that cozy feel in the room,” says Cowgill.
Indeed, it’s a big deal for city apartments to have working fireplaces, both for safety reasons and environmental factors. Some cities like New York have banned the new construction of wood-burning fireplaces, which makes older units with them more desirable.
“Anything rare offers great value to the buyers searching for it,” says Mihal Gartenberg, a licensed associate real estate broker with Coldwell Banker Warburg in New York City. “Due to safety constraints, many fireplaces today are decorative only. However, when a buyer is looking for a real, wood-burning fireplace, they are willing to pay a slight premium for that benefit.”
Fireplace Decorating Ideas
Some might argue that flickering flames – even the LCD ones of an electric unit – provide enough of an aesthetic for a home. But what should you do for decor if you don't plan to use your fireplace?
Gartenberg has seen decorative fireplaces staged with candles and candelabras, which is just fine with some buyers. “Sometimes buyers just want the hearth and mantelpiece in their home, and they decorate the fireplace as though it really works," Gartenberg says. “They can then enjoy the year-long mood of a fireplace without actually ever lighting it.”
Sara McDaniel, a Louisiana-based real estate entrepreneur, home renovation expert and owner of Simply Southern Cottage, has renovated and styled several homes with fireplaces. She embraces them as a focal point in the room, whether functioning or merely as decor. If you’ve got a working fireplace but don’t plan to use it, McDaniel recommends adding birch logs as a decorative element, for example.
The mantel is also a great spot to decorate, as long as you don’t go overboard. “There’s a purpose and a place for everything on my mantel,” McDaniel says. She loves to decorate with fresh greenery, usually cut directly from her yard. If she’s entertaining, she’ll add pops of color from fresh flowers. She’s also arranged mantels with books and other small groupings of decor. The type of decor is up to you, but to avoid being “matchy-matchy,” McDaniel suggests choosing odd numbers of items to avoid a symmetrical placement.
“At the end of the day, a fireplace is meant for warmth and also comfort,” Gartenberg says. “Owners of homes with decorative fireplaces should embrace their intent and find a way to decorate it that melds their own personal aesthetic while also using the utility of a working fireplace as inspiration behind their decorative choices.”