Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Granite, and Some Other Boring Things

By Matt Cantor
Friday August 04, 2006

I can feel another rant coming on and this one has been coming for some time. I’m definitely involved in the world of real estate, for better AND for worse. Rather than simply sharing construction knowledge with people at their homes, a lot of what I end up doing involves checking over houses that are in the sale process, and this means examining the product of sales preparation, of last-minute, minimally budgeted spin and fluff. Even the term “flipping” a house sounds more like making a crepe than building a home. There’s a vernacular to these things that’s not unlike reality TV or aerobics classes and it’s become so predictable that there are genuinely days in which I can’t remember which flip I’ve been inside of for three or four hours. Yes, one had two baths and three bedrooms and the other was four baths with an in-law downstairs but the “look” of these places is often so similar, due to the vernacular of choices that there isn’t much difference beyond square footage. 

Sadly, I’m also speaking about a wide range of original styles from the craftsman bungalow with Clinker brick to Deco houses of the ’40s with Air-Stream modalities embossed into the stucco exteriors. Every house from every era has a style, a message and a flavor. They’re not all the same nor should we wish them to be so. They’re not in lockstep and they don’t read the same books. Unfortunately, when many remodeling contractors prepare houses for sale, they too often try to apply a template remodeling scheme and this results in a loss of the real charm, beauty and the fun of the original designs. Also, it often means a loss of the function inherent in the original plan. 

One of my pet bugaboos in this vein is the current madness for granite. What is it about granite? Well, I know, but it’s fun to snark the question. The answer is that it has the “oeuvre” of wealth.  

Like so many features found in “just-remodeled” houses, granite has become so commonplace that whatever value it once bore has been diluted by its overuse. It’s also used without any real thought for the type of aesthetic it sits with. Granite, when used in a Roman villa, might seem apropos but as a part of a McMansion, it simply becomes ordinary. 

I’d argue that the money spent on granite is wasted by those who are seeking the feel of wealth and prestige when more of that particular appeal might better be found in buying some very nice pieces from one of the better salvage yards and building around them. If what you want to do is impress your friends with your pocketbook, do as the Hearsts did and fly to Italy and buy up the salvage of the great churches or villas and ship them home to your architect (of course, hiring Julia Morgan couldn’t hurt), but buying a lot of granite and flooding the surfaces of your kitchen with it just ends up looking like a lack of imagination. 

Other than granite, there also seem to be a few other vernacular item found in the flip houses I see nearly every week. There are the seven new Home Depot lighting fixtures that scream “fake old-fashioned lamp” and make a wonderful old house look very much like a brand new stucco box.  

There are the new brass and glass fixtures in the bathroom along with the brand new Home Depot bargain tile in the bathroom. Now this is often really sad since so many of the bathrooms from the past are actually in fairly good shape and had the most incredible tile imaginable. The colors and combinations of colors were great. Also, the tile was often of extremely hearty quality and while they might be somewhat chipped or cracked, this is often minimal and more than compensated for by the fact that they will look far better in 10 years than the cheap vitreous tile that people put down in place of the wonderful green ’40s tile that they took out. Pest companies are often quick to tear out old tile baths that are really just fine and covering only a small amount of decay. Some pest companies are quite good in this respect but the criticism is still valid. 

More than a few of the flips I’m seeing today have a full set of vinyl double-glazed windows in them and while this might be fine for a simple modern stucco building, it’s a pretty sad choice on a 1930s Craftsman home. There are good choices that can be made when remodeling an old gem and I have nothing against the person who wants to buy a neglected old house, fix it up and turn a profit. It a good business if you can make it pay and it preserves and enhances our built environment when it’s well done. That said, there are better and worse choices that can be made.  

Here are some suggestions: Look at how these houses were first done and if you don’t know, get educated. There is a lot of information to be gleaned from the Internet, books and from looking at minimally modified homes in the area. Many older homes had tiled kitchen. Tile is relatively easy to do, costs a reasonable sum and can be fabulous if done with style and care. Don’t be afraid of color or pattern but consider what suited the house when it was built. This doesn’t mean mimic; it just means consider. Think about the impact of your choices and where modernization is done, see if you can “tip your hat” at the history you are working within. Pick up some color from the rest of the house or the curve of the doorways or the tile in the old fireplace or the trim from the hallway. These little measures can “pull the house together” and allow you more freedom to do something wild or outrageous. 

Try sanding the floors and finishing with a low gloss. The old oak floor so many of our houses have were never meant to be glossy. Sanding can be nice but don’t overdue it. For kitchen remodels, consider real linoleum. Linoleum was very common from the teens through the ’50s and is very durable and looks great. It’s a far better choice than vinyl. Think about repainting the old cabinets and getting some genuine knobs from the period. If the ones you have are covered with paint, soak them and put them back up. This can also apply to the hinges, doorknobs, mortise locks, doorbells and other metal appointments that have been painted over. It also applies to old light fixtures. If you take the time to soak and re-install these old features, you can breathe new life into a house that’s become flat and boring. Lastly, when you paint—and painting is well worth the trip—try to use some color. Don’t even think about white. Remember that even in the prim and uptight Victorian age, the houses were painted outlandish, brash and passionate tones. Don’t be afraid of color, even if you’re fixing up to sell. People don’t really want white. They’re just afraid of what the neighbors will say. The best remodels I see and the ones that buyers fight over have great colors. Often, each room has it’s one set of colors. If it’s good enough for the White House… 

In conclusion, if you’re looking for a vernacular, start with the one that we’ve been given in the form of history. It’s not a dictate, just a guide but it’s a much better one for our stock of old ladies than the one that Expo has to offer.