Welcome to this month’s instalment of Dear Urbaneer, where I dip into my virtual mailbag to answer real estate questions from my clients. This time around, my clients are wondering which architectural design features increase the value of a property.
We are preparing for our next house hunt and, in creating our wish list, we're trying to consider which features will serve us well - not only while we live in the home, but those which will appeal to future buyers. After all, why not give ourselves the best shot at improving the return on our investment, right? We are aware of the way in which “location, location, location” figures into the preservation and growth of asset value in real estate, but we are curious about the effect that design features might have too. Are there certain items that are most desired by buyers that might also work in our favour as sellers down the road? Ones that aren't as obvious as a new kitchen or hardwood floors? What should we be on the lookout for?!
Seeking Strategically Smart Design
Dear Smart Design:
As elusive as sleuthing that special gift for the impossible-to-buy-for person on your list, finding your dream home - with the ideal trifecta of size, site and condition - can be a daunting task. When you're dwell hunting, there are a lot of factors to consider, and you want to ensure that whichever home you buy is not only a good personal fit but one that will grow equity over time.
You’ve touched on how the location is a major factor for buyers, which will translate in the ability to charge a premium (i.e. homes that are in close proximity to green space, lifestyle-enhancing amenities like shopping and dining, public transit and good schools). A little like the chicken/egg debate, some Buyers ask if they should prioritize the dwelling first or rather focus on the neighbourhood. In truth, a lot of it will depend on your budget, as that will dictate both. Here's my post called How To Search For Your Next Property Purchase that outlines the considerations you should reconcile as you develop your housing search matrix.
What I have discovered as a realtor of 28 years who has guided hundreds of people through the purchase and sale of Toronto real estate, is that the process of choosing a property and its location is complex. Where you choose and what you choose to buy will depend not only on your budget but on how you prioritize the needs, wishes and wants of you and your household. Typically, we define our housing matrix by listing our practical needs such as the number of rooms required for sleeping, living and working. Second, we determine what location and style best reflect our social values and affiliation to the community. Third, we define our budget and reconcile the condition of the properties available for sale which most closely meet our other criteria. And then we evaluate how realistic we can match all of these factors with our finances.
During this evaluation, we discover that our housing choice reflects our age, status, identity and family size. From urban edge to bucolic suburbs, some neighbourhoods are geared to celebrate urban cultural amenities, others to raising children. Whatever your particular case, research on housing and identity indicates that owning a home, as part of the Canadian Dream, is seen as a sign of financial and personal success, as well as reflecting one as “biographically on schedule”.
So, if you were to move, what kind of dwelling would you choose? Would you choose an English Tudor, a French Chateau, or an American Colonial? How about a rancher, a saltbox, a chalet, or a cabin? In Toronto, you’ll most likely choose either a detached, semi-detached or row-house, or a co-op, condominium, or stacked townhouse. Maybe you’d prefer something unique like a coach house, a converted grocery store, or an authentic loft in a century warehouse? Or how about a luxe penthouse, a stately mansion, or a cottage with a white picket fence? Be assured, as the realtor who has specialized in the sales and marketing of Toronto's Innovative Spaces since the 1990s, I am well-versed in where to find unique urban homes.
Whatever your preference or ideal, it’s important when you are purchasing to not only consider how a home might benefit your lifestyle and meet your wish list but also to consider how it might appeal to future buyers. After all, your home is an investment for the future, and you are more likely to increase your wealth by owning a property which offers the greatest appeal.
So in addition to Choosing A Winning Location (or perhaps you may intelligently Sacrifice Location To Get More House), and ensuring the dwelling is well-situated on its site, is not structurally compromised (make sure you Understand The Six Essential Layers Of Property), and is of a suitable size (or has the potential to be enlarged), there are some important considerations that often get lost amongst all the 'noise' and excitement of house hunting - namely some key home design elements that accomplish the dual goal of creating a fab space to live in for today, as well as creating an opportunity for future buyers.
Assess The Architectural Features Of The Property
Whereas the site, size and condition of property mostly have to do with utility and function, it's the design of the dwelling that transforms a space from practical to perfect. Along with ensuring the property meets the design fundamentals of a well-proportioned space plan with good flow (or the opportunity to create one), and defined zones for congregating, cooking, hobbies/work, leisure and refuge, it's important to assess the condition, quality and presentation of the existing (or missing) architectural features to ensure they still enhance the property and are of an aesthetic that appeals to you.
These architectural embellishments - basically the makeup layering a consistent foundation - are often the fixtures and finishes adorning the property, such as porch columns, etched glass doors, wood panelling or handmade vintage tiles, though they can also be features specific to the construction of the property, such as vaulted ceilings, a butler's pantry, a stone fireplace, or a brick-paved courtyard. It's critical to assess their condition, ensure they're well-made, and that their aesthetic and presentation complements the property and your own design style. After all, it would be a pity to buy a pristine Edwardian and rip out all its original features because you prefer clean contemporary lines. If that's the case, you would do better to buy a dwelling that has already lost its original embellishments so you can reinvent it to your own taste and preserve our heritage housing stock. However, if the residence offers existing unique design features which you love (or most of them) then it will factor heavily into your own personal enjoyment during your tenure while ensuring a future premium.
As a realtor who is trained in urban planning, design, and the psychology of housing and home, I believe the following five architectural design elements can have a real bearing on the value of a property. Likewise, keep them in mind when renovating or building new, and you'll be a step ahead of the cookie-cutter competition when it comes time to sell!
Incidentally, I've featured some of my own property transformations in the photos below, so you can see how I personally elevated these architectural design features, as examples.
In my vintage Button Factory Loft, I installed diaphanous linen draperies on a curving rod to accentuate the ceiling height, filter the south light, and create a private foyer. Here's the amusing story in Don’t Be Too Revealing.
1. Everything Natural Light
They say when it comes to people, the eyes are the windows into our soul. And when it comes to our homes, it's the windows which are one component that can be critical in making a space spectacular. In particular, expansive apertures improve the sense of space, increase the flow of air and can flood a home in natural light. Windows (specifically the placement and exposures) are a must-have design element for a beloved home. A home with beautiful light is a feature most buyers will gladly pay a premium for.
In most production housing, the size and location of windows are more often dictated by the floor plan and creating a uniform exterior, rather than any consideration for the sightlines and the exposure. In Canada the south exposure gets the brightest most direct light midday, a north aspect receives muted natural light (which is often desired by artists), and an east exposure gets sunkissed by the morning sun. The west exposure, where the sun blazes from mid-afternoon until sunset (which is 9 pm in the month of July in Toronto), can be intense, so unless the property has some well-placed mature trees to filter the sun rays, your rear deck and garden may be too bright and hot to be comfortable to lounge in, and you may have to keep all your west window shades closed for most of the afternoon.
Also, sometimes it's not about how big a window is, but how well it frames a specific view, or if it catches a nice breeze for great interior cross-ventilation. So when you're considering a property for purchase, look at where the current windows are and assess whether there's any benefit in enlarging them or adding some to take advantage of a vista on the property. Also, replacing a window(s) with a pair of french doors is a great way to elevate a residence. And the addition of a skylight(s) can be a pretty straightforward solution for a home that is a bit dark. I'd say in most cases, doing any of these improvements will get you every penny back on resale.
While one can't change the windows in a condominium as they're considered common elements, pay attention to the size of the windows, which ones are operable, the exposure and the view. A protected vista will always garner a higher resale value than one which isn't.
In my century Movie House loft, I added crown mouldings to the oversized bulkheads hiding ductwork so they appeared original to the building, installed a Silverleaf wallpaper on the ceiling for reflection and texture, and installed numerous custom built-ins to streamline the tiny space with cohesive millwork. Here's the tale in Peek-A-View 5.
2. The Charm Of The Unique
Have you noticed how all the new build and flip renovations often have kitchens and washrooms which look nearly the same? I don't want to proclaim a dislike for them, as they're often beautiful, but they're so ubiquitously 'on trend' I wonder how long it will be until they're proclaimed to be 'oh so yesterday'? When everything is the same, sometimes it's not the brand new which appeals to Buyers, but the character and charm of the unique. A residence which has vintage architectural embellishments or custom contemporary fittings which are well-executed and well-placed are qualities people will pay a premium for.
JT sang it best: "What goes around, comes around!" (for your listening pleasure). Well-embellished homes which have been thoughtfully preserved or restored to showcase the craftsmanship of a bygone era can garner top dollar for their visually-arresting ornamentation. The more enriching and engaging the stage set, and the more comfortable and unique it feels, the more it will resonant with design-conscious Buyers.
As a first step, whenever looking at an old home, make sure to get a home inspection from a trusted home inspector (and be aware of What Is And Isn’t Covered In A Home Inspection). No use buying a century residence if it's structurally compromised because of a termite party in the basement and the only solution is to gut it. But if you do secure a dwelling with the patina of yesteryear, try your best to retain elements like original moulding, old beams or original hardwood parquetry. For inspiration, check out this post of mine: Edwardian Residential Architecture In Toronto.
In an old house of pedigree, its charm (and value) isn’t just limited to original mouldings, but also stair bannisters, solid wood doors and their hardware, a fireplace mantel, etched French doors, stained or leaded glass windows, and vintage tiles are all features to keep on the lookout for. In short, the better the quality of the feature in both materials and execution, the better the pedigree of the home.
It’s worth noting that age and history aren’t the only criteria for the allure for quality architectural features. For example, a cookie-cutter condo that has had an intelligent design intervention with custom millwork, built-ins, and other aesthetic improvements which demonstrate an attention to detail (like a beautiful custom closet) makes for better design and quality of life. You can also give the impression of space using various decluttering tricks or optical illusions, including the use of mirrors (you can never have enough) which are a fairly economical way to expand the visual size of a room. And the less clutter the more expansive space will appear. I rather like the use of glossy white floor-to-ceiling wardrobes spanning the entire wall of a room which holds loads of contents while appearing built-in.
Really, it’s all about how artful, seamless and how it improves the quality of experience that improves appeal to the potential buyer.
Furthermore, I believe when you do it right, most Buyers will appreciate the value you've brought in your attention to detail (providing your taste levels match, and you've hired a designer for guidance) and be willing to pay the premium associated with the cost. So when I write 'oldie but goodie', even your new embellishments will garner the premium if they are to a quality that will stand the test of time.
In my 1960s Swell Dwell, I divided the second bedroom into a built-in 'cabin bed' for lounging and a home office space, so it could serve double-duty without looking 'too multi-purpose'. Here's my post I Love A Built-In Bed.
3. Elevating The Scale & Functionality Of Space
It’s not about the size of the home; it is about how well-executed the functionality and scale of the space, and then really playing them up. And then, if you own an older property, looking for opportunities that, with some investment, can elevate your space from 'drab to fab'.
But first, don’t make the mistake of buying more home than you need, for the sake of size. A small home costs less to operate and is easier to maintain. However, when it is too small (or poorly laid out) it might feel cramped - and even smaller than it is. Certainly, a lot of layouts in older dwellings from generations past served their uses very nicely, but they don’t necessarily mesh with how we live today. Have you read my post on 'The History - And Popularity - Of The Open Concept Space Plan'?
For me, I think it's important to be mindful of ways to improve a home’s flow and perception of space. An efficient layout, connecting space plan, and cohesive aesthetic are ways of unifying a dwelling and generating a better price. If you own an older home (pre-1930, typically), the trick is to think up. Use those ten-foot-ceilings and long walls common to Toronto's classic Bay & Gable Victorians to your advantage by keeping your furniture low to elevate the sense of volume. If you have a hard or soft loft, incorporate floor-to-ceiling built-in industrial shelving to showcase the ceiling height while incorporating a nod to its utilitarian heritage. And if you own a bungalow, consider investing in vaulting the ceilings and adding skylights to expand the volume of the space even if you're not changing the square footage.
Consider an older condo with a chopped-up space plan (like those 1980s buildings with 'solariums' - a clever trick by developed in the day because they were considered 'outdoor space' but added interior square footage so they could increase their profit margins) which can be intelligently reorganized and more appealing. A thoughtful layout is one thing that future buyers will certainly pay a premium for with condos - and will help your unit stand out among the sea of others. Here is a great supplementary blog of quick-fixes for those looking to 'Boost The Value Of A Condominium'.
When transforming a dilapidated 1880s triplex in Charlottetown, PEI, we built 2 new additions on either side of a 1980s bedroom extension at the rear of the property and then reconfigured it into a Great Room for this main floor 3bed suite. Lacking any original fixtures or finishes, we installed 100-year-old barn plank floors and hand-hewn beams, in addition to white beadboard to ensure the interior felt authentic to the age of the property. Open white shelving units, and butcherblock wrapping the fridge, island and counters in a waterfall detail keep the space relaxed, and visually balanced. Here's more in Serenity Blooms In The Garden Suite At The Black House In Charlottetown, PEI.
4. Balance = Visual Cohesion
One subtle design feature that is both pleasing and compelling (for potential buyers) is that of symmetry, where one creates a sense of harmonious and beautiful proportion and balance. Symmetry is a lynchpin in creating an overall effect, as well as creating flow throughout a home. Design elements and floorplans should complement and support each other, not be at odds with each other.
On a subliminal level, just like a house can evoke that sense of 'Home', so can symmetry in design make a room or even a whole home feel “right”. That’s because symmetry is associated with calm and peace, whereas asymmetry can feel chaotic. It’s about creating familiar patterns that are comforting.
How do you create symmetry? In architecture, a fireplace or pair of French doors centred on a wall with matching custom shelves is an example of architectural symmetry. The same goes for placing a pair of windows in a room so they mathematically complement each other in their placement. If the room sizes of your Entertainment Space share similar proportions mathematically they feel more balanced. If the dwelling doesn't have these already, there are opportunities to make it work with how you place items in the rooms, but I would still pay great attention to whether property for sale has good symmetry as it's a hidden value in real estate.
When it comes to using home furnishings to balance your space, start with a focal point in the room (i.e. pick something that naturally draws the eye or indicates what the use of the room is - like a bed, a dining table, a statement light fixture, an impressive island in the kitchen, etc. etc.). Then balance furniture and design accents around these focal points, distributing weight (both on terms of physical weight and heavier, richer design elements.)
It’s also important to note that asymmetry is used in design as well. However, it is used very strategically in order to create visual balance, by placing items of varying design weights to balance each other around a focal point. It is a more complex design trick than symmetry. There are some helpful hints in this post: 'Why Asymmetry Is An Important Part Of Interior Design (And How To Make it Work)'. Focus on odd numbers in pairings, as well as differing sizes of objects. Most importantly - consider how your décor and design creations make you feel. Take a step back. Does your eye get drawn in the right direction?
Other elements to consider are rhythm and continuity among rooms or design elements. Do the décor style, items and elements match each other in terms of style, scale and overall impression? If you’ve got a home with multiple styles in multiple rooms, the message can be confusing. But Principles of Design is a great place to start!
At my Movie House Loft, the exclusive use outdoor space faced the street and was located on City property. I had custom screens made from recycled materials (that's aluminium siding on the right) and installed them on vertical anchors so they could be removed fairly easily if the City needed to repair or replace underground services. Here's more on The Perfect Patio At My Movie House Loft.
5. Bring The Outdoors In & The Indoors Out
There is an innate human need to connect our indoor space to the outdoor environment. In terms of design (and in what is most appealing to future Buyers), this can take different forms, but what I often strive for is to blur the separation of indoors and out by unifying the spaces. How? I like to keep use indoor/outdoor furnishings of a similar scale and appearance both inside and out for visual continuity. in addition to sculpture and art. I often incorporate soft night lighting and candlelight indoors and out, too.
If your outdoor space doesn't have a view, create a focal point with a water feature or sculpture. Use plantings or screens to mask a sightline which is an eyesore, and always frame the best view. And, of course, never underestimate the value of a protected view, particularly if it's unique to a place as I share in Toronto Loves The CN Tower (And So Do I!).
I’ve written in the past about the concept of Biophilia in design, which is the incorporation of outdoor elements in a space, from natural materials to the use of water and plants and more. The proximity and perception of nature nearby (or inside) creates calm. Here's how to incorporate this concept in your design: Dear Urbaneer: What Is Biophilia And How Can I Use It In Home Design?.
And speaking of the outdoors, don’t underestimate the value (literally) of having a welcoming and usable green space as part of your home. Whether it’s a rolling backyard or an awesome terrace with your condo, outdoor space is a highly coveted feature for future buyers. Read Dear Urbaneer: What Is The Value Of A Condominium Balcony Or Terrace for a more in-depth discussion of this.
Never underestimate the power of the unique, like Our Black Garden At The Black House In PEI By Dan Does Design.
There is a myriad of factors and features which influence the value of a property, to the extent that it can be overwhelming if you get attached to meeting a list of criteria that may be impossible to attain based on where you're looking or what your budget is. What's important is that you feel an emotional connection to space, and your intuition aligns with your head that you're making the right decision. And, for complete peace of mind, you can always enlist the services of a realtor like myself, who has the knowledge and experience to help guide you through the process with a critical eye in serving your needs.
If you'd like to dish on design some more, try these additional Urbaneer.com blogs!
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