Selling points: Attractive solutions to house's problems


November 28, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

Here's the dream: You put your lovingly rehabbed house on the market. Of the first half-dozen or so people who look at it, three put in contracts. You sell the house for your asking price.

Doesn't work that way in real life, especially in a real-estate market that's softer than frozen yogurt, you say.

It did for Patrick Sutton, a local architect with Kaplan Sutton & Associates, whose rowhouse in Federal Hill was snapped off the market in less than two weeks.

The charming neighborhood and a rational asking price helped make the sale, of course, but there are lots of houses for sale in that neighborhood, and many of them are in the same price range.

So what was it about the house Mr. Sutton and his wife, Lark Pfleegor, an architectural graphic artist, designed that makes it so special?

It's not the size. With two bedrooms, one bath, living area and kitchen in a space 12 feet wide and 28 feet deep, it's pretty small.

"When we bought the house, in 1986, it was very much like the 'quick and dirty' renovations done all over Federal Hill in the '70s," Mr. Sutton says. "It was livable, but it was a chopped-up, small house. It had a dark kitchen and walls in inappropriate locations.

"We took out as many walls as possible to open up the space to as much light as possible," Mr. Sutton says. That included taking out the back wall of the house and replacing it with four glass doors. "So when you walk in the front door, the garden is part of the house.

"In these tiny houses, the feeling of enclosure is important," Mr. Sutton said. "People who see the house feel it's very light and open."

But what they left in the space was as important as what they took out. The staircase is original, but they opened it up, so the sides are not enclosed; it stands like a piece of sculpture.

"The fireplace has an interesting sculptural quality to it too," Mr. Sutton says. Part of the brickwork had broken away, creating a notch; Mr. Sutton designed a sort of bow-front top that fills the gap and set it on a plain rectangular base.

And some design solutions required, as Mr. Sutton described it, combining rational thinking with inspiration. The bathroom upstairs has a glass-block wall that curves around the shower. "We wanted the bath to have light, and that's a way to introduce it." The material is appropriate, Mr. Sutton noted, because "glass-block has a watery quality about it." There's a reason it's curved: "so you can walk around it more gracefully." It's typical of what he called "functional ideas that have aesthetic dividends."

"The thing I think is important," Mr. Sutton said, "is that we maintained some of the things people like about old houses -- the old brick, the weathered old wood floors -- and contrasted that with white, clean surfaces, big shower, openness and airiness."

It really is important for design solutions to be both appropriate and beautiful. We have seen some design elements in other houses on the market, some of them in the same neighborhood as Mr. Sutton's, that simply don't work. Instead of solving a problem, they stand out as odd and obtrusive: a "room-divider" shower with clear glass doors on both sides; a patently useless wooden fireplace, a modern heat-ventilating fireplace that dominates a tiny front room.

There's no reason to settle for a less-than-ideal solution to a design problem -- even if you don't have two design professionals in the family. If you can't come up with a good solution, hire some help.

"If they've got a spatial design problem," Mr. Sutton pointed out"they need someone who can visualize the space three-dimensionally and solve the problem."

And it doesn't have to be an expensive process. "People don't realize how cheap something like that can be," Mr. Sutton said. "If they have a design professional in for a consultation for an hour, it can be as little as $75. On an $8,000 bath-room, spending $75 to make sure you're doing the right thing -- that's nothing."

"People think architects and designers are only for the rich," he said, but that's not true. Most architects and interior designers will work as consultants. In an hour or so, Mr. Sutton said, someone could look at the project and offer solutions, maybe even come up with a quick sketch. And people would be avoiding a mistake that could become very expensive when it's time to sell the house.

In fact, you could be turning a design problem into an asset. "The difficult problems usually lend themselves to more innovative solutions," Mr. Sutton said.

5) Next: Gift suggestions for rehabbers.

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a home writer for The Sun.

AIf you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N.

Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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