When I edited a newspaper real estate section on a weekly basis, I spent a lot of time doing stories about renovations: “How to Survive Your Renovation! Renovations That Make You Money! Cheap Fixes that Work!” “Floor Profit!”
And now that I am looking at properties as an agent, I realize I forgot a category: “Don’t Try This at Home.”
There I was, busy instructing readers about what to do, when I realize that I should have been spending much more time telling them what NOT to do.
For example, I love vibrant color. Every moment I’m in my macaroni-and-cheese-colored kitchen makes me happy.
But if I sold or rented the place, I’d at least feel apologetic about it. A client and I just saw a condo that the landlord was trying to market as “luxury” and I thought, dude, you’d have a better chance if you hadn’t painted the whole thing red and purple. The colors of a jester hat? Of Spree candy?
I was going to cut the owner some slack for personal taste until I opened the hall closet and saw the newly cracked paint cans. Yep, red and purple for a rental, freshly painted.
That client ended up in a Park Slope Brownstone, Benjamin Moore White Dove, with original dark wood detailing.
Then there was the renovation that I saw Tuesday with a client. Great condo building, very deco, a one-bedroom with windows in every room, even somewhat affordable.
Except that you walked straight into the kitchen. The apartment originally had a hallway leading into a foyer, with a galley kitchen behind; in an effort to “open up” the space, the owners took out a wall and moved the appliances. You lost your hall closet completely, and the first focal point of entry, maybe 14 feet from the door, was your sink.
I didn’t miss a beat when I suggested removing the top row of cabinets and putting a flat-screen TV on the wall. My client went even further, trying to figure out how $20,000 of Italian cabinetry could be used so that the view of the kitchen you got would be stunning. Then we dug up the original floor plan and thought, “hey, we could just put the wall back.”
The appliances would be salvageable, but everything else — all the Ikea cabinetry, all the stone countertops, all from a brand-new renovation — would have to hit the dustbin. The owner must have, him- or herself, spent $20,000 to destroy value in the apartment.
And did I mention the other rental, where the old tenant, deciding that the airshaft windows didn’t provide much light, simply papered them over?
Or the multiplicity of places where the male owners, thinking “spa,” took out bathtubs to make room for stall showers, thus ensuring that their places would never be bought by women who shave their legs?
Or the Brooklyn condo where the owner grasped the idea that big stoves look really impressive, without realizing that anyone who actually cooks wouldn’t want to use electric burners? An electric Wolf is like a diesel Porsche; the buyer is so missing the point.
So let’s just do this now; it’s fine to renovate for your taste, and for the way you live. But homes have an argot just like people do, and any time you veer from the metaphorical equivalent of a broadcaster’s Midwestern accent, you’re going to freak people out.
Now the good news is that this argot isn’t particularly secret; the way to find out what sells is to go to Open Houses, lots of them. I mean Metropolis or Architectural Digest or Dwell or whatever comes to you in your dreams is all very fine. But it doesn’t hurt to give yourself a local reality check by walking into your neighbors’ homes from time to time.
And if you visit 20 homes, and, say, 20 of them are painted in subdued colors and have expensive brand-name natural-gas ranges and DO NOT HAVE THE KITCHEN IN THE ENTRYWAY, it should give you pause.
I know it won’t, but it should.