What is it exactly that sets one home apart from another? Why do some homes radiate such appeal even when located in the same area and of the same basic design as less attractive houses? More important, how can we make our homes stand out above all the other houses in the neighborhood?
This is not an idle question or one that serves only our pride of ownership. Warmth, charm, beauty, uniqueness and livability are what people want most when they buy a home. Besides the daily pleasure of an attractive and functional living environment, an appealing home can easily return a 25% to 30% increased profit over similar homes of the same basic style, size, configuration and location. As a 35 year veteran of the real estate profession, I have seen time and time again where style and grace add up to the maximum return on an owner's housing investment while poor taste and planning adds up to disappointment and frustration. The sad part is that the unfortunate owner who is forced to sell his or her home for less than market value generally puts just as much time, money, and effort into their property as the successful owner. What then makes the difference? For while the difference between homes is obvious, how they got that way is not. Of course, it's tempting to say that some people just have a flare for artistic and useful design--a gift.
But what these clever artists of their living environment really have in common is a way to look at the problems most homes have and see how these problems could be resolved. This is the single most important skill anyone interested in buying a home must have. Because most of the homes put up for sale are there because the owners have found fault with them and want to leave. Excellent homes rarely come on the market and when they do they are snapped up for top dollar--often much in excess of the intrinsic value of the house based on the quantifiable elements such as square footage, number of rooms, location, etc. Simply put: grace and beauty sells. Here then are five ways to conceive of any house in terms that do not require an ethereal gift from above to transform it into a home of lasting beauty and wide appeal.
1. Evaluate the size and placement of rooms in relationship to each other.
Form follows function. What is each room's function? Is it a private space or one where friends and family will gather? How well will each room function in terms of your family and your needs? There is no right answer here. Some people prefer homes with many smaller rooms while others prefer large open spaces. In addition, the relationship between room sizes is important. Large living spaces and small bedrooms, for instance, resonate poorly with most people's sense of proportion. If a room or area fails to meet our needs walls can be added or subtracted. Additional living areas can be created in appropriate basement areas and even by raising the roof to add another story.
However, there are limits in terms of cost and practicality as to how a given floor plan might successfully be rearranged. Bearing walls (those that support structures like roofs and floors) are difficult and often expensive to remove or relocate. Many non-bearing walls contain pipes and other mechanical elements that must be considered. While walls can be "bumped out" to add more space to rooms, considerations such as set-back and the location of underground structures must be factored in. Finally, though existing rooms can easily be judged functionally, how changes made to these same rooms will affect the home's sense of proportion is not always apparent. This is where an architectural designer is invaluable. But in the initial evaluation and planning stages a sketch may be all that is needed to determine the feasibility of a project. Design kits are available with standard sized furnishings to give an approximate idea how the room will function after a floor plan alterations.
2. Pay close attention to traffic flow.
This essential element of any fine home is often overlooked. Well, not so much overlooked as misunderstood. The most effective way to judge a floor plan for traffic flow is to start at the entrance. This is not necessarily the front door but rather the entrance where friends and family arrive. Is this entrance welcoming? Is there a covered place to stand outside? Is the entranceway set off from the rest of the room it opens on? Benches, plants, and book shelves add appeal. Windows and side-lights bring light and warmth into the area. Decorations say 'welcome'. Now walk through the home. Is the shortest path for friends and family members to their destination through the center of main living areas? Can this be altered by furniture placement or structural alterations and additions so that a circular path is created around the parameters of main rooms? On the other hand, a floor plan that is more like a maze--especially if one private room such as a bedroom must be reached from another private room--creates a sense of disharmony and poorly used space. Extraneous hallways and other transition areas offer little return for the area they consume.
3. Let there be light!
Nothing improves the ambiance of a home more than natural light. Main rooms benefit from multiple exposures by bringing in light in from different directions during the course of the day. Kitchens and breakfast rooms benefit from morning light, living and dining rooms from afternoon and evening light. Windows can be added or enlarged. Even rooms where additional windows cannot be added can receive sunlight from light tubes piped from the exterior. Windows can be arranged for passive solar heating and cooling. Roof overhangs, awning, and deep-set window openings, besides adding a sense of shelter and protection, can limit the amount of solar radiation in the summer and increase it in the winter. Vegetation can also be arranged to shade the window and flood the window with light and solar warmth in the months when the leaves have fallen. Energy saving window treatments can be employed to keep heat in while brightening up the interior of the home at night. In the warm seasons these same window treatments can reduce air-conditioning costs.
4. Harmonize the house with the location.
How does the house relate to its surroundings? What is the view from each window? What is the noise level? How can privacy be maintained? Can these elements be improved by removing or adding fencing or landscape elements? Is there a nice view where there is no window? Could one be added? What about entrance and egress to the exterior spaces of a home? Sparse exits and entrances can make a house feel constricted, trapped. Consider the private garden. Is there a space--perhaps at the side of the house adjacent to the master bedroom--that could be turned into a private garden or retreat? If a garden space is not available, a private deck or balcony could be added to open a room to the outdoors.
The front porch too is an often overlooked ingredient in the overall appeal of a home. Porches are an excellent way to add architectural appeal that both assimilates a home to its surroundings and sets it apart from others. Consider transforming a porch into a three-season room with the addition of screens and glazing. However, converting a porch into a fully heated room may cause a problem with the foundation if it was not intended as such. Solar rooms are also in demand, though often located in more private areas. Large glass doors open the home to the exterior. Walls can be made of glass or glass brick. Bay windows, gazebos, covered walkways, patios, walled gardens and courtyards, breezeways and trellises, add enormous appeal.
Above all, blend the outdoors with the interior in a seamless flowing manner that does not require a separate effort to use. Spaces that are a bother to get to are rarely used to their full potential.
Decks should be thought of in the same way as any room addition. How will it be used? How will it be approached? Is it in a naturally occurring spot where people naturally congregate? Can the usefulness of a deck be enhanced by covering it? How about screens? Or are there other areas of the home that already meet the requirements of inclement or buggy days?
5. Integrate material and finishes as an essential element of the overall design.
Use materials that connect the home to its outdoor environment. For instance, a home on an open lot might use the sun and sky to bathe rooms in light while offering cool shade in others. A wooded lot might call for a house with natural wood siding and floors while fostering warm interior colors in contrast to the greens of the forrest. Elements of stone might be brought in from a location with natural stone formations. Colors from the outside can be brought in. A house can be made a part of a historic community by choosing period colors. Textures and color give a house character when in keeping with the style and utility of the home we create. Rooms and areas can be brought into harmony by repeating these choices throughout. Even the raw building elements of a house such as rafters, beams and brick can be blended into the home to create a sense of permanence and strength.
These five are the main areas to focus on when making living space decisions. They are all about function and form. Their essential value is as old as civilization itself. In fact, Aristotle spoke of the Four Causes of objects that produce form and function as truth and beauty:
Material: That out of which something is made.
Maker: The means by which something is made; who made it.
Result: That which is made, the thing itself.
Purpose: What it is made for.
A bit abstract, perhaps, but if you think about the elements of a home in these terms a value can be perceived and appreciated. Now all that remains is to determine if a particular house can be modified to improve its essential beauty and utility at a cost likely to be recouped at sale. In the meantime, your home will be a constant source of pride and enjoyment as long as you own it.