Renovating for the real world
More homeowners opt to remodel with customized solutions to mirror family evolution.
Imagine this: an intimate yet open living space that includes a smartly designed kitchen blending into a spacious, lofted great room where kids and dogs gather to do homework (or eat it). Perhaps there’s a meditation nook instead of a formal dining room, or a centralized, multi-person tech-rich workspace instead of a lower-level office.
Possibilities abound when it comes to redesigning your home’s living space, although they might be hard to visualize if you’re currently standing in a cramped basement. Or if yours is an older home that’s been chopped into tiny rooms. But these situations and many others are exactly what remodeling is for. Even better news is that the home improvement outlook is healthier than it’s been in half a decade.
“There’s a huge advantage to remodeling over new construction right now,” says Keven Schmidt of DreamHouse, explaining that the industry took a huge hit with the 2008 recession and, while things are bouncing back, home values are still depressed by as much as twenty percent even as construction costs continue to rise. For example, he says, a house worth $500,000 in 2006 might only sell for $420,000 today but would cost $620,000 to build brand new; in that light, remodeling becomes a far better investment.
“So many people held off doing anything the last few years and saved their money because they wanted to see what would happen with the economy,” says Travis Ganser of Ganser Company. “Now the phones have been ringing pretty much nonstop since right around March, with people wanting to remodel.”
Ganser says his clients tell him they’re really satisfied with their neighborhoods and schools, but they still want to feel like they’ve got a brand new home. Schmidt calls that the “fun side” of remodeling, and Connie Holl, store manager of Gerhards, The Kitchen & Bath Store, agrees.
“I think what we’re seeing now is some pent-up desire for remodeling, so the industry is really flourishing,” says Holl. “What’s really exciting this year is the new Hanley Wood Products Cost versus Resale Value report shows a rise in investment recoup for the Madison area. Those ROI numbers are going up across the board, and they hadn’t been for years.”
How we live today
It’s not just the economy driving this resurrection; we’ve changed the way we live, and our homes are evolving to reflect that shift.
“You really want to sit down and ask people, what are you doing today that you weren’t doing ten years ago?” says Mark Udvari-Solner of udvari-solner Design. “We don’t live like we did in the 1960s, there is no routine. The routine is how the family lives.”
In the 1990s, he says, the big trend was to move twenty or thirty miles outside of Madison, build a large-scale house on fifteen acres, and commute to work in the city. But today’s families want to decrease their carbon footprints, downsize their homes and simplify their surroundings. Often, they’re doing that by finding existing homes in great neighborhoods and investing in remodeling—particularly on the isthmus, where new construction is downright challenging, if not impossible. When Udvari-Solner started his business twenty-five years ago, it was almost exclusively new construction; today, renovation makes up at least fifty percent of his design work.
“Maybe they’re young professionals eating out three or four days a week, and they don’t want a kitchen with all the whistles and bells,” says Udvari-Solner. “Maybe two parents eat lightly at 6:30, then feed two kids who come home at seven, and a third doesn’t get there until nine. Do they really need a kitchen table, a dining room, a breakfast nook and an island?”
Both the customization and the downsizing excite Udvari-Solner, as does what he calls the “new, health-conscious clients,” particularly those in their seventies and eighties who are not only opting to stay in their homes, they want those homes to reflect their vibrant lives.
“People are just living longer, and their health is driving their longevity,” says Udvari-Solner, explaining that many of his aging clients want accessible, integrative spaces for things like yoga or spinning instead of the standard one-room basement gym. “My designs are basically coming around to how people live their lives today. I think we’re going to be designing a whole different market here.”
An eye to the future
Greg Shaw of Shaw Builders has also seen a shift in his clients’ remodeling desires in recent years, one he agrees often reflects a goal to stay in their homes longer. It’s especially good for resale value to make these improvements now, he says, and it’s a bit easier on the wallet to take remodeling in steps when there’s no rush. For example, widening hallways and removing interior walls not only creates more space now, it makes for easier wheelchair passage later. And a newly remodeled walk-in tile shower with multiple heads and body-jets will get years of good use before it’s easily made more accessible with the addition of handheld bars, so why not add them now? When the kids leave home and those extra bedrooms and closets become potential new spaces, clients are thinking far enough ahead to rebuild that master suite on the first
“Some people are even putting lower countertops in an area of the kitchen for prepping now, just in case they ever become wheelchair-bound or if they have somebody in their family who already is,” says Shaw. “There’s just a lot of little practices people are doing to make certain they can live in their home as long as possible.”
This eye toward future ease extends to the exterior as well; Shaw says many are converting to more maintenance-free materials, moving away from natural woods or other materials that require caulking, sanding or re-staining. And there’s a huge push toward energy-efficient practices that save money now and translate to higher resale value later.
“We actually built the first totally energy-efficient net-zero home in southern Wisconsin about seven years ago, and we’ve been implementing a lot of those practices in our remodeling projects ever since,” says Shaw. “People are upgrading windows and doors, improving insulation, adding photovoltaic cells or geothermal heat, just anything that gives them a smaller carbon footprint and makes them more energy self-sufficient.”
Kitchens and baths still sell homes
Remodeling the whole house may not be feasible for all homeowners; it may make more sense to focus on one room.
“It’s what we call the ‘OMG Factor’ and kitchens and baths are the most predominant,” says Keven Schmidt. “When you focus on one specific room, you don’t have to spread the same amount of money over two or three rooms and you can focus on higher-end finishes that really get a buyer’s attention.”
In the kitchen, upgrading appliances—especially if you can add at least one professional-grade piece such as a Wolf or Sub Zero—can have a huge payoff, as can installing a higher-grade flooring or custom cabinetry with features like magnetic closures or soft-close doors and drawers. Built-ins continue to be a big draw, and Travis Ganser says there’s a new call for incorporating pets into family life.
“So many of our customers are pet lovers and they don’t want this freestanding stuff out in the middle of nowhere,” says Ganser. “So having a place to store food, bowls, even beds and kennels, built right into the kitchens is a value.”
Swapping a Formica countertop for granite or quartz packs an especially huge punch, and Ganser says a new manmade granite product called Cambria looks like the real thing but doesn’t absorb stains from wine or oils. There’s also a suede finish for granite countertops, according to Denise Quade of Denise Quade Design, one that requires less maintenance. Rearranging existing cabinets to improve the footprint, or adding an island, are small changes that make big differences. And adding a tiled backsplash, updated hardware and light fixtures, or a fresh coat of paint can give any kitchen a facelift.
“New trends in design are a shift to industrial design, combining reclaimed woods (or that look) with more refined pieces, combinations of textures and finishes, and brushed brass has shown signs of revival,” says Quade. “White cabinets and marble countertops are also still very popular.”
Gerhards’ Connie Holl says she’s seeing a move toward a more contemporary feel, but with what she calls an “interesting twist.”
“They’re really mixing elements like wood floors or washed-wood-look tiles with painted white or gray cabinets and tall painted baseboards, creating something that seems both contemporary and rustic,” says Holl. “It’s very transitional and very eclectic, really kind of a fun
thing to see.”
Moving on to the bathroom, Holl says the pendulum has swung away from Jacuzzi tubs, to showers, and back to bathing once again, this time in the form of soaking tubs. She says oversized walk-in tiled showers remain one of the most popular remodel options, but now they’re being integrated with that renewed interest in bathing.
“Showers are still important, I think we’re a showering society in America,” says Holl. “But bathing—and specifically, soaking—is starting to reemerge. It’s about relaxation, really creating an oasis in your master bath.”
Kohler unveiled two new acrylic freestanding soaking tub models this year, the Stargaze and the Sunstruck, that Holl says are especially exciting because they exemplify this trend at affordable prices.
But both bathroom and kitchen remodels can be tricky, she cautions, because of the existing electrical and plumbing restraints and all that goes unseen behind walls, under floors and beneath tubs and vanities.
“Even as a kitchen and bath designer, I’m not going to rip into my own wall,” says Holl. “I always recommend you have a trained professional doing the work, and it doesn’t hurt in the planning stages to get the advice of a designer or plumbing professional.”
For the outside of the house, more and more homeowners are using pavers to replace worn out or deteriorating asphalt or concrete driveways, failing timber-wall garden planters, and heaved concrete patios.
“I think with our drastic climate changes, people are realizing the benefits and beauty of concrete pavers for their patios, walkways or driveways,” says Sandy Stoffel of Anchor Block Company, a manufacturer of concrete landscape products. “These pavers are a great solution not only for their looks, but for life in the Midwest.”
With all this recent rainfall, for example, permeable pavers are getting a lot of attention. Permeable paving systems are an eco-friendly choice because they help filter pollutants from water runoff, and also help prevent pooling rainwater. Stoffel says pavers have helped transform some of the muddiest, most unusable backyards into treasured gathering places for family and friends. The “outdoor room” trend continues to flourish using hardscape products to build everything from bars to benches to pizza ovens. Plank-style pavers are increasingly popular, and are a bit narrower and longer than their predecessors. Gray has become a best seller in hardscapes, particularly with darker, charcoal hues.
“Our blog and online Paver Visualizer help homeowners visualize their options,” says Stoffel. “Installation is a critical step, so we welcome contractors and homeowners alike to contact us with questions.”
Where to start
Marling Homeworks is known as a building supply store, but an equally important component of its business is its design service. After all, without context and a comprehensive vision, shoppers can find perusing all those doors, windows and cabinet lines overwhelming.
“We get a lot of people coming in saying we didn’t know you design kitchens,” says Jenn Anderson, designer at Marling Homeworks. “We can do it all. We sit down with the customer, figure out what their budget is, and what their needs are for their kitchen. Once we know that, and we have dimensions of their space, we work up a design accordingly. Then we meet with the customer again and show them layouts and 3D views of what their kitchen will look like.”
Because every project and every home is so different, the one-to-one services that designers such as Anderson provide can be critical even for DIY-ers. Sometimes it’s as simple as tearing out a wall. But, more often than not, there are support issues or electrical wiring constraints or even more serious situations, like finding a chimney inside a wall that can’t be removed. It doesn’t mean those projects can’t move forward, it just means some professional guidance will save frustration, time and money.
There are also potential upgrades that may not seem obvious to homeowners, such as the twelve-inch soffits so popular above the cabinetry in the kitchens of mid-century homes. Generally, drywalled boxes flush with cabinets to camouflage electrical wiring, removing these soffits and adding crown molding or extending cabinets to the ceiling are relatively easy ways to instantly update and add elegance to an older kitchen. And design professionals are there to inspire ideas just like this.
“It’s never too early to start thinking about remodeling,” says Anderson. “It takes a while for cabinetry to come in and to get countertops ordered, so even if you’re planning a project in December, July is not a bad time to start looking and planning and getting things in order.”