How to Help Your Client Recognize a House with Good Bones

By Paul Morse
Owner, Morse Constructions Inc.

In a buyer’s market, it is particularly difficult to sell a home when its charm is disguised by outdated décor or some ill-considered updates. If you have a house that just hasn’t shown well, it may be because buyers have trouble recognizing the home’s potential. All they see is the less-than-ideal  surface without considering the strength of what lies beneath.

How can real estate agents recognize a house with “good bones” and help clients envision the possibilities of these hidden gems? When I tour properties with clients who are considering buying and remodeling a new home, we look for the following:

Quality construction – A house with good bones is well-built.  I “walk” a building looking for fundamental structural problems. How does it feel? Does it bounce or list, or does it “feel” solid? I look for cracks above doorways or in stairways.  Are things tight? When I go to the basement, I look along the bottoms of the floor joists. Do they seem to be in a flat plane or do they sag in the middle of their span? Are the joists notched into the sill or resting on their full depth? Can you see cracks between the ends and the sill or are they still tight? When looking down along the foundation wall, does it look plumb or is it listing outward? When outside the building and stepping back looking at it, do the walls have bows or are they straight? Does the house lean to one side or the other? Does the roof of the front porch sag? Are there sways to the roof or is it in one plane?

Solid infrastructure – It’s relatively simple to replace aging roofing shingles or update plumbing fixtures, but it is far more complicated if the basic infrastructure of the home is lacking. If the foundation, roof, heating, plumbing and electrical systems are in good shape, renovations become much easier.

Good floor plan – Is there good flow between frequently used rooms? Are rooms arranged logically?  Look at how traffic travels through the house as a whole. You can renovate to make particular rooms more livable, but it is far more costly and complex to make fundamental changes because the entire home’s floor plan just does not work.

If you are trying to sell a home with a floor plan that feels awkward, try to envision the space with walls moved or taken down entirely. I recently worked on a center entrance colonial in which the small dining room and kitchen made the entire first floor feel disjointed and tiny. By removing the walls between the dining room and kitchen, and the dining room and hallway, we created a sense of spaciousness without changing the footprint of the house. You may be able to get clients excited about a hard-to-sell home by helping them envision the house’s potential with a few, relatively straightforward changes.

Well-proportioned rooms – Are the home’s rooms a useful size and shape, or can they be easily changed? Many older homes have small rooms that are unsuited to modern lifestyles. It is often possible, however, to move walls and open up spaces relatively easily. Removing walls, adding a beam and creating an open a floor plan can make a separate kitchen, dining room and living room a great entertainment area or family space. On the other hand, sometimes there are fundamental problems that are not easy to correct. When I recently toured a newly renovated condo, I was surprised that I had to duck at the last step when entering the third floor master suite. The walls sloped so steeply that the “walk in closet” had almost no useable space. The room’s underlying structure was so limiting that it would have been very expensive to create space that worked well for the homeowners.

Character -- Look for unique architectural details that set the home apart. Today’s homeowners are moving away from the cookie-cutter feeling of McMansions in favor of spaces that feel handcrafted and authentic. Look for special architectural touches that may currently be hidden, but could serve as a focal point with a little attention.  In one Cambridge home, we took a steep attic stairway and added a skylight and delightful handrailing to create an eye-catching, artistic feature that doubled as a  welcoming entrance to a nanny’s bedroom and owner’s office.

Natural light – A sunny, airy home feels more spacious and inviting, but don’t automatically give up on a house because it is dark. Help your client consider small changes that could bring in more light. We’ve added skylights, transom windows and even cut openings in wall and floors to help light spread throughout a home.

When our Realtor friends are having trouble selling a particular home, we suggest walking through the property without clients and studying the features and traffic flow. Analyze whether the home is a treasure with good bones that are being overlooked, or just a tough sell. If the bones are good and the price is right, a well-timed suggestion about ways to renovate the home or highlight architectural features may be just what is needed to spark renewed interest from your client.

Paul Morse is owner of Morse Constructions Inc., a Boston-area design/build firm that has been crafting distinctive home renovations and additions for more than 35 years.