I had the pleasure of spending last weekend with three of my four grown children. Over breakfast we were laughing about some of their old Halloween costumes, and I was asked which one I thought was my biggest flop. It took a minute for the memory to resurface, because it was so cringingly awful that I had completely blocked it out.
My son wanted to be a ghost. Yay, so EASY, right? But the night before we realized the sheet just wouldn’t stay put, rendering him effectively blind because the eye holes kept lining up with his nose. That’s a big deal when the amount of candy you collect was a status symbol, and working efficiently was a pivotal component. “Don’t worry, I got this.” I reassure us both. Jump ahead to game day, where I’m armed with a few yards of white felt and some fabric glue. I quickly cut out and glued together a smart little ghost body with a separate hood that kept the eyeholes in place. “Off you go!” I say to him as it was getting dark. And it wasn’t until I saw him scamper down my porch steps into the night that I realized I had just sent a small Ku Klux Klan member out to trick or treat. And I truly thought I would throw up.
Anyway, what does all that have to do with houses you ask? Honestly, nothing. Other than it’s spooky skeleton season, which got me thinking about that ubiquitous house term we hear so much: Good Bones. Which, of course, aren’t scary at all. But what exactly does that term mean?
It’s a catchphrase we hear so frequently in real estate listings and on HGTV—that it’s almost defined by association to mean “fixer-upper.” And, although that’s not entirely untrue, it sort of ignores the broader definition. A house doesn’t have to be old and run down to have good bones, and conversely, a renovated home doesn’t necessarily have them either. But here are a few qualities that they should have.
First off, the floor plans should be gracious and with attention to detail. There should be places you could imagine gathering and breaking bread. And you might see yourself entertaining here, working there, and napping out back. The windows should be large and plentiful, and the ceilings high. The rooms should be well-proportioned in scale, and frequently there is a central fireplace.
Secondly, houses with Good Bones should show evidence of thoughtful and quality craftsmanship. You’ll see nice, hefty crown moldings, window trims, and baseboards. Maybe a butler’s pantry or china cabinet. A beautiful fireplace surround or built-ins where you want them—like a sideboard in the dining room, or a linen closet near the bathroom.
And lastly, you should note structural details. The home should feel solid when you walk around. The floors shouldn’t bounce or buckle, and the wooden windows should open and close with some ease. The door jambs should be square, with solid wood doors that are operational and outfitted with quality hardware. When you investigate the basement or attic, you should see oversized joists, solid foundations and thick beams.
Now all this doesn’t mean that your Good Bones home might not need some repair. Even significant repair. But that can just be a function of age and lack of maintenance. The “bones” are what the original builder put in. You are looking for a house made with some love.
I have a client that just bought a very well laid out 1940’s ranch. She’s got the large gracious rooms, good square footage, and a floor plan that puts everything pretty much right where you want it. That’s a lot of Good Bone criteria, right? But she’s also got hollow doors and narrow, particle-board trim. Some popcorn ceilings, and a few plywood cabinets. It’s not a disaster. It’s just what they did at that time. And it’s a relatively low investment to add the detail that would transform that property right into the Good Bones territory.
But you know what? She might not. And if she doesn’t, she’ll enjoy what’s there and still make it her own. Because good bones are not everything. Sometimes we love a house that doesn’t have them at all. (The lovely cottage I spent the weekend in comes to mind.) Your home is only a vessel. It’s your messy life and your well-intentioned love and your spontaneous laughter that truly makes it special. Good Bones or not.
And what happened to my poor trick or treating son? Well, I dug up a pair of round glasses, drew a lightning bolt on his forehead, and made him Harry Potter… again. He was amazingly compliant. Wise beyond his years, even. A sweet boy. And he still came home dragging a giant pillowcase full of candy. See? It all works out.
Jennifer Coles is a local interior designer. Her instagram is: @coles_color_and_design. Her website is: colescoloranddesign.com