Shopping for a midcentury home — and what to do about postwar homes lacking curb appeal

1952-dutch-boy-exterior-house-paint In this RetroRenovation classic re-run from April 2008, Madison Sarah writes to express her concern about midcentury homes lacking curb appeal. She is looking to buy a new/old home. I share my advice on what to look for when shopping for a home, and also how we handled starting out with a house whose curb appeal had most definitely faded. Madison Sarahwrites:

Hi Pam, First of all, I have to say how much I love your site. It has helped me move from a rabid collector of retro lamps into someone obsessed with finding the perfect 60s house (and thus giving up my lovely, but labor-intensive, Arts & Crafts home that I have slaved over for six years). My problem is this: I hate the exteriors of most of the houses I am looking at! Whether it’s the flat facade, with the windows and door and garage all in a row, or the cliched colonial brick-and-shutters motif (sometimes with a weathervane on the garage for an extra touch), just can’t see the curb appeal. Do you have any advice on how to either learn to live with the exteriors of these houses, or to enhance them in such a way that they look more interesting? Thanks for any advice you can offer! Sarah (Madison, WI)

Thank you, Sarah. Wisconsin is another of my favorite places – I went to college in Milwaukee. That is one cold place. I heard that this year, it snowed EVERY SINGLE day of the winter. You are hearty souls indeed. Okay, so, the exteriors of modest postwar homes. Here are my thoughts: You know, many of these homes are quite plain. In the first five years after WWII, issues like ‘curb appeal’ were quite secondary considering the incredible demand for functional housing coupled with the very modest tastes following 20 years of economic deprivation. Quite opposite today – people had to be pried loose from their wallets, they were still so concerned following those depression years. By about 1953, though, we began to relax into affluence and real consumerism kicked in, bringing with it a design flair that emanated from (1) Modernism and California Cool and/or (2) neo-Colonial-revival inspiration. The preference for both of these styles came out of the post-WWII desire to invent an authentic American look. While at the opposite ends of the spectrum, one reaches to our possible future, while the other harkens to our historic past. Now – whether you like the looks of these homes is a matter of personal taste. And it’s a taste than can evolve out of appreciation and understanding. When we found our 1951 colonial-ranch here in Lenox, Mass., seven years ago – buying retro had not been on our radar at all. We wanted a quaint New England farmhouse. Fortunately, as it turned out, the house has been great – and inspired this great passion I now have. Initially, our home’s exterior was…pretty awful. In my opinion the trim paint did nothing for the exterior, the trees and shrubs were overgrown… there was a lack of decorative punch. People used to come inside the house – and act surprised at how nice it was – because from the outside, it appeared so “innocuous.” In fact, I came to like this fact. It kind of played to my rebelliousness about “not keeping up with the Joneses.” In fact, this unpretentiousness is basic to the mid-century design ethic. Excess ornamentation is not functional – and it also costs unnecessary money, which would put these homes a little farther out of reach. Simpler=Democratic. Even so, over the years we made a number of changes to our house that made it much more pleasant, and today the house has really nice – colonial – curb appeal. It was kind of like the ugly duckling that we turned into a swan. So, what to look for, in your house hunt?

  1. My #1 tip when it comes to buying a house: Location, location, location, like the realtors say. That includes, good schools, a lightly traveled street, and good feng shui. In regard to feng shui, in particular: No roads “pointing” into your house. Someday you will likely want to sell. Not only will best location make it be easier to sell, but your investment will have compounded at a much nicer clip. And, it will be a nicer place to live in the meantime. If at all possible, I would not compromise on location; hold out.
  2. After that – look for an interior that has the right scale and room flow. Is it truly truly livable? Can you imagine using each of the spaces to its fullest possible extent?
  3. If possible, original kitchen, bathroom, floors, windows – etc. Un-remuddled, and of good quality. Yes, you know I am a fan of time capsules! If original features are of good quality – and if they are safe and environmentally sound (always know what you are living/working with) – they are gems and will save you tons of money in renovation costs. (If you find these time capsule features, do NOT act excited. Most people are not like us. Use this as a negotiating lever, like, furrow your eyebrows and say worriedly, “Well I kind of like it but, oh my gosh, that kitchen hasn’t had any updates since the day they moved in…hmmm”).
  4. Of course, you will be getting a thorough home inspection that includes testing for vintage nasties like lead and asbestos. There are lots of things that can go wrong with a house — readers shared some of their experiences in this kind of frightening story. Kate followed up that story with a summary here — and readers chimed in again. Be sure you know what you are getting yourself into.
  5. Update:  I wrote this story, 12 reasons we lover our midcentury home, in 2014. Good reading if you’re in the market.
  6. Update: And here’s another angle on the question: I asked three real estate agents who specialize in midcentury homes, and they shared their advice about how to sell one.
  7. And of course — a price that is fair considering all these factors… and, a price that you can truly afford.

If these factors are right – you should be jumping up and down in the foyer with excitement.  In your head, not in front of the real estate agent. The look of the exterior would be at least this far down my list – probably farther. Because anything cosmetic — is fixable. I jumped on Realtor.com for Madison, and found several homes, all under $200,000, that looked like nice examples of the era. Of course, I can’t weigh on location, #1. But the four homes I show here all have exterior charm that looks workable – and several of them have “one owner for 35 years” or “needs TLC and/or updating” — codewords to me that there may be original stuff inside. Over the next while, I’ll do some more posts on ways to spruce up an exterior. Now that it’s spring is here in the north, the time is right! I hope this helps, Sarah. I’m a big believer in truly loving your house. I hope you find the one that’s right for you. Keep up apprised of how your hunt goes! Epilogue: Sarah contacted me a few months later and said she’d found a house she was happy with — and was loving her new neighborhood. :) This post has been updated from the original, which ran on April 15, 2008. 1952-dutch-boy-exterior-house-paint

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Comments

  1. Femme1 says

    Ours is a California-style ranch…one of those ones that looks teeny tiny from outside, but actually has 2,400 sq ft (the lower basement level is completely finished and has a door out to a patio. The exterior is pretty plain and never had shutters put up and it has the original windows, garage door, and front door (with cool concentric circular panels). My contractor husband demanded vinyl siding, and I reluctantly went along with it (but now I wish I hadn’t).

    Because the house has extended overhanging eaves, it always looked a little “California/Japanese” to me; I’ve always loved Japanese gardens, so I designed the front landscaping to look a little Asian-flavored. I’ve used rounded pebble gravel for a winding stream-like path from the front of the house around the side to the back. We had to remove most of the original hugely overgrown yews from the front during a major drainage project (wet basements are a problem in the Midwest). I’ve replanted with dwarf spruces and other shrubs that have a sort of odd growth pattern. I’ve used Japanese spurge for groundcover and I love it…it has a gorgeous gray-green frond-y growth that quickly covers, and you can’t kill the stuff. (I used to try to get it out of the garden, but then I decided to go with the flow!) I also put in a couple weeping cherries (which are just about to bloom).

    This summer we are having to replace the privacy fence around the house (we live on an extremely busy corner, and we definitely need it). I’ve researched period fences (and asked on this blog for suggestions), and I finally decided on a cedar basket-weave fence. I used to see these everywhere, especially stained red, but they aren’t around much anymore. The standard panels you saw in the 60s were very flimsy and they didn’t last long, but we’re having a carpenter build the fence himself without using ready-made panels. The basket-weave fence makes a horizontal effect, which feels more MCM to me.

    Oh, I also had to search around quite a bit for the square-type lattice that we used on our back 2nd-story deck. All you can find now is the diagonal lattice, which would work fine for the story-book cottage look, but for more streamlined houses, I’d definitely search out the horiz/vert lattice.

    This is getting to be a long comment! But as far as landscaping for 50s houses in general, I don’t think that you have to follow any formula strictly or try to copy exactly what was done at the time. Most subdivision houses, unless they were pretty high-end, weren’t very creatively landscaped. You can make it more 50s/60s by choosing elements such as house numbers, patio furniture, and lighting, but if you follow basic good landscaping design, I think you can be fairly free in your choices of trees and plants and just use what appeals to you.

  2. Femme1 says

    There’s a group on Flickr called “Exterior Ranch-Style House Photos.” You might be able to get some ideas for landscaping from these.

    http://www.flickr.com/groups/411963@N24/

    And if you haven’t looked around on Flickr much, there are lots of groups that feature retro houses or interiors or old ads…I could spend all there looking around there (but work calls!).

  3. says

    I’ve got to add to the people who have already said it: LANDSCAPING! It is amazing what some creative horticulture and a nifty little concrete block wall can do for curb appeal.

    Also, COLOR! On a bland, flat-faced split level, a little bit of contrasty color can go a long way to increase attractiveness. It kills me when people paint mid-century houses white, brown or sand/taupe/tan/beige! These houses really pop when they are colorful. And you need a splash of life in a murky winter 😉

    Of course, I have to plug doing what you can to go back to some of the original features of the house: retro house numbers, a spiffy porch light, a cool front door, original casement windows (yeah, I know they aren’t energy efficient, but I love them!), diamond shutters or a little scrolly ironwork… The great thing about mid-century houses are the tiny details!!

  4. loumeigs says

    Maggie,

    It’s just a Cyprus, Pine or Juniper; evergreen; that has been sculpted (for, easily, 20 years) into what we call Pom Pom. You can get them around the Northwest at the nurseries already several years old and sculpted. They will just be about 3 feet tall is all and around $200; at least here in Richland, WA. They grow on the West side of the state and here on the desert, East side, I’d imagine they will grow anywhere if they will grow in those two extremes. Hope that helps.

  5. MrsPitcher says

    My personal advice is to look past the exterior. I’d known my Realtor for a couple of years before we found our house and I did squeel in the kitchen. Most retro homes look fairly boring on the outside, but if kept up on the inside, it’s a showplace. Our time capsule only had one owner and she was a widow who was a housewife her entire life so we lucked out.

  6. Peggy Miniard says

    You are so right about Location….I recently listed my house on a very desirable street….I had a buyer the same day….went looking for rentals (I was planning on selling and freeing myself up to travel…) and could not believe where I would have to live for the same price as my home. Not only that I could rent my home out for twice my mortgage…..needless to say, I had not signed a contract so I changed my mind…McDuff and I have decided to stay on at our manor….

  7. Robin, NV says

    I know this is an old post but i thought I’d throw my two cents in. For me there are so many reasons to buy an MCM house that I don’t know where to begin. Where some people see “plain” exteriors, I see clean, frill-less form, which is timeless. The same goes for the interiors. So many modern houses have interior flourishes that don’t make much practical sense and don’t age well. Think of the simplicity of a MCM as a blank slate, easily decorated and tremendously liveable. The interiors support an exciting canvas of color. I’m with Pam – down with greige! I bought my house for the following reasons – lovely original wood cabinets in the kitchen, a blue AND a green bathroom, original light fixtures, and a great, mature neighborhood of MCMs. I love my neighborhood. Every house is different, each built to suit the original owner. It’s fantastic and never gets boring. We also have big, mature trees that do so much for aesthetics and the environment. There’s a big, much loved park just down the street from me. I can see it out my picture window and its popularity makes the neighborhood feel alive. On the practical side my house was inexpensive to buy and my taxes are super low – about 1/3 of what a new house would be. There are the usual headaches of owning an older home but I find the charm outweighs them.

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