All my life I’ve had this weakness for run-down old houses. It’s like taking in stray animals; I want to save them. To make my addiction socially acceptable, I started fixing up bungalows and selling them for profit. Since I suspect there are more people out there like me, and since I can’t save every old house in America, I want to encourage others to do the same by sharing some of the things I’ve learned. You should always keep resale in mind when restoring your house, even if you intend to live in your dream bungalow or Queen Anne forever. Circumstances change, and you might have to sell. Most of the rules I’ve formulated in a decade of renovating for resale make good since whether you plan to turn the place over immediately or live there happily ever after. Here’s my punch list.
1. Buy the Right House at the Right Price
All of the real estate cliches about location are true: Buy the worst house in the best neighborhood; avoid houses on busy streets and other undesirable locations; don’t buy in a run-down neighborhood unless it has started to turn around.
Some additional rules apply to old houses. Don’t buy a house with an awkward floor plan, and there’s no such thing as a cosmetic fixer-upper. Because charm is expensive to put back, I only buy houses where most of the architectural elements are intact. Contrary to the advice of many real estate experts, it’s OK to buy a house with structural problems, but only at the right price. Granted, there’s no profit in rebuilding the foundation, but if you can get $25,000 off the price to cover the cost of repairs, you may come out ahead. Try to avoid houses with significant drainage problems, however; these can be complex and expensive to resolve.
2. If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
Many home renovators have a misguided tendency to rip out the old and do it all new—new plumbing, new wiring, new windows, and new drywall. These improvements may be well and good, but they do not add value to the house. My advice is to repair what is repairable, replace what is not, and spend your extra money on the kitchen.
3. Patch All the Plaster Cracks
Prospective home buyers believe that every plaster crack represents a huge structural problem—even though most plaster cracks are cosmetic. A few plaster washers, tape, and deft application of spackling compound or putty will work wonders on superficial cracks and holes.
4. Enhance the Architecture
Each style of residential architecture has its own vocabulary of design elements and materials. These details are what make the house “read” as Greek Revival, Arts & Crafts, or Shingle Style. As you renovate, let the house be what it is. Don’t try to turn a bungalow into a Queen Anne by adding spindlework. If the house is stucco, don’t cover it with wood siding, or vice versa. Maintain the original window configurations and patterns. Since the roof is a major character-defining feature of the house, avoid any alterations that affect the roofline.
5. There’s No Profit in Stripping Paint
On the exterior, scrape off loose paint, then prime and re-coat. On the interior, just refresh the paint if the woodwork is painted. (If it’s clear finished, don’t paint over varnish or shellac in an attempt to make the house “light and bright.”) The only surfaces worth stripping are hardware and other metals—they’re small and easy to strip, and polished hardware is like jewelry for the house.
Spend your money on details with impact. Potential buyers respond positively to gleaming wood floors, an attractive fireplace, polished hardware, appropriate light fixtures, and most important, color. All are relatively inexpensive to add to a house, and when done well, they create a more favorable impression than a $5,000 refrigerator.
6. The Most Important Room Is the Kitchen
People want the following amenities in a kitchen: a built-in dishwasher (you don’t need an expensive European model), disposal, frost-free refrigerator, gas stove, and sufficient cabinets and electrical outlets. As long as these elements are present, I’ve always found that the house sells quickly, even when the kitchen looks as old as the rest of the house.
This doesn’t mean you should overspend. Period-appropriate cabinetry and countertops have more impact than expensive appliances. Unfinished, custom, or semi-custom cabinets that you paint are not terribly expensive if you find the right cabinetmaker. Finish the counters with inexpensive tile ($5 per square foot). Appropriate drawer pulls and cabinet knobs are also relatively inexpensive if you buy them at builder’s supply stores. A nice-looking faucet shouldn’t cost more than $150. Simple light fixtures with brass canopies and glass shades are appropriate to most house styles, since old-house kitchens tend to be fairly utilitarian.
7. Bathrooms Pay You Back
A single bathroom is usually adequate for a two-bedroom house, but a house with three or more bedrooms should have at least a bathroom and a half or two full baths. Adding a second bath to a three-bedroom house will more than pay for itself in the next sale.
Bathrooms need a shower, tub (or shower-tub combination), sink, toilet, and some storage space. With old houses, it’s important to make bathrooms look like they belong in the house. A bath with hexagonal tile or beadboard wainscoting, clawfoot tub (with shower), wall-hung or pedestal sink with porcelain-handled faucets, and a simple wooden medicine cabinet would fit into any house built up until about 1930. (Obviously, houses built in 1820 did not have indoor plumbing, but in that case, the idea is to put in a bathroom that could have been added in 1885.) Houses from the 1920s or ’30s can have fabulous combinations of colored tile: lavender and green, peach and black, and so forth.
8. Paint Is Your Friend
Nothing else improves the house so much and yet costs so little—only 4 cents per square foot. I use the same interior color scheme on every house I restore. I paint the formal rooms and bedrooms a color I call “nebulous peach.” The peach color has more warmth than the typical off-white that experts recommend, yet it is neutral enough to go with most decor. I use a lighter tint of the wall color above the picture molding and on the ceiling. If the woodwork is painted, give it a fresh coat of cream-colored semi-gloss. I paint kitchens and bathrooms a creamy off-white or vanilla.
A good coat of exterior paint is extremely important for curb appeal. Since it’s impossible to make a good choice from a paint chip, buy test paints in quart or sample sizes and experiment with different colors. In my experience, the body color should be darker than the trim, and sashes and doors should be a dark or deep color. The trim should be lighter than the body color, or a different color with the same value. (Two different colors with similar values will appear in roughly the some position on the strip paint chips you get at the paint store.)
Generally, warm and muted colors work best. Avoid blue, which is difficult to get right. Other choices to shun are bright primary colors, clear pastels (pastels need to be grayed), and drab colors like olive or mustard. Don’t use white or beige with brown trim—every other house on the street will be that color, and you want yours to stand out. Here are a few tried-and-true combinations, arranged by 1) body color, 2) trim color, and 3) sash or accent color:
- chamois, cream, and maroon
- terracotta, cream, and eggplant
- terracotta, sage green, and burgundy
- straw, pale yellow, and dark green
- gray-brown, rust, and dark green
- gray, white, and maroon
- rust, chamois, and teal blue
9. Plant Flowers in the Front Yard
Use as many as you can reasonably fit around the foundation or in planting beds. Flowers are colorful, welcoming, and add to the curb appeal. I buy my flowers entirely by size because I don’t have time for the landscape to mature; whether your restoration takes six months or two years, it’s a good bet that landscaping will be the last item you address. I buy specimens that take up a lot of visual space for $3 or $4 apiece: cosmos, euryops, marguerites, snapdragons, salvia (sage), coreopsis, agapanthus (lilies-of-the-Nile), alyssum, petunias, and geraniums. While you can use my list as a guide, always choose flowers that grow best in your part of the country.
10. Stage the House for Sale
First of all, the house should be spotless. Wash the windows and get rid of excess junk. The house should look spacious. Pack up everything personal: family photos, refrigerator magnets, political posters—these make people uncomfortable in subtle ways. Contrary to the fresh-baked-bread school of thought, give up cooking. The only universally acceptable smell is lemon. The house needs to look homey and inviting, but not like you live there. Like a nice hotel room, the house should be welcoming, but neutral. Put away all of the detritus of daily life: hair dryers, newspapers, dirty dishes. Even in a Victorian-era house, the decor should be simple. If you’ve already moved out, leave a few pieces of furniture and some rugs behind. Since most people can’t figure out whether or not their bed will fit in the bedroom unless there is a bed present for comparison, a furnished house usually sells better.
11. Know When to Make Compromises
If you want to sell your house for profit, a museum-level restoration is probably out of the question. Keep in mind that the house doesn’t have to be perfect, just good. Choose the right places to compromise. For instance, I never hide the dishwasher, and I often use inexpensive tile, reproduction light fixtures, and used appliances. On the other hand, if there’s millwork missing, I would spend $350 to have a knife made so that I could match the existing molding profiles with the new millwork. some choices can be difficult; for instance, should you spend $850 to replace missing shades for the original Art Deco chandeliers, or should you take them out and put in reproduction chandeliers at $250 each? Ultimately, such decisions are up to you.
In the end, renovating a house in a respectful way is a public service. We are the caretakers of these houses. They were here before us, and they will be here after we’re gone. Restoring a house to useful life will not only improve your neighborhood and your community, but it also can improve your bank balance.