Most savvy buyers of real estate know the popular mantra “Location, location, location.” However, fewer know that on the other side of the table savvy sellers have an equally important mantra: “Lighten, lighten, lighten.”
“We’ve long known that if you want to appeal to the greatest number of buyers, use light colors,” said Annie Elliot, project manager for New Again Houses, a fix-and-flip company based in Tennessee with franchises in 11 states. In that role, Elliot has managed nearly 300 house flipping projects.
“In 95 percent of the homes I tackle, darkness is a big problem,” Elliot said when we talked recently about the power of light. “Dark interiors feel depressing, and make spaces feel smaller,” she said.
“Dark homes also make you wonder what’s hiding in them,” I said. “They have that ick factor.” Just thinking about them I can smell the mildew, must, stale tobacco and dirty laundry.
“Lighter, more open spaces feel happier,” she said. “They also look cleaner, bigger and more inviting.”
To bust through the darkness, so her projects will appeal to the widest range of buyers, Elliot applies a variety of fixer tricks to brighten and lighten interior spaces.
For instance, she always chooses a light neutral palette, often painting interior walls pale grey, and kitchens and baths calming shades of blues and greens. She also often paints over wood paneling — gasp! — and old brick, moves not everyone agrees with.
“Painting over wood raises a lot of eyebrows,” she said. When she asks her Instagram followers to weigh in on whether to paint over wood walls in a house she’s fixing up or leave them, the results are usually 50-50.
Although some believe painting over any finished wood is sacrilege, I agree with Elliot that, with some important exceptions, painting wood can be a smart move. For instance, when my husband and I bought our Happier Yellow House, it had a brown wood front door, which one designer I talked to really loved. But I didn’t. We painted it Sherwin Williams Jalapeno (a dark orange) and I have not regretted it.
“If people only see the after, and don’t know what is underneath, they love it,” she said. “It’s making that initial decision to paint over wood that’s hard.”
Exceptions include hardwood floors, log homes, fine furniture, and historic wood walls and ceilings in good condition. Elliot also hesitates to paint wood kitchen cabinets, because the paint finish often doesn’t hold up to the use. Since replacing cabinets is expensive, “if the kitchen layout is good, and the wood cabinets in good condition, we find it’s often better to leave the cabinets and lighten up other surfaces,” Elliot said. She may put in a white subway-tile backsplash, lighter counters and more light fixtures.
That’s not to say we should all seek white on light interiors. Strong colors definitely have a place, and, used tastefully, can be amazing. “I love a dark wall color in the right room,” Elliot said, “particularly in rooms that have high ceilings and a lot of natural light.” She also likes to see strong color on walls behind white shelving units, so objects on the shelves stand out, and in guest powder rooms, where intense hues can add some welcome, localized drama.
In simplify this, here’s how I think of interior color: When designing or fixing up our homes, we all pretty much want the same thing, to inspire oohs and aahs from those who enter, including ourselves. When you walk into a room filled with saturated color, you say “oooh.” When you walk into one filled with the light neutrals, you say “aaah.” When selling a home, you want more aaahs than ooohs, but you still want both.
And that is as scientific as I am going to get about that.
Even if you’re not planning to put your home on the market, looking at your house through the eyes of a professional flipper can steer you toward making improvements that will make your home more enjoyable now, and closer to sale ready when that day comes.
So, whether you’re fixing to sell or dwell, here are a dozen ways Elliot and I came up with to lighten and brighten your home:
1. Outside, remove or cut back bushes or trees blocking natural light from coming in.
2. Add a skylight or windows, or enlarge existing ones. While you’re at it clean the glass and refresh screens.
3. Remove heavy window treatments. Cover windows with white or off-white sheers, use light-colored blinds or shutters for light control and privacy. If you do hang drapes, have them frame rather than cover windows.
4. Add white wainscoting or moldings.
5. Install white or light tiles on floors in bathrooms and laundry rooms, and on kitchen backsplashes.
6. Paint walls in light, soft neutrals.
7. Hang decorative mirrors, which reflect and amplify light.
8. Install more light fixtures, put in brighter bulbs, and put outlets on a dimmer.
9. Keep large furnishings light; add color with rugs, pillows and art.
10. Replace dark cabinets with light ones, where economical.
11. Cover wood floors with lighter-colored area rugs.
12. Declutter. Clean surfaces, whatever their color, make you say, “aaah.”
Photo caption: Knotty problem — Before: “This was a really dark home,” said Annie Elliot, project manager for New Again Houses. “The nicotine-stained knotty-pine walls made you felt like you were living inside a woodchipper.” After: Walls painted in Sherwin Williams Modern Gray, a brick fireplace painted off-white, a light-colored area rug over refinished wood floors, and white sheer drapery panels lighten the mood and brighten the space. Photos courtesy of Jessany Willis.