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 Sarah writes:

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.” 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

  1. Esti says:

    Great post! Related to this I was going to ask about landscaping for our ’50s homes. I love the picture of the “gingerbread” house, but I am also looking for some more “finished” outdoor looks. We had to remove all the shrubs outside the 1950 rancher-with-a-bump-up we recently bought. (They were 58 years old and all twig). Happily, we discovered that the previous owner left us a profusion of tulips all across the front of the house, but when those are gone, we are bare.

    Surely creative landscaping can beautify the “look”. Pam, can you provide us with any direction?

  2. Tracie says:

    Can I add a note of caution? I think it is important to make sure you like mid-centuries for what they are. My neighborhood is full of houses whose owners REALLY wanted Arts & Crafts, or Victorians, or whatever and so did their best to turn modest little ranches, ranchalows, split-levels and colonials into some truly horrific hybrids. (Not that anyone here would do such a thing. Its just I’m about to SCREAM if I see one more California Cool ranchalow have shutters applied to it, when clearly the houses were not built for shutters and look ridiculous with them. Or if I see another fantastic solid-core front door (the kind Crestview based their designs upon) ripped off in favor of a vinyl bungalow style that looks, IMO, schizophrenic on our modest little ranchalows.

    That said, I’m in love with the exterior of the first and last houses. I think replacing the vinyl garage door on the last house with something more period would give you great style. There is a fantastic entry on this blog about garage doors that changed the way I think about them…

    1. Elena says:

      Hi Tracie – I have a ranch-style bungalow in Massachusetts (see blog) and planned to work on increasing curb appeal this summer. After removing aluminum siding, we were thinking of adding shutters. Is my style of house like the CA ranchalows that you mention that weren’t meant to have shutters? Any thoughts or opinions would be welcome!

  3. Julie says:

    Yes, don’t underestimate how much landscaping can do. I understand how you feel about exteriors though. I barely got my husband inside the house we now live in and both love because the exterior was so plain and the landscaping had been so neglected. He still was questioning whether we should buy this amazing house because the front was plain! But paint does amazing things, and the next step is landscaping and lights. The midcentury modern aesthetic though, was plain on the front, beauty inside and on the back. So for now we’ll enjoy our wall of windows looking out on our heavily landscaped back yard with its 600 year old oak tree. I mean, we don’t live in the front yard anyway!

  4. Mary-Frances Main says:

    Awesome post! I can’t wait to follow along! Don’t forget the blonde brick ranch homes, either!

    I have been on a quest to find landscaping for a long time Esti and I have a book (on my flickr page) – but you can find more on Ebay.

    In a related post, I’m hunting for mid century style playhouses! Help Pam?

  5. Laura says:

    Excellent post as always Pam 🙂 Another option for Sarah could be to look at ranches that are in more of the Mid-Century Modern style if she wants something less traditional on the exterior.

    I found this realtor that specializes in MCM but she is in the Milwaukee area.
    link gone

    I found this home for sale in Madison but is definitely on the expensive side but fun to look at:
    link gone

    Also, on a side note, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pew House is in Madison.

  6. Sumac Sue says:

    Home exteriors is a great topic for springtime!

    With so much emphasis on gizmos and gadgets and other facets or retro interior decorating, I really hadn’t thought much about how simple the facades are on most mid-century homes. I find our house, and the houses in our neighborhood of modest, mostly one-story brick ranches, to be sort of sturdy and cute, like freckle-faced boys. It’s a look I find appealing.

    But, if someone like Madison Sarah wants a bit more oomph, then maybe she could try an approach such as looking for a house with a really pronounced modern style, such as Anne and Gary’s house, which has been mentioned on this site. Sure, it has some flatness to it, but, it has angles and overhangs and lots of glass, which makes it cool.

    If Madison Sarah can’t find a house like that, then, my only other suggestion is to try to think of the mid-century houses not as a look, but, as a way of life. Sounds cliched, I know, but, we have found that living in our ’59 ranch, in our ’59 era neighborhood, to be really pleasant.

    We weren’t really looking for a mid-century house when we found this one. We were looking for a house that was well built, of good materials, one that would be pretty easy to maintain, and one that was in a neighborhood that would be a pleasant place to walk with our dog in the evenings. And, we had a tight budget, but we wanted at least 1.5 bathrooms. So, we found our house in a nice neighborhood of 1,000 to 1,500 square-foot houses, most with carports or garages. Some have basements, but ours has a roomy, dry crawlspace — either way, they are all easy to get under to work on plumbing, the furnace, etc. (A previous house had virtually no crawlspace, and we had to scoot on our stomachs in the damp dirt. No more of that!) Houses this size are pretty easy to care for, and the utilities aren’t outrageous.

    Like many such mid-century neighborhoods, ours includes a shopping area with a grocery store, bank, post office, and some other stores. We have enjoyed being able to walk to this shopping area, and now that gas prices have risen so much, we like it even more.

    I can’t speak for other such neighborhoods, but ours is really stable. People buy these houses and hold onto them. We still have four people on our little street who are the original owners of their houses! They are all in their 80s. We bought our house last summer from the original owner, who was 86. We joke that these houses are good for your health, because people live so long in them.

    But, maybe it is no joke — they really are nice places to live. We are in our 50s, and there are other middle-aged people on the street, and there are a few young couples with kids. The ones we have met have said the same thing as us — they moved here because they were looking for a well-built house. They also say they didn’t want to buy a cheaply built new house way out on the edge of town.

    Our neighborhood is called Gardenside — doesn’t that just sound like a nice place to live? Madison Sarah, I hope you find a nice place to live, too.

  7. Kitschy Kimberly says:

    I really love the first house. I also agree with Julie that landscaping can really make the house. I found some great landscape ideas on Flickr looking up the Westlake Neighborhood that I want to implement now that it’s spring. Maybe Sarah could Goggle even more info than Pam has already posted about the reasons behind the design and aesthetic of the houses from this era. I find that when I understand where the design is coming from creatively, the item has much more depth and beauty to me.

  8. madison sarah says:

    Hi everyone, and thanks for the thoughtful advice and insights!

    I have looked and looked since the beginning of the year and have pretty much given up on my dream of finding a cool tri-level that I can afford–apparently, the people that live in them don’t want to leave! I saw a few faux-colonials that had promise (and weathervanes) but, sadly, they had been terribly remuddled inside. Because of my school-district constraints and what’s on the market currently, it is looking as though I will end up in a 40s bungalow that has some, but not all, of the mid-century attributes I was hoping to find. The one I am negotiating on now does have the original linoleum in the kitchen and some updates that are now retro (the first owners were apparently big on paneling of every variety), and it’s a great house, but it’s not the project I was hoping to find (and later post on this site!).

    Anyway, I really appreciate Pam’s and everyone else’s time on this and will post pix if I end up with anything relevant to write about!


  9. Tera says:

    Loved #3. There is nothing more disappointing than walking into a 50’s era ranch and finding and interior that looks like a 1999 condo. BLEHK! and then I shed a tear.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.


    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!).

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