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Character Building

Wainscoting, crown molding and colorful paint can strip away that too-new feeling and add value to your home.


When Lorrie and Tom Schortmann first moved to Southern California from Boston 10 years ago and bought a new home in Orange County's Coto de Caza, she initially liked the difference between the houses here and the ones back East.

"The white, open spaces and high ceilings were a nice change," she said, "but after a while, it didn't feel homey."

She longed for what's missing in so many California homes. A trait taken for granted in older homes in well-established neighborhoods. She wanted character.

But building residential character takes time. Imbuing a new home--even one under 20 years old--with the same venerability that another home has acquired over 100 or more years is difficult.

But not impossible.

Though it sounds elusive, character boils down to attention to detail, custom craftsmanship, mature foliage and a semblance of caring. Simple and immediate touches, like bigger moldings, wall color and the right trees outside, can strip away that too-new feeling, and add years of character--and value--to a newer home.

The cheapest way to add character is to wait 50 years. Through use and time, homes acquire charm and patina as owners infuse their personalities. But there's a quicker way. In this celluloid land of stages and sets, you can fast forward the time and hire the experience.

For the legion of interior and landscape specialists in the area, the quest for character is big business. According to figures released last month from the U.S. Census Bureau, consumer spending on residential remodeling increased 7% last year. Consumers spent $153 billion on remodeling.

When Lorrie Schortmann saw how finish carpenter Chuck Clark, of Dove Canyon in Orange County, had improved one of her neighbor's homes, she set him to work on hers.

He put wainscoting up the stairs and through the living and dining rooms, and installed crown moldings in the kitchen. There he also tore out a banister that divided the kitchen from a step-down family room and built in a bench, which serves as seating for her kitchen table.

He then added wood moldings around all the home's many doorless doorways to create more distinction between the rooms.

"The bulk of my business turns out to be from buyers of production homes, which don't have any molding in them," said Clark, who relocated to Southern California from Cincinnati six years ago and soon had a business upgrading homes in the area.

"Mainly I pump up casings, add molding at the ceiling, and take out old baseboards and replace them with 6-inch or 7-inch ones," he says. "It gives newer homes a more traditional look."

New homeowners call him as often as people who have homes they've been in for several years.

"People who buy new homes go into the model, which is just dripping with extras like faux finishes, crowns and built-ins," he says. "They all want their home to look like that. But when it comes to signing the mortgage papers, and they see it costs $100,000 more to get that look, they decide to forego the upgrades upfront and instead chip away at them over time. So two, three, six years later they call me." Such improvements can be money well spent, says Robyn Robinson, broker and co-owner of Regency Real Estate in San Juan Capistrano. "I've sold homes in the same neighborhood with the exact same floor plan, and the one with the attention to detail and the small custom touches has gone faster and for significantly more."

Higher Price, Quicker Sale for House With Upgrades

For example, Rachelle Rosten, a broker with Coldwell Banker in Beverly Hills, knows of two comparable properties in the same Bel-Air neighborhood. The homes had the same floor plan, but one had upgrades, including granite and marble surfaces, stainless steel in the kitchen and updated bathrooms.

Both sold last October. The one with the upgrades sold in five days for the asking price of $725,000. The other went for $35,000 less and took a month to sell.

Those touches are what Clark and other interior specialists create. After he installed the woodwork in Schortmann's home, she contracted a painter to paint the wainscoting white and the walls sage green. And she had her oak floors, which were whitewashed, sanded and refinished to a natural honey shade.

"It's a very traditional East Coast look, and I love it," she says. "The house feels more welcoming, warmer and much more personal to us."

Before you start a character crusade on your home, have a plan, advises Gina Robinson, an interior designer who moved from Connecticut to Los Angeles three years ago.

Know the style of your home--whether it's ranch, Mediterranean or Cape Cod--and keep its consistency. Hiring a professional designer for a couple of hours to give you a direction at this point would be money well spent.

Once you know what look you're going for, select a color scheme and then chip away at the project, keeping the big picture and continuity in mind.

The most obvious place to start is with the walls, says Los Angeles interior designer Gary Gibson.

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