Shiny New Homes

Three years ago, we summarized the downside of old homes, including poor energy performance, small kitchens, wet basements, outdated mechanical systems, and more. A lucky minority of buyers will find a gem with only a handful of problems to solve.

The majority of old home buyers will face a big undertaking. They will encounter enough flaws to challenge the real estate maxim that prizes location above all else. They might turn a blind eye to the prospect of a major renovation. Or they might take the plunge. The effort, time, and money spent modernizing these old homes can cause a legit freakout, as my daughter would say, no matter how desirable the neighborhood.

A renovation of a 1926 colonial in which we excavated the basement, added a kitchen and mudroom above it, and built a second-story laundry room with a third floor dormer to accommodate the new stairs to the attic. This is a typical renovation plan to remake an old home so that it “lives new” without tearing it down.

A renovation of a 1926 colonial in which we excavated the basement, added a kitchen and mudroom above it, and built a second-story laundry room with a third floor dormer to accommodate the new stairs to the attic. This is a typical renovation plan to remake an old home so that it “lives new” without tearing it down.

Kate Wagner dissects the “we don’t build ‘em like we used to” claim about old homes in a piece about the evolution of home-building, and if you don’t have time to read it, here’s her key message:

We don’t build houses like we used to because many people no longer need or want exactly the kinds of houses we used to have.

So what kind of houses are being built now in the North suburbs of Chicago? In the new construction market under $2 million, the inventory reflects many of the things people want or need from their homes today. Here are three common elements we see in these shiny new homes:

  1. Jumbo sizes. The typical new construction home is about 4,000-6,000 square feet, or about twice as big or more than average-sized homes fifty years ago. Zoning codes passed years ago, in part to prevent disproportionately large homes from being erected on modest lots, have the perverse effect of ensuring that every new home is as large as allowed by the municipality. Few buyers actually need 5,000 square feet, but many tend to be impressed by generous dimensions, finished basements, numerous closets, guest rooms and movie theaters, etc. Builders have little incentive to build smaller homes because they are competing partly on the basis of square feet, labor costs are high, and the land value is steep. Lenders encourage this practice because underwriting comps are significantly driven by square feet. In general, all of the incentives in the new construction market point towards big homes, whether you need one or not.

  2. Modern materials and systems. New construction invariably features wood flooring, a high-end kitchen, and ensuite bathrooms on the second floor, among other enticing things you can touch and see. The stuff behind the walls is even more important. The codes governing electrical, plumbing, and energy usage have changed significantly in the last dozen or so years. New plumbing, electrical, and insulation is a significant upgrade over older homes because it makes the living environment more comfortable, safer, and less costly to maintain than its predecessors. In fact, we think this is the primary virtue of new construction.

  3. Uniformity. It’s no secret that new construction builders are erecting homes that they think will appeal to a broad audience of potential buyers. This means that builders are often monitoring new home sales activity, re-using construction plans, drawing from a familiar body of Houzz and HGTV content, and “going with what works” based on their own experience. The result is that the new construction inventory looks very similar even when multiple builders are active in the same suburb. Consider these two new homes, for example, only a few blocks apart.

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Notice how the exteriors of these new homes are intended to remind us of older homes in the surrounding neighborhoods. Double hung windows, imitation cedar shingles, a covered porch, and other pieces of the whole evoke a sense of history and place that feels vaguely familiar. It is intended to create the illusion of “old” using new materials and mashing together multiple styles from common sets of construction plans, almost all of them selling for between $1.2-1.8 million depending on the suburb (we usually see architect-driven and luxury custom homes above the $2 million level).

Each exterior element is a fragment of a picture that never existed as a whole, but the builders know it will stir a memory or resonate as something you have seen before. Multiple roof lines and a nestled gable roof is important to lots of buyers? Step right up, replies the builder. It might have little or no basis in traditional home-building, but builders know how powerful your imagination is.

North suburban home buyers are often confronting two realities then. Either purchase an old home that likely requires a significant investment depending on what they want and how it was maintained by previous owners—or pay a premium for new construction. The middle road between these options is surprisingly narrow.

We hope this overview helps answer some of the questions we receive about old vs. new homes, their respective advantages and drawbacks, and why the housing market in the North suburbs looks like it does. Thanks for the inquiries, and good luck to all in their house hunting!

Kitchen Series, 3 of 3

We demolished and rebuilt a small rectangular kitchen in our last installment of the Kitchen Series. Today we have a 1956 galley kitchen that stretches the rectangle—but it is even more narrow than the 1943 version in Kitchen Series, 2 of 3. The evolution of kitchens across the decades shows many developments. Much of the functionality remains the same, but the materials and the idea of the kitchen has undergone major changes.

The new kitchen with sleek grey and white semi-custom cabinets, hardwood floors, and high-end appliances.

The new kitchen with sleek grey and white semi-custom cabinets, hardwood floors, and high-end appliances.

Advice from Mom: if you can’t think of something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. A tall ceiling and adjacent natural light were the best features of this kitchen before we started.

Advice from Mom: if you can’t think of something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. A tall ceiling and adjacent natural light were the best features of this kitchen before we started.

Typical galley kitchens are out of favor because they are often outdated and too cramped for entertaining. Open kitchen plans are more popular than ever. However, any kitchen footprint can work well if other requirements are met—including galley kitchens. One valuable guideline is to avoid overwhelming the space with materials. Focus on the essentials and apply the editor’s maxim: have “the guts to cut” anything unnecessary. Think Hemingway, not Faulkner, in small kitchen design.

A view of the Wolf dual-fuel range and backsplash to the ceiling with undulated tile. No upper cabinets clutter the space. Generous organized storage under the counter was sufficient for these clients.

A view of the Wolf dual-fuel range and backsplash to the ceiling with undulated tile. No upper cabinets clutter the space. Generous organized storage under the counter was sufficient for these clients.

These clients subscribe to the “less is more” approach to kitchen design, and we agree. Numerous kitchens suffer from too many ornamental details (intricate cabinet doors, for example, to create the illusion of something “historic” or fancy) or over-styled finishes (hand-painted Italianate tile was popular at one time). Excess competes for your attention and ages quickly, too. Simplicity is not the same as plain.

Wolf drawer microwave under white quartz countertops, Franke water filter, and Sub-Zero refrigerator shown above.

Wolf drawer microwave under white quartz countertops, Franke water filter, and Sub-Zero refrigerator shown above.

This kitchen reminds us of the contemporary master bathroom we completed with the emphasis on uncluttered design, high-quality materials, and our focus on the short list of essentials for our clients. Do you know that feeling when you (pardon the expression) hit the nail on the head at work? We did here. It was a pleasure working with these clients, and it means a lot to us that they are thrilled with their new kitchen.


Kitchen Series, 2 of 3

We’ve defrosted after the bitterly cold temperatures, and we’re returning to kitchens we recently completed. You can catch up on part 1 of the series which included a mid-sized new kitchen as part of a two-story addition in Wilmette.

Now we find a smaller footprint in a Highland Park home. Our working dimensions are 9 x 15 feet. There is no good ability to expand without a costly addition to the house. Below is a picture of the renovated kitchen, followed by the “before” pictures.

The new kitchen features Thermador appliances , a multi-function sink, and honed granite countertops.

The new kitchen features Thermador appliances , a multi-function sink, and honed granite countertops.

A prep sink does not fit in a compact kitchen, and a double-bowl sink is not as efficient as a single-bowl option. The client opted for a Julien Smartstation with included accessories (integrated cutting board, colander, and drying rack) for greater utility.

The original kitchen was poorly designed with an “L” shape peninsula stub to hold the dishwasher.

The original kitchen was poorly designed with an “L” shape peninsula stub to hold the dishwasher.

The original kitchen had tile flooring, basic appliances and cabinetry, and soffits that reduced the ceiling height for no obvious reason. One major design penalty arises from attempting to fit a peninsula or island in dimensions that do not support it. The owner ends up with a passage that is too tight for seating, and impractical storage or dead space are the result. Useful kitchen space is a top priority in general, and even more so in a compact footprint—rather than forcing a peninsula or island into a small kitchen design, it’s better to maximize the useful prep space and storage by eliminating one window in this example.

Another view of the offending peninsula stub. We replaced the tile floor in the kitchen for red oak to match the rest of the flooring.

Another view of the offending peninsula stub. We replaced the tile floor in the kitchen for red oak to match the rest of the flooring.

The original cooking appliances opposite the sink wall. One disadvantage of stock cabinetry is that it can lead to odd configurations if the wall dimensions are not a good fit for the stock cabinetry dimensions.

The original cooking appliances opposite the sink wall. One disadvantage of stock cabinetry is that it can lead to odd configurations if the wall dimensions are not a good fit for the stock cabinetry dimensions.

Semi-custom or custom cabinetry is a good choice for many kitchens.It allowed us to center the range on the wall and add valuable storage and prep space on both sides.

Semi-custom or custom cabinetry is a good choice for many kitchens.It allowed us to center the range on the wall and add valuable storage and prep space on both sides.

A counter-depth refrigerator is preferable despite the additional cost, especially in a small kitchen.

A counter-depth refrigerator is preferable despite the additional cost, especially in a small kitchen.

Like many of our clients, this homeowner has a full schedule with little time to spare for renovation plans. She was prepared to make a significant change to her home, and we are glad she entrusted us with this project—from initial consultation to completion. It’s satisfying to see a good plan come to fruition. We hope she enjoys her kitchen for many years!


It's a New Year. Let’s Get Moving.

A client referred us to new homeowners in Evanston who had a healthy goal in mind: to create an enclosed gym from a car port-turned-garage. This project did not neatly fit our typical engagements in size or type, but we were intrigued from the start. There is something about solving new problems that appeals to us. Retrofitting a space built for one purpose into a new space for a different purpose presents the kind of challenges we like. Also, we like to lend a hand to our Northwestern peeps when we can.

We’re glad the results exceeded our client’s expectations.

The former garage comfortably holds a treadmill, rowing machine, heavy bag, TRX system, and more, all on a 3/4” thick rubberized floor. No more excuses for skipping a workout when you have this attached to your home.

The former garage comfortably holds a treadmill, rowing machine, heavy bag, TRX system, and more, all on a 3/4” thick rubberized floor. No more excuses for skipping a workout when you have this attached to your home.

A view of the entry to the gym, with closed storage, new exterior door, new windows, and lockers. The clients can check their form in the 6’ x 4’ wall mirror, too. Heat is drawn from the main ductwork inside the home, and the walls are coated in a special scuff-resistant paint.

A view of the entry to the gym, with closed storage, new exterior door, new windows, and lockers. The clients can check their form in the 6’ x 4’ wall mirror, too. Heat is drawn from the main ductwork inside the home, and the walls are coated in a special scuff-resistant paint.

The former garage started as a car port before it was enclosed by the previous owners. Our first task was to remove the rolling garage door, create an insulated sub-floor, and frame the walls and ceiling. A minimally functional garage often has limited electrical installed and no insulation. They are drafty with exposed framing and uncomfortable during the Winter with no heat supply.

After running the new electrical, we insulated the sub-floor, walls, and ceiling with closed-cell spray foam to provide an air-tight insulation seal. We added lighting and electrical outlets to ensure the new space would function well as gym, and we also took steps to ensure that the gym could be returned to a garage in the future if new owners needed it.

Under the 3/4” plywood sub-floor is a vapor barrier, stud platform, and closed cell foam insulation. A minor amount of disassembly and demolition would be required to revert to a functional garage in the future.

Under the 3/4” plywood sub-floor is a vapor barrier, stud platform, and closed cell foam insulation. A minor amount of disassembly and demolition would be required to revert to a functional garage in the future.

We were delighted to help these new owners build the gym they envisioned and take advantage of an extra car spot they didn’t need. What used to be a basic garage is now a functional gym for owners who use it every day. We wish them and you a healthy and active 2019!

Remodeling and Home Design