Renovating a Home of a Certain Age

Simple advice to update an old bungalow or Victorian home for modern times.


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Increase your home value by making changes that complement the existing features.

COURTESY GAST ARCHITECTS, PHOTOS BY PAUL DYER

Real estate agents are fond of the word character. By this they mean a property that has a specific architectural style, something that distinguishes it from a bland box. In the East Bay, that style often takes the form of bungalows or Victorians. In fact, Alameda claims more Victorians per capita than anywhere else in the country. This character usually commands a higher price tag and attracts buyers who embrace the heavy mouldings, built-ins, and coved ceilings that come with old homes.

Yet some features of older properties aren’t quite so appealing. In an age when open floor plans and large kitchens are prized, these homes tend to have neither. Victorians, in particular, often have a warren of small rooms, which can make them feel both claustrophobic and much smaller than their square footage would indicate.

So how do you update one of these houses for today’s lifestyle? Homeowners ask interior designers this question a lot. Here’s the answer, in a word: carefully.

Assuming resale value is important to you, be sure to maintain stylistic integrity. “If a home is consistent with itself and ‘of a piece,’ it will instantly transform a lukewarm buyer into a ‘must-have’ buyer,” says Kirk Knight, a Realtor with Gallagher & Lindsey Realtors. Shalene Rose, a Realtor at Caldecott Properties, agrees. “When homeowners make changes to a home to create a more open floor plan, more light, or a modern kitchen or bathroom, which are complimentary with the home’s original style, the home’s value usually increases.”

One architectural feature that’s particularly popular today is a kitchen that opens to the living and dining rooms. It’s ideal if you like to entertain, or if you have young children that you want to watch while you cook. It also has the welcome benefit of making the whole space feel larger. It may not be historically consistent with an older home, but that doesn’t make it a bad choice, just one that needs to be undertaken thoughtfully.

As an open kitchen visually connects to its adjacent rooms, you need to envision how all those spaces will work together. Be sure to keep your color palette harmonious, either by using the same color paint in all the rooms, or by using colors that work well together. Pay close attention, too, to the style of your cabinetry and the other finishes in your kitchen. If your bungalow sports a hefty, classic mantle and grand mouldings, don’t go for super modern cabinet faces. If your Victorian’s woodwork is painted white, try a classic white kitchen, as opposed to one with wood tones. And if you have quaint crystal doorknobs, steer clear of chunky, modern drawer pulls.

That being said, there’s no need to keep everything in your home period specific. Modern light fixtures can look great in older spaces, and that goes for furniture, too. Nor must you strip the paint off old woodwork. Some people love the warmth that comes with stained wood, and others prefer the crisp brightness of painted mouldings. Since both styles look great in older homes, the choice is up to you.

A house isn’t a relic; it’s a living, breathing thing, and it can bend a little without breaking. Honor its character without being a slave to it, and you’ll end up with a place you’re proud to call home.

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