Older homes offer character, quality, aura of stability

February 27, 1994|By Michael Walsh | Michael Walsh,Universal Press Syndicate

Too many house hunters forget that at-home happiness depends upon more than newness, convenience and room to roam. As a consequence, they gravitate toward larger homes in new housing developments. The trouble, for many of us, is that look-alike houses, spindly trees and seamless sidewalks and streets seem woefully sterile and lacking in character.

That's why, for those who long for a sense of stability and rootedness and for a home that looks substantial and durable, it may well make more sense these days to take a second look at older neighborhoods and older homes. Granted, a home that's 25 or 35 years old may be less spacious and less well-appointed than a new model. But it is also more likely to have heftier architectural moldings, solid wood floors, well-established landscaping and the kind of personality that only time provides.

The clear advantage to buying an older home that's in good condition and personally appealing is that it's often initially cheaper than a new home.

The key to finding an older home that fits your requirements is to assess its adaptability, its potential for conforming to your needs. Many of today's most sought-after features can be added to an older home economically, providing the kinds of amenities most people want in a structure.

Ask yourself what it would take to make the place meet your

standards. Many an older home is amenable to amendment. And if you pay less for it up-front, you may well be able to add the features you really want. For example:

* Fireplace: You don't need a stone mason, a concrete foundation or a brick chimney to have a fireplace these days. Prefab wood-burning units sell for $500 and up. They can be enclosed with conventional two-by-four gypsum wallboard on the inside. The flue outside can be enclosed with house siding or some other materials. A dealer or general contractor can do some or all of the work. Some gas-burning fireplaces can be vented through an outside wall (if local regulations permit). So don't reject an otherwise suitable house because it lacks a hearth.

* Open floor plan: Naturally, you don't want to have to rearrange an older home's entire floor plan, but knocking down a wall or two to open the kitchen to the dining room or the dining room to the family room is a relatively inexpensive process. If you're not dealing with a load-bearing wall (ask a remodeling contractor or architect to make that determination), you can do the demolition work yourself and then hire the repair work. In other words, you don't have to live with the floor plan you buy.

* Whirlpool bathtub: You may envision a relaxing and romantic interlude with a significant other in the kind of two-person tub often seen in new homes. But many couples have found their schedules and moods are rarely in sync and that it takes too long to fill (and clean) a large tub. One-person whirlpools are often more practical and always less expensive, and they fit into the space occupied by an existing conventional bathtub, keeping installation costs to a minimum.

A good alternative is an outdoor tub the whole family can enjoy. Just clean and refill it several times a year. Five- or six-person freestanding hot tubs start at about $3,000 and cost about a dollar a day to operate.

* Big kitchen: Big kitchens are highly overrated. It's not the size of the kitchen that counts but how well it performs. If yours is a four- or five-person household, then maybe you need a big kitchen. If you live alone or with just one or two others, however, an efficient and well-equipped modest-sized kitchen is probably more than adequate. In an older kitchen you can add a good automatic dishwasher for $400 to $600 or a new refrigerator with in-the-door ice and water dispensers for $1,200 and up. Good-quality cabinets can be repainted and counter tops can be replaced. Better a small kitchen with the kinds of high-quality appliances and surfaces that make your life easier, than a big one with bottom-of-the-line equipment.

* A deck: Small- to medium-sized build-it-yourself deck kits go for from $800 to $1,500. Double those amounts and you can add a roof and screens, giving you an outdoor room usable part or all of the year. Compared to a never-used formal dining room or a rarely used guest room in a new house, a deck or a porch may well be a more practical and accommodating space.

* Cathedral ceiling: There's more to it, of course, than simply pulling down the existing ceiling to disclose the attic space. If your house structure permits, overhead rafters spaced every 16 inches can be removed and replaced with widely-spaced wood trusses or beams. For the expenditure of a few thousand dollars you might be able to give a conventional boxy room the expansive personality of a new, large home.

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