July 20, 2012 at 11:44 am EDT | by Donna Evers
The ugly duckling revisited

Buyers are always attracted to houses that show well, but they should take a second look at some of the often overlooked houses we have for sale in the Washington Metro area. In the spring, we looked at ways to update and refresh the 1930s to 1940s colonial homes, (known as “the red brick box”) and the 1950s rambler, generally regarded as bland and dated. By doing simple decorative fixes or more involved remodeling work to the interior and exteriors of these styles of homes, both of these housing types are extraordinarily redeemable.

We are going to tackle another type of house that was popular in the 1970s – the “contemporary” house that now seems to be so dated that most buyers don’t want to purchase this type of home. However, if you can see the potential with this style house and know what to do with it, you can end up with a beautiful home for less money.

Looking at some of the less desirable elements of the contemporary-style home, many were built with the split-level floor plan. This allowed the builder to produce more living space with a smaller footprint but now seems dated. The second biggest flaw is the lack of thermo pane windows. Energy costs were not a big concern then, but since these contemporary-style houses have big expanses of glass, it is a genuine issue for current buyers.

While it is definitely an investment to replace these large exterior windows, there is a “plus” side to this financial equation. If you find a dated-looking contemporary house with non-thermo pane windows and no major structural renovations, you probably won’t get into a bidding war to buy it. In fact, it will probably be sitting on the market for a while, which means you can save enough money on the purchase price of the home to cover the investment for new, energy-saving windows.

These houses have a lot of great qualities that can be often overlooked because the overall appearance of the house is dated. The same square footage in these style contemporaries can give you a lot more spatial and visual bang for the buck because of the open spaces, high ceilings and light from the oversized windows.

If the front windows look onto the street, a lattice screen can offer privacy and functionality for the front outdoor space. Put a lattice screen in the front yard to create an atrium effect, so that your living room is not looking onto the street but into a mini-garden instead.

Most of these houses have oak floors throughout, so get rid of the carpeting and enhance the feeling of open space. If the stairs to the second level are close to the living room, use a stair carpet runner to create a transition and minimize noise between the living space and the stairs to the bedroom wing.

Try to create a transition between the open front hall space and the kitchen. There won’t be room for a butler’s pantry, but you can create that effect with a change in color of the cabinets leading into the kitchen, or even add a small half wall. Most of these homes come with eating space in the kitchen. The smartest use of this space is to add an island – this gives you a combination of much needed eating, cooking and entertaining space.

The dining room is generally small, but that’s alright as it is the most unused room in most homes. Don’t weigh it down with big pieces. Adding shallow built-ins gives you both storage and space. If there is a wall between the living room and dining room, consider getting rid of it for better sense of open space. If there are glass doors to the backyard in the dining room, create your patio or deck right outside the doors to extend the feeling and utility of living space.

While there are generally three to four bedrooms in the upper floors of these homes, the master suites are inadequate, so you may want to combine two bedrooms in order to come up with a comfortable space for adequate closets and a true master bath. And, a small faux-balcony with French doors is the most cost-effective way to add glamour and a sense of space to the master bedroom.

If the front of the house lacks appeal, the lattice screening mentioned earlier will help a lot.  You might even want to add an additional half wall of screening/fencing with a stone bench and decorative plantings. This allows you to “enter” the house as soon as you leave the sidewalk or curb, capturing more living space and privacy.

You can update the exterior with paint, sticking to natural hues that blend with the environment whether the house is brick, frame or a combination of the two. Keep it simple — and contemporary — and you might just end up with a modernized dream house where the price is right.


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