Building that elusive quality called magic

#92 in a series of true experiences in real estate
March 1995, Hills Newspapers

A contractor friend called the other day for some advice. He’s considering buying a wreck of a house directly from the owner, then fixing it up, and selling it, and naturally, he wants to know if he can make money doing it. We talked about where the house is located, how big it is, how bad it is. And we talked about what he’ll have to pay for it and how much he thinks it will cost to fix it.

I said I’d drive by the outside of the house, look at the neighborhood, and see what else has recently sold nearby. The house does look seedy. The yard is overgrown, the roof has a decided sway, the front porch looks about to fall off. There is no garage, but there is off-street parking. And the block is attractive. Nice little houses, tidy and trim. This one is the eyesore.

Most houses nearby are one-story, two-bedroom houses. Some have garages, most have fireplaces, most were built around 1920. Depending on how high up on the hill they are, it seems, they sell for between $150,000 and $170,000.

My friend tells me he will have to replace the roof rafters and the covering. The kitchen and bath must be completely torn out. He’s trying to figure how to include an entry room so arrival in the living room is not so abrupt. There is no separate dining room, but the kitchen is large, plenty of room for a dining table.

There is a sunroom addition at the back of the house, “The nicest room in the house,” my friend reports. It is possible that it could be used as a dining room, but that would mean that there would be only two bedrooms. He asks, “Isn’t it an advantage to have three?”

Well, yes, usually it is better to have more bedrooms. But how much a house will sell for depends on so many things. I know that my friend is a good workman; he has done work for me. But I don’t know anything about his style, his taste, what he will do to this house, what it will look like when he is done. This is a problem. Until the finished product exists, how can I tell him what it might sell for?

I ask if there are wood floors. “No, not now, but there could be. That’s one of the things we’ll have to decide,” he says. I tell him wood floors are important. We don’t know who the buyer will be, but the majority of buyers want wood floors, not carpeting. I ask if there can be a fireplace. Yes, he can add a fireplace. Good. People like having a fireplace. Wooden windows are important, or really attractive metal ones – not silver-colored aluminum.

He wants to know what kind of finishes he should use. Should he use ceramic tile on the kitchen counters? How about appliances? I tell him that ceramic tile isn’t necessary, that a dishwasher is certainly nice, and that providing a refrigerator can make a big difference to the first-time buyer who is likely to be buying in this price range.

Should he build a garage? I can’t answer this one. Everyone appreciates having a place to store things, but it seems unlikely to me that he can recover the cost of building one. It will probably be better to spend garage money in other ways – upgrading the electrical and heating systems, making the house more earthquake durable.

We’ve covered most of the big decisions. Now it is time to talk about magic. Magic is the hardest part of a house to describe, the hardest to know how to include, but it is hugely important.

Buyers instantly recognize houses with magic. These are the houses that have multiple offers on them because they contain something that allows a buyer to complete his fantasy. The buyer responds, “Yes! Not just another house – this one!”

What is it about these houses? For years and years, I have thought about this, greatly enjoying and noting examples as I saw them. The house “everyone” wants is, first of all, sparkling clean and in good repair. The front of the house is pretty, maybe painted white with French blue trim, and there is greenery and a fence – picket or trellis, maybe even a vine-covered arch to walk under. There is a feeling of being away from the street – of arrival – once you are on the property.

There is a sheltered back yard, not necessarily large, and there is a view out to it, probably from the living room, dining room or kitchen. The rooms may not be large but they are well proportioned, and the bathroom is big enough for a piece of decorative furniture, a small table or chair or chest.

The house may be old or new. It looks spare and clean yet it has a cottage-like, homey feeling. The windows are wooden or dark metal, and they are divided into individual panes. The floors are wood, there is a fireplace, and there is natural wood trim somewhere – exposed beams are nice, maybe built-in bookcases, a mantel, perhaps shallow wood display shelves well placed in the kitchen and in the bathroom.

There may not be anything visually noteworthy about the walls or the kitchen cabinets or the countertops. They can be very plain, neutral in color and style, but high quality hardware has been used. The width of window and door frames is not skimpy and they meet properly at the corners. The light fixtures have been carefully selected. They provide lots of light and they are quietly interesting. All of the kitchen appliances are included in the sale.

There is a feeling of peace and privacy in the house. Out of every window something green is growing. Somewhere in the house it is possible to see through adjacent spaces, to get longer views than individual rooms allow.

If the house is vacant, it is easier to show, but there should be some furniture, especially a table and chairs, and some color inside, curtains, rugs, ornaments that suggest how the house might look when dressed up. And there is something, hopefully several somethings, that are unusual and beautiful. I can only give you examples.

A shiny stainless steel surface next to the stove. A high polished brass kitchen sink faucet. Sheer white curtains billowing out a casement window. A tall, glass-fronted, multi-paned corner cabinet painted in several harmonizing colors. An old chrome-topped stove in perfect condition. A wooden table in the middle of the kitchen. Galvanized steel sheets on the walls around the stove. A maple tree just outside the window over the kitchen sink. Deep window sills. A bench by the front door.

We see so many different beautiful things in houses. It is such a pleasure to see them. What I tell my friend is to put in his house whatever he can that will cause a buyer to say, “How unusual, how pretty, I’ll never find this anywhere else.”

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