Design and Style
As a city girl, this makes me edgy. There is no way I want to use a tub with a view for miles. Is that just me?
Privacy is in the eye of the beholder. When looking at houses or condos for sale, I notice whether the bathroom windows or doors create a not-private-enough situation. Some of my clients mind bathrooms that are off the kitchen, living room, or dining room because they find it inhibiting to use a bathroom adjacent to a room full of people. They prefer first floor bathrooms that open to a short hallway between rooms or have a door that somehow opens away from the main social room. This arrangement is commonly designed in older center-entrance Colonials, Capes, Ranches and some more modern Colonials.
Most of the directly-into-the-social-space bathrooms are add-ons. As we have discussed many times here, additions done without the advice of an architect is a mistake. Some mistakes are bigger than others.FULL ENTRY
We've dodged a number of bullets since my wife Karen and I bought a decrepit village colonial near Natick center a decade ago this summer and began renovating it.
First off, we managed to avoid an electrical fire, a miracle given the knob and tube wiring in the house was so archaic the lights in the house would dim when we turned on our small toaster oven.
We also lucked out and never fell through to the basement while using the bathroom, a real possibility given how soft and rotten the flooring around the toilet was.
And thankfully no one was working in the yard when an old and defunct chimney tumbled down into the yard from its ungainly perch atop what was then the bump-out kitchen.
The worn wiring, creaky bathroom and other unpleasant features of the old house are fast becoming distant memories now, with Scott, our trusty neighborhood builder having overhauled and added onto our old house a couple years ago.
But in a blast from the past, the last piece yet to be revamped, the garage, came close to doing me in last night.
Paul Morse, owner of Morse Constructions Inc returns today. He is a Universal Design Certified Remodeler and an Aging in Place Specialist as well as an experienced general contractor.
Universal design doesn’t mean institutional bathrooms
When you walk into a beautiful bathroom with a wide entrance, large shower with multiple shower heads, wall mirrors extending all the way to the sinks and adjustable cabinetry, I’m willing to bet that “universal design” is not the description that pops into your head. Most people seem to equate universal design with accommodation for physical disabilities, which, unfortunately, often seems to mean an institutional look to many people.
Myth #1: Universal Design is just for people with physical disabilities or for aging in place.
Universal design is the art of creating environments that are usable by all people without the need for adaptation or specialized design. Universal design concepts are used to create living spaces that work well whether you are short or tall, young or old, healthy or sick. It could mean creating a bathroom where a stool for a child to reach the sink is built toslide out of the way when not in use. It could also mean using adjustable cabinetry so a very tall person doesn’t have to stoop over while washing his or her face.
Myth #2: Universal Design is ugly
When people think of universal design, they often have images of ugly grab bars stuck in their head. In reality, many of the bathrooms that people admire may have subtly incorporated universal design principles. Consider these universal design elements in the bathroom:
Thursday, July 26, is the 22nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I have long been a supporter of universal design and regularly work with disabled home-buyers as part of my real estate practice. I have been frustrated in my efforts not only by the older housing stock, crowded neighborhoods and lack of land for building. I also fume over the new developments that I see popping up which lack access for disabled buyers.
People with mobility impairments (this includes people who use wheelchairs, have cardiac or pulmonary disease, as well as people with arthritis) are all ages, races and classes. Not all of them want to live in tower-style condo buildings. Some would prefer condos in small associations where they can enjoy a yard and a neighborhood. Some want single-family homes in established neighborhoods.
Look around where you live. See how many places built after 1990 could be home to someone with mobility impairment. Even now, new construction is rarely universal design unless it is a big multistory development.FULL ENTRY
There is a trend in house renovation that tends towards the fewer walls the better. Some of my clients like it. Some of my clients hate it.
In the standard two-family house-turned-into-two-condos, flippers frequently do more than polish the floors and put in some granite counters. Many tear down the wall between the living room and dining room, or the wall between the dining room and kitchen, or both. Last year, I had a client who wanted a renovated place with all its walls. It took until this spring for her to get her place. The sellers boast of “open concept.” Are you into it?
In Cape Cod houses, the living room, dining room and kitchen become one big space, with a stairway in the middle. The more moderate version has the kitchen and dining room open to make one big eat-in kitchen.FULL ENTRY
Even in a single family house, a drummer can become unwelcome in a neighborhood – especially a neighborhood where the houses are close together. It is even worse when the drummer lives in a condo or two-family house.
One of the bidding war properties that my clients saw (and made an unsuccessful Offer on) had a music studio in the top floor. It was a great place for them, since their younger daughter plays drums. The attic was wired for music equipment and a sound board. It had double pane windows with an additional Plexiglas layer on all of them. The agent told me that the neighbors told her it still wasn’t really sound-proof.
I saw another studio last year that had baffles that fit in front of the windows. They were made of the egg-carton shaped foam of a studio and were mounted on movable boards. They were rolled in front of the window and rolled away when not in use. I liked that better, as a concept, because it didn’t block the air flow when not in use. I don’t know which worked better.FULL ENTRY
Yesterday, when I was musing about 1980s-era condos, I remembered the first few minutes of this episode of Doogie Houser, MD. It captured the monotone, cookie-cutter nature of condos built at that time. It captured how silly it is to be excited about living in a place like that. Those condos were built to be a background for a life, neutral. So, unless someone already has established decorating taste, they would remain boring. A young man like Doogie does not belong there.
The episode goes on the make fun of the super run-down bohemian loft in Venice. That’s a blank canvass of another kind. It’s the kind that appeals to a college-aged guy with an income.FULL ENTRY
Today, I am not so much writing about the late 1980s bubble and subsequent crash, but about the properties left behind.
For those of you who were not there, here’s some history: In the late 1980s, there was a housing bubble which led to a housing crash. Many houses and condos were renovated for resale. Some were just turned over, as is. There was a lot of new construction, especially condo buildings. And, there were lots of people stuck at the top. I was working in human services at the time of that bubble. I remember the rhetoric that I should buy something, live there for a couple of years, then sell it to gain a 20 percent down payment on a house. I didn’t buy it, literally. The teacher-friend who pushed the hardest that I should buy subsequently “bought and bailed” on her condo purchase.
Are properties built or renovated in the 1980s old properties?
Structurally, they are much younger than the average housing stock around Boston. If the 1985 place has an original boiler it is beyond its expected life-span. Some are on their second roof layer, which is getting old, too. Yet, 1985 construction has grounded outlets (not to GFI or GFCI standards), no lead paint, and many have double-paned windows and some wall insulation.
We have a big stock of houses built between 1900 and 1930 here. A lot of that property aged very nicely. Housing built since 1950 or so does not seem to maintain its grace as well. Do you agree, or is it me?FULL ENTRY
Happy Thanksgiving to you all. Some of you may find yourselves pushing and shoving through the Black Friday crowds. Others may be relaxing at home or back at your workplaces. Wherever you find yourselves today, I hope you all enjoyed Thanksgiving in good health.
When you think about yesterday, Thanksgiving Day, does an image come to mind as your mental picture of Thanksgiving? Does that image take place in a dining room? Is it a dining room you currently own or rent, or one owned or rented by someone you know? Or does Thanksgiving remind you more of outdoor activity or a living room full of football fans? Tell us what room you associate with Thanksgivings past and present.
Whether a dining room is “necessary” is part of the initial discussion that I have with my clients before we hit the road. This is not a solely urban-suburban question. There are city dwellers who demand a dining room and suburban ones who plan to use theirs as a playroom.
Sam Schneiderman, broker owner of Great Boston Home Team is our Monday guy. Today he continues the discussion about restrictions that he began last week.
In addition to the restrictions that we discussed last week, there are other restrictions that can affect how an owner can use his or her own property.
Condominium or co-op documents:
Condominium documents, including rules and regulations, if any, often include restrictions regarding pets, ability to rent, parking, storage, use of condo units, voting rights, insurance, use of common areas, and financial matters including the condo association's ability to borrow money for the association on behalf of all owners. Condo docs also address who is a trustee (A/K/A Member of the Board of Directors) and what powers and responsibilities trustees have.
Easements are used when one party has the ability to use someone else’s property. Typically, easements are used for shared driveways or utility access. It is not uncommon to see utility easements when underground pipes are beneath or planned on someone’s property. A utility easement grants the utility company the right to access a particular area of someone’s property to install or maintain their utilities. Easements should be noted on property deeds.
When some neighborhoods were developed, the developer created a set of community covenants to regulate the appearance of the neighborhood. Any aspect of a neighborhood can be regulated through community covenants provided the restrictions are legal. In many cases, community covenants restrict the style or size home, garage or other building that can be built within the neighborhood, the type number of vehicles that can be kept by owners (no campers, boats, etc.), types of antennas possible on homes, pets, landscaping, or the colors that homes can be painted. Community covenants should be noted on property deeds.
Last Saturday, I played hookie from real estate. I visited the apartment that my niece Allison recently moved into. It’s a loft apartment. It made me wonder how she and her soon-to-be husband will use this space for two adults, and later as they have the children they hope for.
It has one-bedroom with a loft. I’ve seen lots of lofts and I have never really understood how they work. In this one, there’s a stair to an open loft room above the living room. The kitchen is semi-open to the living room, too.
Then there is one bedroom and a bath on the far side of the living room.
I think there are too many sound issues with lofts. In this apartment, sound from the kitchen or living room will disturb someone sleeping or working in the loft. So the loft can’t be a bedroom for a guest or a baby. That noise will also interfere if it’s an office.
What good is the loft? Lofts are not extra rooms, functionally. At best, they are extra space to put furniture that can only be used some of the time. Quiet activities in the loft get interfered with by noise in the connecting room. Or, the connecting room has someone in it, trying to sleep, which limits the loft to only very quiet activity. Is this really worth it? I’ve seen lots of loft end up as dusty junk rooms because they are not as useful as people think they are.FULL ENTRY
Last year, I had a client who wanted a condo big enough to fit a Super Bowl party. Last Sunday, I went to that party. Behind that request are two questions: “How big is a Super Bowl party room?” and “What does that room function as for the other 364 nights a year?”
For this client, having a fully open public space did the trick. His Super Bowl party room was his living room, dining room and kitchen – all in one Great Room. The rest of the year, there’s a dining room behind the living room couch instead of rows of folding chairs.
For some people, having a Great Room instead of three rooms -- living room, dining room, and kitchen – just would not work. Great Room living requires good clutter management and a tolerance for lack of sound separation.
Choosing the size and configurations of social space poses a bigger challenge than choosing private space. Social space needs to be large for guests, but not overwhelming or dysfunctional for everyday use. (Unless you are super-rich, you are not going to own a party room that holds 50 people, then rarely use it.)
Here's one thing that would be great to see less off in the coming year - cookie cutter kitchen designs.
Enough with the granite countertops, stainless steel appliances and monotone wood cabinets.
Granite fans, gush all you want, but all I can think about is the housing bubble and foolish buyers tripping over themselves at open houses, agog at some fresh paint and hardwood floors.
Well, if you are like me and have become nauseated with what Builder Magazine calls the "granite standard" kitchen, you just may be in luck.
Experimentation is coming back to kitchen design, with homeowners increasingly ditching granite to try out everything from glass to concrete countertops, Builder notes.FULL ENTRY
My wife is a big fan of white lights during the holiday season. And I have no grounds to complain - Karen braved 17 degree weather a few weeks ago to string them along our front porch and railing of our Natick fixer-upper.
Still, now that the white lights have taken over the world - or at least the upscale suburbs - I find them somewhat monotonous.
But luckily, since I live in a more middle-of-the-road town, I don't have to look far for a contrast.
Our neighbor Richard is a fan of colored lights - he also likes to put them up on his front porch.
My three little ones, 6, 5 and 3, are big fans of colored lights. In fact, they are begging for lights "like Mr. Foster's."
EngineerChic is a fan of Craftsman Bungalows - a style popular back in the early 1900s. In fact, she'd like to go and visit a few to pick up details for her own home.
"The style I really love, though they are so scarce here in Mass, are Craftsman Bungalows. I love the extended eaves & exposed rafter tails, and the substantial porch columns. It seems like the Greater Boston area missed out on that trend, though.
I would like to drive by a good selection b/c we're thinking of adding some craftsman details to our home, it would be good to see some in person. The 3 times we were house hunting in MA we always looked outside 128 & inside 495, so maybe that's why I think they are scarce (they are scarce in that area). I'd find one rarely - always on the way to look at some other house."
Well you are in luck, EngineerChic. There are a quite a few of these charming homes - mainly dating to the early 20th century - spread across the Boston area. Wakefield boasts several examples - others can be found in Norwood and Lexington. Here are more examples of the Craftsman Bungalow style.
But as I hunted for local examples of these bungalows, I was struck by the variety and range of home design in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Starting with the Federalist style - OK, now we are dipping a bit back into the late 18th century - you can see an explosion of creativity right up into the 1920s.FULL ENTRY
My mother never shed her love of Victorians, having grown up in a rambling Queen Anne back in the 1930s in Montclair, New Jersey.
Back then, Victorians were out of favor - enough so that her father, an English teacher, could afford to rent one.
Tastes are funny - my mother's desires/dreams certainly rubbed off on me. I recently found myself with my wife Karen driving around the Rust Belt town in Ohio she grew up in, drooling over the rambling but dilapidated late 19th century homes you can pick up for an easy $15,000 or $20,000.
No one wants to live in the older part of town now. Anyone who could afford to bought into the newer subdivisions on the other side of the railroad tracks in the 60s and 70s.
Still, the closest thing I will probably ever get to a Victorian is my fixer-upper near Natick Center - I guess you can call it a village colonial.
Well if you like old homes and you live in Greater Boston, you have certainly come to the right place. Check out these census numbers - we have one of the largest collections of older homes this side of the Atlantic!
I am hanging out at the hospital this morning with my 84-year-old mother, Nena, who is scheduled for leg surgery.
Anyway, it has me thinking about my parents - who I adore - but who have never been the savviest customers when it comes to real estate.
That's a long story, better told another time, or maybe not at all.
But one lesson I can take from their real estate misadventures is what not to do once you start putting together plans for that retirement dream home.
It's very simple: Don't build or buy anything with more than one story.FULL ENTRY
I made a policy of not doing first showings at night. So my house-showing hours get noticeably shorter, now that we have reached the Autumnal Equinox (September 22 at 1:27 PM, EDT according to the U.S. Naval Observatory). In a month or so, there will be no after-work-hours showings until next March. During the longest days of summer, I can show vacant property until 8:30 at night. (Occupied homes generally have earlier cut-off times.)
I found night-time first showings gave the wrong information or not enough information. If a house doesn’t have enough active light bulbs, it shows awfully at night. This same house may show fairly well in the daytime. Empty houses without enough light are downright creepy at night. Even if the house is well set up for showings, a buyer can’t make a decision until that buyer has seen the house in the daylight. Why?
Because people react to light! We are not plants, but most people either really need light or think they need light. Some people get sick or depressed in the winter for lack of light, so if their house is shadowy they are doubly doomed. Buyers simply need to see a house in the daylight before buying it.FULL ENTRY
I did a piece a few months ago for the Globe West on builders downsizing to meet new demand for smaller and cheaper homes below the $500,000 mark.
Yet apparently that has not meant the end of the McMansion.
According to this recent Boston Sunday Globe Magazine piece, the number of suburban tear downs is actually on the rise again.
However, one thing that gets lost in the never ending McMansion story is the demographic and economic changes it heralds.
It seems pretty obvious to me, but I have had a running debate on this blog over this issue.
Basically, we are saying goodbye to a whole generation of modest capes and ranches built after World War II for middle and working class families.
And they are being replaced by hulking monstrosities built to house relatively wealthy executives working in the financial services, biotech and high-tech fields.
But this is far more than just a change in housing tastes - it represents a demographic shift as well.FULL ENTRY
One of the things that makes house valuation difficult is that every house is different from every other house. It’s true even when they are built the same size: same footprint, and on lots that are the same size and shape. From the get-go, there a subtle variations in regard to position on the street, sunlight angles, and such.
But it is over the years that the real changes happen.
A client of mine bought a 1950s Cape Cod style home on a block of very similar Cape Cod style homes. They were not only similar in layout, but the yards were all more or less the same. My clients bought it in 1994 and sold it in 1999 to trade up. My clients bought their Cape from an older couple. It was very clean and neat, with a lot of original features in very good shape. None of the Capes on this street had any additions, so they were still all the same, outside.
Recently, I showed a house for sale on this street. The whole time I was there, I had the feeling I was in the house my client’s bought in 1994.FULL ENTRY
Sometimes a hijack needs its own page. Sophia O. wants to talk about more than the countertops of a good kitchen. She wrote:
… please allow a slight thread hijack as I complain not about countertops, but sinks. Rona, you said your clients were "real cooks" who want a "great kitchen." I count myself in that category, and I am so tired of listings hyping a "cook's kitchen" with the smallest sinks in the known universe. You've seen 'em, right? Seriously, it's like contractors have no clue that those tiny, round sinks barely hold a 3 qt. saucepan, let alone a Dutch oven or a roasting pan.
Pay attention, listing agents: granite + stainless steel does not equal a "cook's kitchen." All those trappings are worthless if I can't make a good stew!
One of the jokes in real estate is that “gourmet kitchens” are bought, but never used. The sad thing is that it is often true. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
Yes, Sophia, I have seen the kitchens with tiny sinks, too. I think the designer assumes that everything goes in the dishwasher!
Today’s topic: what makes a good kitchen?
Last weekend, I worked with buyers who are real cooks. They want a cook’s stove and a great kitchen. And they said, “we don’t want to pay for a useless granite kitchen.” It reminded me of an entry I wrote a while back. In the estimation of some agents and some consumers, granite was getting trite, late in 2008. I wrote that I was pleased with the demise of granite. Well, reports of its death were premature. I’m a big girl and can admit when I’m wrong. A year and a half later, I am still seeing granite as the most common choice for a new kitchen. Is granite ever going out of style? Is it like hardwood floors or is it like stucco interior walls?
Here’s what I wrote about it October 27, 2008:
I am pleased to see the death of another house-furnishing fad. As of this summer, sales of granite are down. I have been waiting for this...granite is out! I have to admit, I have never liked granite, but for a while, my clients wanted it. Then about a year ago, I started to hear “granite, blah, blah...” or “I am so sick of granite and stainless steel.” I think granite has died a natural death, gone the way of harvest gold bathtubs, paneling and Navaho White paint.
Last Monday, Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home Team discussed paying a premium on a top-notch property. This week, he discusses when it might not be so appropriate to pay top dollar:
It’s not uncommon for someone to buy a property that they like because of their unique circumstances, requirements or taste. When that happens, the buyer often thinks that when it comes time to sell, they’ll find a buyer that will appreciate the property’s “special qualities” as much as they do.FULL ENTRY
You probably know the type of property that I’m talking about:
Maybe the owner was an avid tennis player or basketball player and the house abuts public tennis or basketball courts out back. (Think non-stop bounce, bounce, bounce from morning ‘til the courts close at night). Maybe it’s a big beautiful house on a main street with a small yard that worked great for the owner’s older family, but won’t resell well to families with younger children. Maybe the house has an awkward floor plan that worked well for the owner, but would not suit the needs of most others in the property’s market segment. Maybe the owner over-improved the house to the point where it is the best house in town, but it’s not the town’s best neighborhood.
Back in 2007, my client decided that he couldn't live with the kitchen torn up, didn't want to move into a rental, and an addition with a new kitchen and a family room would not solve his problem. The addition would let him use the existing kitchen during the construction and add the family room he wants. But afterward, the house would be too big. He said something like this: “It’s not about the amount of space; it is about the useful quality of the space.” The addition would make his house bigger, but leaves wasted space to be heated, maintained and cleaned.
You need to know how much and what kind of space you need. That takes some imagination. Here’s my advice for thinking this through:
Set your priorities: Which rooms do you spend the most time in? Seek a house that has those rooms the way you want them. If you need to skimp somewhere, do it on the rooms that you use less of your day.
Think into the future: If you family size is likely to expand or contract, imagine your space needs based on those changes. This could be as simple as choosing a level lot, so that you can fence it in for the safety of children and dogs. It can be as complicated as imagining the space needs of children who are not yet born in a house you want to stay in until they get out of high school.
Isolated or social space: Consider not only the room sizes, but also how the rooms connect. Isolated spaces are good for sleeping and working. Open spaces are good for social time. If you have enough of both, you can switch their use as the number of family members changes.
So what happened to that buyer? He and his wife went looking at trade-up houses. They got pretty frustrated.
Then opted to build a modular. I hope they live happily ever after; it was a lot of work and time to get where they are today.
Does this encourage you or discourage you from trading up? Why?
I am a fan of old homes. There is a charm you won't find in most new cookie cutter construction, not to mention a durability rare now in our throw-away society.
So I was cheered by the news a tech mogul has taken a liking to a classic Newport mansion.
The head of a private equity fund controlled by Oracle founder Larry Ellison, a multibillionaire and one of the world's richest men, has plunked down $10.5 million for the Astors' Beechwood estate.
Apparently, Ellison and gang got a steal. The property, a 39-room, 1850s Italianate mansion was first listed for more than $18 million. It was then put on the market again for $12.9 million before selling for $10.5 million.
What the rich do with their money is their business, but most seem content right now with obese and ugly new suburban mansions or overpriced high-rise penthouses.
The robber barons of the Gilded Age may have been a ruthless bunch, but at least they left behind something worth looking at. I am not sure the same can be said for the collection of mostly boring hotel condo towers that have sprouted up across Boston.
I’ve seen thousands of homes in “the aughties,” so I notice what has changed since January 1, 2000. There are some things that are new; some things were available in the 90’s, but became common in the new millennium. There are some old, outdated things that are (finally!) being removed from homes.
I postulated in June 2008 that there was a “tipping point” where something new becomes expected (like double paned windows) and something old becomes unacceptable, like knob and tube wiring. (Last month, we discussed knob and tube wiring. It was pandemic and insurable in the 1990’s. Now, it is being removed, house by house, as a requirement of homeowner’s insurance companies.)
The most obvious functional changes involve energy consumption. Energy features, like storm doors and attic and floor insulation, are common now; they have come to be expected. In the next decade, I expect wall insulation and programmable thermostats to be added to that list.FULL ENTRY
If I have to describe one house that is a snapshot of an “aughties*” house this is it:
It is a colonial. It has high ceilings and wood floors. A half bath is hidden somewhere on the first floor. The living room and dining room are smallish; the family room is big and off the kitchen. Three or four bedrooms are upstairs with a hall bath and a master bath. The basement is unfinished.
It has a big kitchen with an island, black granite counters, stainless steel appliances, ceramic tile floor. There is track lighting with little hanging lights with colored glass shades. There’s nowhere to sit except along a raised counter-top because the table is nearby in the next room.
The bathrooms have dappled beige ceramic tile that looks sort of like stone, or is stone. Master bathrooms have Jacuzzi-type tubs that are too short to soak in. There is a separate shower that is big enough for two people. (In a retrofitted older home, there is a coffin-sized shower.)
Some houses just don’t make sense!
I see strange layouts mostly in older homes. When homeowners make changes, it is generally an improvement for them, so they don’t always notice how awkward the end product is.FULL ENTRY
I grew up in a house like the Dursley's in Harry Potter. It was a Cape Cod, built in 1954, with four bedrooms, one bath... just like every other house in the neighborhood. I have buyers who closed on one just like it this summer. They got a great deal.FULL ENTRY