Month: December 2015

Open Kitchens: BAD Closed Kitchens: GOOD

A few years ago, my husband and I moved into a gorgeous Craftsman-style house in the Pacific Northwest. It was chockablock with original details like dark wood paneling, stained-glass transom windows … and a 100-square-foot, totally enclosed kitchen in a faux country style—think yellow oak cabinets paired with linoleum countertops. And though we found most of the historical elements quite charming, the kitchen needed a complete overhaul.

So we hired an architect who hatched a plan to steal some space from the nearby office area. But he didn’t want to stop there. He also wanted to knock down the wall between the kitchen and the formal dining room, to give us the open-concept kitchen that it seems just about everybody else has these days.

We balked. Lose the cool, old-fashioned swinging door? And the opportunity to leave my kitchen a mess during dinner parties?

Heck no. Because after having grown up in a New York City apartment where public and private spaces were blurred—both bathrooms were en suite, so guests had to traipse through our bedrooms to use the loo—I loved the idea of an older house’s separate rooms. (Remember Julia Child’s famous quip: If you drop something, you can always pick it up if you’re alone in the kitchen. Who is going to see?”) To me, they aren’t isolated and inconvenient, but rather refined and gracious. Though open kitchens may be all the rage, let me dare to say right here: I’m anti-open kitchen.

For much of domesticated human history—until mid-past century—I wasn’t alone in the enclosed-kitchen camp. Walk into an American home built before the 1950s, and you’ll most likely find the kitchen tucked away in a far-off corner of the main floor. Rarely visited by guests and not a place where the family spent much time, the kitchen was separate and functional, not designed for hanging out.

The equipment was usually along the periphery, meaning that anyone who entered the kitchen was most likely greeted by the cook’s back. Or they wouldn’t see the cook at all—how often does Lord Crawley visit Mrs. Patmore on “Downton Abbey”?

Only that wasn’t thought of as hugely rude or anything, because most social interaction occurred either in front parlors (for welcoming guests) or in dens (primarily just for family). Not having to touch a hot pan was a sign of status.

These days, the kitchen is the place to entertain, thanks in part to mid-20th-century technology that made appliances fit into the cabinetry, not stand freely and hoard all the free space.

The kitchen was becoming quieter, cleaner, better organized and easier to work in. In essence, the kitchen was becoming a source of pride. These days, you flip on HGTV or pick up a flier for an open house in your neighborhood and chances are they’re heralding an open-concept kitchen. They’re great for wooing guests while cooking, or so goes the current real estate lore.

Food preparation is central to how we entertain and socialize. It’s how we live today. Nine out of 10 kitchen designers, she says, report that their clients want their living, dining, and cooking spaces to flow together.

There’s a practical reason for their popularity, too. In an age when houses are getting smaller for the first time since 2007 (the median size of a new U.S. home in 2010 was 2,169 square feet, up from 1,525 square feet in 1973 but down from the 2007 peak of 2,277 square feet) and house prices are rising like never before, open kitchens maximize space and minimize cost. In a closed-plan house, there are more doors and walls, more trim and details needed to delineate various rooms. And to build all that requires more tradespeople, like electricians and carpenters. Consequently, open-plan kitchens have become the new normal. There’s more natural daylight in an open kitchen, too.

And here’s another bitter pill for the fan of the closed-off kitchen to swallow: Open-concept kitchens might help boost a home’s resale value.

The most common conversation I overhear when showing a property to potential buyers is ‘Is this wall load-bearing? Can we knock it down to open things up? So no matter how gorgeous a home is, it will most likely sell for less if the kitchen is separate.

OK, so those are compelling reasons, but I remain unconvinced. In part it’s because I find it beyond challenging to turn out culinary masterpieces (or even just a nice meal) while guests are chatting around me in the kitchen, and also because I just don’t believe it’s a good time to “entertain” anyone while I’m wielding a knife and managing fire. Plus, I’m happier when my whole world—especially my living room furniture—doesn’t smell of bacon grease.

A cozier, rustic kitchen

As it turns out, others might be starting to see things my way. Hilarious and blasphemous blog posts detailing the difficulties of actually living with open floor plans have started to dot the Internet. (“‘Oh my gosh I dropped the chicken!’ In a perfect world, no one would know. Open floor plan? Well, it’ll be tweeted in minutes.”)

Some architects are seeing an uptick in clients asking for separate kitchens.

Many of the requests are from older clients, because that’s what they’re used to.

But interest is also stemming from sophisticated younger clients rediscovering the value—emotional, if not financial—in drawing a line between public and private space.

Many properties are designed for a mass market, and in order to appeal to as many people as possible, they include trends like an open-concept kitchen. But there’s also a market for interesting, well-thought-out separate spaces. It’s just that they appeal to a group with a more curated aesthetic.

People think they should love open-plan kitchens because they’ve been told to love them. They can be fine for low-impact prep like chopping, but real cooking is messy work and requires a great deal of concentration.m(Man, it feels good to be validated by a professional!)

So could it be a backlash against open-concept kitchens is emerging? Or maybe this is now just one of those things that you have to be either totally for or dead set against. Either way, I’m glad we bucked the trend and kept our separate kitchen. And if you ever come to my house for dinner and experience just how often we set the smoke alarm off, you’ll be glad we did, too.


So which kitchen is right for you? Here are a few concepts to consider as you decide:
What kind of cook you are

If you tend to do takeout or don’t mind your mess being visible, then an open-concept kitchen could work for you. But if you’re into preparing elaborate meals and prefer to concentrate while cooking, then consider a space that’s separate from your home’s main living areas.
Think things through

In most states, changing walls requires building permits—and structural modifications can affect your home’s resale value. So before making plans to knock down an existing wall or rough in another, figure out if your long-term plan includes staying put or needing to appeal to other homebuyers in the future.
Be realistic

It’s easy to be dazzled by professional photos of dream kitchens, but what works well in one space might not in another. Consider your own home’s ceiling height, amount of wall space, windows, and views when creating a plan to fit your kitchen and living space.
Work with someone who sees beyond trends

Some architects value separate kitchen spaces while others think they’re outdated. So if you’re considering closing off your cooking space or shopping for a house that features a closed kitchen, consider working with a builder or Realtor who has an eye for creative elements that make separate spaces feel airy (think a bank of windows, skylights, or glass doors).


Here’s What Pushes People to Buy Homes in 2015

People buy homes for as almost as many different reasons as there are, well, different types of houses to buy. So if we take a step back and look at the main drivers in today’s home-buying decisions, it helps paint a clear picture of just what buyers these days want. What’s really behind the current frenzy of housing activity?


In a survey of active home shoppers this June and July conducted for® through the BDX Home Shopper Insights Panel, we asked what triggered them to start thinking about purchasing a home. Here are the top results!
1. I’m tired of my house

Out of 22 possible responses, the top reason people moved was—no surprise here—that they’re simply sick to death of their current home. This was cited by 28% of the panel, and it’s a strong indicator of pent-up demand.

The average tenure in a home has increased since the Great Recession, as many homeowners ended up underwater from the price declines of 2007–2011 or simply lacked the confidence to consider changing homes. After four years of above-average price appreciation, confidence in the market has returned, and that has been helping fuel this year’s increase in sales.
2. Interest rates are looking good

Favorable interest rates came in as the second most cited trigger, with 27% of shoppers. While the average weekly 30-year fixed conforming rate varied from a low of 3.63% in January to a high of 4.09% in June, rates remain extremely low from a historical perspective.

It is hard to fathom today, but the average monthly 30-year fixed conforming rate since 1971 is a whopping 8.39%. Compared to that, interest rates will certainly remain favorable for many months ahead.
3. Home prices are, well, not bad either

Hot on the heels of favorable rates: favorable home prices, cited by 26% of active home shoppers. Although the U.S. did hit a nominal record for the median existing-home price nationally in June, on an inflation-adjusted basis, home prices today remain about 20% beneath the peak at the height of the housing bubble.

In 2012, favorable home prices was, by far, the No. 1 trigger cited by 47% of active home shoppers in a similar survey. Opportunistic pricing is less of a motivation today, but it remains a top trigger.
4. I’ve got more money to spend

As evidence that more households are now financially better off as a result of the recovering economy, 24% of active home shoppers cited an increase in income as a primary trigger. When we filter the respondents to look only at 25- to 34-year-olds, this trigger vaults to No. 1, as it was cited by 35% of these older millennial home shoppers.
5. The stork is on its way—and it’ll need some room to land

Rounding out our top five triggers is yet another indicator of an improving economy and resulting life events driving home sales. A change in family circumstance or composition was cited by 18% of this year’s active home shoppers. Births increased last year and appear to be poised for another year of growth this year. Baby needs a new pair of shoes and a room of her own! Can an Xbox be far behind?

I expect favorable mortgage rates to remain a top trigger for some time, but I would expect to see evidence of more life events and continued improving economic circumstances driving tomorrow’s buyers. And with this scenario, at last, the housing market is returning to normal.

Mortgage Rates May Go Up, but You Can Deal: Here’s Why

It’s a late-summer nail-biter: The U.S. Federal Reserve will announce its current policy for short-term rates on Thursday, ending weeks of suspense. If you’ve been worrying that the Fed will raise rates and thus ruin your dream of homeownership, well, you’re not alone.


But higher rates won’t hurt the housing market overall, which should console homeowners watching their equity as well as home buyers concerned about their investment.

The Fed’s target for short-term rates has been zero since December 2008. Since then, the 30-year fixed mortgage rate has averaged between 3.31% and 5.59% on a weekly basis. So when the Fed officially moves away from a zero interest rate policy for short-term rates, whether it happens tomorrow or in a few months, it will mark the beginning of the end of an era: seven years of incredibly low mortgage rates and high affordability.

But interest rates matter less to housing demand than consistently high levels of job creation and household formation. That is, when people are able to get jobs, move out on their own, and create families, they’re likely to want to buy a home. So higher rates—though they may price out some buyers—won’t cause a decline in sales, or a decline in prices.

But that may not help you feel better if you’ve yet to buy and lock in a monthly payment at these historically low rates. If that’s you, have you completely missed out on the party?

No. You will still be able to do well by historical standards.

The affordability index reported by the National Association of Realtors® stood at 151.2 in July. That number basically means that a family earning the median household income could afford to buy 151% of the median-priced homes in the U.S. Yes, the index is down 16% from January when mortgage rates were at their lows for this year. But the index has averaged 125 over the past 44 years. That means you can still get more home for your money than most people have for more than 40 years.

Over that same 44-year period, the average monthly 30-year fixed mortgage rate was over 8%. It was 4.06% on Tuesday.

Does that mean dealing with higher rates will be easy? No, we will have to adjust to the impact. A 50 basis-point increase in rates causes a 6% increase in monthly mortgage payments. (A basis point is 1/100th of a percentage point.) And higher payments cause higher debt-to-income ratios, which typically max out for various mortgage products between 36% and 43%.
How can you still qualify even with higher rates?

Consider a higher down payment. Can you swing it? This could qualify you for a lower rate, but even if it doesn’t, you’d have a lower loan balance, resulting in a lower monthly payment.

Pay a discount point. This would also reduce the applicable rate, and could make economic sense if you intend to stay in the home long enough to recover the cost of that discount point.

Consider hybrid mortgages. These offer lower rates that are fixed for a specified period such as five, seven, or 10 years. Since rates have been so low, most mortgages have been fixed for the duration of the mortgage term. But in periods of higher rates, we usually see more hybrid term mortgages because of the flexibility the lower rates provide.

Consider different mortgage types such as an FHA loan. This offers more flexibility on key ratios for qualified buyers.

Finally, consumers may need to rethink their target prices based on what they can afford with higher rates. That may mean rethinking location, size, or key features. An expert local Realtor® can help you think through trade-offs and home in on what matters most.

Bottom line: This era of low rates was a unique period of economic weakness and poor housing fundamentals. That era is ending, as conditions are much, much better now. Yes, that does mean that affordability will be lower, but we are still in good territory by historical standards, and today looks pretty good compared to the future for locking in prices and rates.

5 Pitfalls to Avoid When Renovating a Historic Home

Ever dream of sipping tea on the wraparound porch of a Queen Anne Victorian, or gazing at the soaring ceilings of a Gothic Revival after an endless workday?


Historic homes carry tons of charm, but here’s the thing: They’re old. And that means they often come with truckloads of hidden or weirdly unexpected issues—and may require exorbitant upgrades.

But fear not! With smart planning and a few expert tips, you can renovate the historic home of your fantasies. And, hey, why not create some new history while you’re at it?

Before you get your heart set on updating a sprawling Georgian manse (like the “Home Alone” house in Chicago), don’t! Instead, read this list of things to avoid:
1. Don’t fall in love before you really know the deal

Before you make an offer, know what you’re getting into, Matt West says. Sure, you (presumably) already know about getting a standard inspection, but a historic home requires something more.

Have a team of top-notch professionals—an agent who specializes in historic neighborhoods, a good home inspector, and a general contractor with experience renovating older properties—walk through and identify all critical issues. Topping the list: lousy wiring and plumbing, drafty or otherwise inefficient windows, badly sloping foundations. Get estimates from at least three contractors for repairs. You might find that the extra costs and time involved are just beyond your reach.

Also, your city’s code enforcement office as a resource for determining whether a historic property is up to code. If you’re obtaining an FHA loan and don’t have the extra cash for renovations, ask your lender if you qualify for the 203(k) loan program. The program allows borrowers to wrap renovation costs into their home loan if the property meets FHA standards.
2. Don’t create a budget with no wiggle room

As with any older-home renovation, expect the unexpected when you open up walls and floors, West cautions. Chances are, something’s lurking behind them.

When you undertake a reno project, you always need to leave some space in the budget for those unforeseen hiccups, like a lead pipe in a wall you were going to tear down, or water damage in a ceiling. Factor in an extra 10% into the budget to tackle those problems, as well as some extra time to get unplanned work completed.

If the renovation goes sideways, remind yourself it’s more important to get the work done right the first time.
3. Don’t lose sight of the place’s character

What makes older homes so enticing? They have personality, uniqueness—and most important—history. Preserving all those characteristics while refreshing the look and floor plans is an important piece of the renovation puzzle.

Some of these homes have design elements that can’t be replicated easily such as detailed crown moldings or ornate fireplaces in nearly every room. Design around those details instead of removing them.

Keep in mind, too, that there might be limitations on what you can change if the surrounding area is designated as a historic neighborhood by your city or state, or if it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which contains more than 90,000 listings across the United States. Make sure you run your renovation plans by code enforcement and your local historic preservation board before any work gets underway.
4. Don’t try to save money by doing it all yourself

Sure, you might be an arena-level rock star when it comes to painting walls and installing light fixtures, but leave the major projects to the pros. Electrical rewiring, foundation and structural repairs, and reconfiguring plumbing aren’t tasks suited for the casual DIYer. Bring in experienced contractors who have worked on older homes before (ask for references!)—unless you want bigger, more expensive headaches down the road. Trust us on this one.
5. Don’t ignore the things you can’t see

Asbestos, lead, radon, wood rot, and mold are common environmental issues that crop up frequently in historic home renovations, especially if a property has been vacant for a long time. Hire a licensed home inspector who can catch these issues early on and recommend companies to address them. If significant mitigation work is required, you’ll be in a good position to negotiate those items (or the price) with the seller.

Now, go forth and get historic.