Every year about now, I look back at what I learned — sometimes the hard way — during the previous dozen months through writing this column. I review the advice gleaned from others who know more than I do and sift out the best lesson from each month. I distill it down, and serve it up in two parts, in a 12-lessons-for-Christmas kind of way.
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Here are my top takeaways from the first half of 2013:
In January, a Los Angeles designer taught me that the most important room in the house may be … the closet. “It’s where we spend the first and last moments of our day,” said Lisa Adams, founder of LA Closet Design. “This highly used space needs some respect, but closets gets shorted by builders who shove in a rod and a shelf and call it finished.”
To bring the closet of the closet, Adams said to decorate it like it’s part of the house. Paint it a great color or put up wallpaper, add handsome moldings, hang a great light fixture, and the tip that changed my life: Stuff your purses with those air-filled plastic packing pillows, to give them structure, so they stand up and don’t collapse on the shelf.
Lesson: Turn your closet into a chic boutique — a store with clothes just for you where you want to go shopping every day, said Adams.
In February, I learned the finer points of choosing something every home has — a sofa. “Our industry has done a really poor job of educating customers about how to pick a sofa,” said Regenia Payne, creative director for Taylor King Furniture, in North Carolina. It’s a big decision to get wrong.
We covered function, length, height, style, detailing, fill and, then, most eye-opening, arm style. “Sofa arms, more than any other feature, declare its style,” Payne taught me. Stuffed rounded (called sock arms) go in laid-back casual interiors, such as cottages or country homes. Structured, rectangular arms work best in transitional or modern spaces. Curved arms lean Old-World traditional. Clean-lined wooden arms look Mid-Century. I never knew this.
Lesson: When choosing a sofa, be color blind. Though color is often the first decision most customers make, it should be the last.
In March, I began the emotional journey of clearing out my elderly parents’ home of nearly 50 years, and my childhood home. Given a choice between this task or performing surgery on myself, I’d opt for surgery. But I didn’t have a choice. I wrote about the process for months. (To the many readers who asked for this series of columns, the book is coming. Promise!) Torn between the practical need to clear out the house to get it on the market, and the desire to be a good steward of my parents’ belongings, I called on estate experts, garage sale gurus, antiques appraisers and my own heart.
Lesson: Among the many bits of wisdom I acquired was this from Antiques Roadshow antiques appraiser Gary Sullivan: Age does not confer value. Age — specifically being 100 years old or more — makes an item an antique. But to be a valuable antique, the item has to also be rare and desirable, said Sullivan. Most people greatly overestimate value. This helped me let go.
In April, with the old house cleared out, I took a fresh look around and tried to look past all the memories — the home cooking, the good advice, the birthdays — to see the 1,700-square-foot ranch-style home through a buyer’s eyes.
That was sobering as an ice bath. The place needed a major update. I worked with my good friend and real estate agent Bill Wood, of Yorba Linda, to get the house updated and ready for market in four weeks. His contacts and my ability to make quick design decisions on a budget made us a formidable pair.
In one day, I selected paint colors, carpet, engineered-wood flooring, tile, hardware and window coverings. The rest I did by puppet string from Florida. Crews stripped wallpaper, scraped the cellulite ceilings and beefed up baseboards.
Four weeks and $15,000 later, we put it on the market for $100,000 more than one Realtor said we could have sold it for “as is.” We got five offers in three days, three over asking.
Lesson: It’s true. When selling a home, spending a little on the right upgrades will net a faster sale for a much better price.
In May, I visited a museum in Winter Park, Fla., which houses works of leaded-glass art from Louis C. Tiffany, famous for those art-deco lamps. Museum director Laurence Ruggiero showed me around and taught me Tiffany’s philosophy, which I’ve adopted. “Nature is the given,” Ruggiero said. “When Tiffany didn’t like it, he did nature only better.”
I totally agree. Nature is overrated. Which is why the hair coloring industry, which I support, is thriving. In the museum’s recreation of Tiffany’s dining room, a great transom window bearing leaded-glass wisteria vines lines the wall. Outside real wisteria hangs from the eaves and shows through. “Wisteria doesn’t look good all the time,” Ruggiero said, referring to the months when the cascading purple flower is dying back. “So Tiffany made better wisteria.”
Lesson: It’s okay to fool Mother Nature, and make her more perfect.
In June, as a wrecking ball was set to swing on a beautiful 128-year-old, lake-front home in my town, so a new mansion could take its place, I was jolted into remembering why America should care about her historic homes.
“It’s a national crisis,” said Nicole Curtis, host of HGTV’s Rehab Addict, a designer and saver of old homes, who, like many, was outraged. “Historic homes are on demolition lists all over America. We have so few perfect examples of old architecture left in this country. We need to preserve them.”
Fortunately, the community rallied. This month, the old Capen House was floated by barge across the lake to a new site, where it will be a museum.
Lesson: We need to care about preservation. “Countries rich in culture value history and buildings,” Curtis said. “They make them work.”
Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through marnijameson.com.