Q: Our house is a nondescript 1950s ranch tract home with a light-gray composition shingle roof. It’s currently a dated white with blue trim, and we’d like to update the paint job. We’re also re-landscaping with drought-tolerant tropical and contemporary plants, and not much grass — mostly bark and flagstone walkways. Is there somewhere where I can see other updated tract homes? Do you have any color suggestions?

A: I would begin in your own neighborhood, and just start driving. Wander different streets around where you live, and then slowly branch out from there. Keep a local map handy, and whenever you find an area of homes that looks interesting, highlight it on your map for future exploration.

If you know a real estate agent, you can ask him or her for exploration suggestions, as well as others you come into contact with, such as the landscaper.

While it’s nice to look at homes that are similar to your own, you don’t need to be limited to just those either. I would suggest going through new housing tracts of starter-level homes, and see what is currently being done in the way of colors and exterior amenities.

As to color choices, there are three simple things I can suggest. First of all, make a visit to your local paint store or home center and pick up some brochures on exterior paint colors. Many of these brochures offer suggestions of colors that work well together, and you might see some combinations that appeal to you that you wouldn’t have otherwise thought of.

Some paint stores have computers with paint-scheme programs that are free for customers to play with. You can browse through a library of common house styles until you find one that looks similar to yours, add a roof color that looks like yours, and then use the computer to add different body and trim color combinations to see what they look like.

If your local paint store doesn’t have one, you can also find places online that do the same thing — there may be a small charge, but it’s well worth it.

My third suggestion is to take a digital photo of the outside of your home, then print it out on your computer in black and white, making several copies. Using colored pencils, color in the roof in a shade that’s as close to yours as possible, then, referring to some of the color combinations you liked from the paint store brochures, color in the front of the house and see what you think.

You can also do this more accurately with programs such as Photoshop, but that might be more time-consuming and involved than you would like to get.

Final suggestion: Don’t limit yourself to just paint. There are any number of ways that you can really dress up the outside of a plain tract house and set it apart from the others in the neighborhood, without spending a fortune.

You can add some different trim treatments around the windows, change the front door, add some shutters, and add some door trim, just to name a few. Home shows, decorating shows on TV, magazines and your neighborhood wanderings should all be sources of inspiration.

Q: I would like to use the cable railings (on my deck railing) except for the high price. Do you think it would be possible to substitute a thick, strong wire instead of the cable? These wires keep in huge farm animals … so their strength is comparable to cable … well over 1,000 pounds in breaking strength. I would appreciate your thoughts.

A: You can actually construct a deck railing out of any materials that comply with the requirements of whatever building codes are in effect in your area. I have seen some very nice railings made from square-grid and rectangular-grid wire livestock fencing set into wood frames, as well as wood dowels, metal conduit and other materials.

Whatever you choose needs to be strong enough and secured tightly enough to meet the building codes, and also has to be spaced closely enough together — most codes require a spacing of no greater than 4 inches.

You also want to avoid materials with sharp edges or ends, as well as materials that won’t weather well. Finally, you want to select a material and an installation method that is safe, pleasing to your eye, coordinates well with your home’s style, and maintains your resale value.

Remodeling and repair questions? E-mail Paul at paulbianchina@inman.com.

***

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