A CLEANUP Fun stuff like planting pansies and hanging new curtains can come only after the grunt work. (Call the kids!) Move the trashcans and clean around them. Clear the porch or entry steps and sweep. Hose everything down. Wash the windows (at least in front). Wash down doors and trim around the entry. Clear the gutters. Prune plants that touch the house. Get rid of the end-of-winter pileup to create an outdoor room. Stow shovels and sports gear someplace else. A few traditional, well-proportioned pieces give a sense of order and invite rest, for a nice “welcome home.” Consider a hammock, outdoor wicker, a lineup of green, white, or primary-color rockers, a bench or table, all arranged for conversations or napping.
PAINT You don’t have to paint the whole house to spiff it up. The entryway, especially door and threshold, may need a touchup long before other areas. Paint is the ultimate cosmetic, and inexpensive if you pick your spot and then do it yourself. Rejuvenate a worn entry or add new personality with a punch of color. (Historically, the entry door was often done in an accent color, different from body and trim, perhaps the same color as shutters.) Other rewarding places to paint: porch parts (rails and posts in trim color, balusters or spindles in house body color), porch decking (medium value to hide dirt), ornaments (don’t go crazy picking things out), and window sash (try dark rather than light). When the time does come to paint the house, use paint colors and placement to highlight (or fix) proportions and make even the blandest house worth a second look.
CONTAINER GARDENS Annuals planted in containers—set on the entry path, steps, or porch—add exuberant color and life for up to three seasons, even if it’s not in your budget to redo the landscape or plant perennial borders. Install hooks on the porch for hanging planters. Think about window boxes, too, on the first floor, or across a prominent bay. And specimen grasses planted in the dooryard will give you years of low-maintenance appeal.
HARDWARE & DETAILS Whether your entry door is old or new, you might swap out the builder’s hardware for a period-style entry set in iron, brass, or bronze. Throw in a matching doorbell and perhaps a mail slot. House numbers, too, make a period statement: gold leaf on a transom, hand-painted numbers on a street-front mailbox, or numerals made of anything from ceramic tile to brass, iron, or bronze. These are available in styles from early American to Art Deco, with fonts reminiscent of Victoriana, the bungalow era, Art Nouveau, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Also, it’s amazing how often a tidy approach is marred by a cheap and dented (or plastic) mailbox. Again, that’s a small but significant place to splurge on good materials and period style.
A NEW DOOR The best door is a well- maintained original from the period of the house, but we’re not all so lucky. If paint doesn’t fix the problem, consider springing for a new (high quality) front door, especially if your old one is energy- inefficient or badly worn, or is a style anachronism. A few manufacturers and, of course, specialty woodworks sell doors in appropriate period styles for houses Colonial to Italianate to Craftsman. Avoid “earlying-up” the style of the door.
Also: A wooden screen door adds appeal for little cost; just coordinate its proportions to that of the prime door. The screen door may be painted to match trim or to blend with the door behind it.
WINDOWS Old windows often need repair, rarely replacing. But beyond the obvious fixes—a good washing, weather-stripping, painting—how do they “read” as part of the façade? Many old-house styles were meant to have dark sash, such as black or brown, bottle green, maroon or Indian red, which helps glass recede. (Does your white sash create a blank stare?) How about curtains? I put three lace panels in a prominent oriel window and it gave a finished, superbly old-fashioned impression to the whole front of the house.
Curb appeal comes from adding dimension, too: a window box set on corbels, awnings and plantings near (or on) the house, louvered shutter-blinds that create shadows as they frame pretty windows.
Properly hung wood shutters and canvas awnings add dimension, as do urns at the doorstep. Tall grasses and a flag add movement.
AWNINGS Expense can be reasonable (for a single porch awning, say) to more significant, but again the rewards are high. Old-fashioned canvas-type awnings evoke another era like nothing else, while cutting air-conditioning costs and protecting furnishings from fading.
SHUTTERS An old house deserves real wood shutters in the right size, so this isn’t a cheap redo. Still, shutters add immediate appeal that brings out the history and style of Storybook, Colonial Revival, Dutch Colonial, and cottage architecture. Remember, you need not add shutters to every window or on every side of the house.
LIGHTING Replace a home-center pot-metal entry lamp with a period reproduction (often for under $200) and change the quality statement of the entry in one move. Every period is represented, from New England Colonial to Southwest Mission. Look at porch ceiling lights as well as wall brackets (sconces). With a bigger budget, you can add lighting to the driveway, entry path, or porch. Beauty comes from not only the fixtures themselves, but also from the soft lighting accents on specimen trees or the house. The change can be dramatic. And safety is improved.