How to Take a Subdivision House Up a Notch – or Two

How to add character and elegance to any dining space.

by Sarah Richardson,

sarah richardson design real potential subdivision house

Elegance, sophistication, glamour and period details aren’t words you might normally associate with a decade-old resale home in a subdivision, but that doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to being satisfied with minuscule trim profiles, lacklustre lighting, stucco ceilings and bare-bones design features. If you’re living in or looking at buying a house with principal main-floor rooms that are somewhere this side of uninspiring, have no fear: your blank canvas of a room is merely waiting to be turned into a work of art with a bit of creative energy.

sarah richardson design real potential subdivision house

Start from the ground up

Many subdivision homes suffer from dated flooring. Narrow plank light maple floors were the most common finish about a decade ago, and are probably the least desirable now.  The common perception is that prefinished hardwood floors are impossible to change, and costly to replace, but that’s just not the case.  Prefinished floors can be sanded and stained to achieve the colour and finish you want (and chances are it’s ready for a sprucing up if it’s been in place for a decade already). Once finished, your floor will look like what you would expect to find in a custom built home, not a subdivision.  I paid about $3 a square foot to turn the floors in this house from honey maple to a rich walnut tone.

sarah richardson design real potential subdivision house

Delineate and accentuate

A selling feature of new construction is their open plan layouts, but it can also be a problem if the spaces are open in all the wrong places.  This house featured a sightline from the front door clear through the kitchen and out the back door thanks to an open upper wall that resembled a reception desk at the doctor’s office.  Since the agenda for my clients was to make the room bright and airy while creating a better definition of rooms and spaces, I opted to add character and a bit of enclosure by installing antique glass door panels (you know how I love architectural salvage, after all). Since the doors came from a library cabinet, they were interior panels in perfect condition, complete with leaded glass and hinges ready to be affixed to the frame we created to hold them. At $475 for six panels, the addition of old world charm came at garage sale prices.

sarah richardson design real potential subdivision house

Smooth and define

Underwhelmed by a ceiling with a sprayed-on stucco finish and dire lack of moulding? No problem.  If your stucco has not been painted, removing it can be an easy, though a bit messy. Spray water at the stucco to soften and scrape it off with a wide putty knife.  Then apply a thin coat of plaster to smooth it all out. Then say hello to an elegant plaster crown moulding. Handmade crown can be installed for about $8 a linear foot, and it won’t crack or require painting. It’s the final touch to frame the room.

sarah richardson design real potential subdivision house

Bring the walls to life

Red tends to be the “go-to” colour for dining room walls in need of an instant personality enhancement, but may not always be the best choice. It is possible to create a room with a subdued palette and uplifting energy through the use of layered texture and soothing shades.  By installing a chair rail, I was able to use neutral geometric wallpaper around the base of the room, and a cheerful pattern featuring fluttering dragonflies on the upper section of the walls. The cream, silver and taupe palette creates a room that is light and bright while the classically inspired pattern brings a touch of beauty and elegance.

sarah richardson design real potential subdivision house

Get a sweet deal

Mixing and matching your furniture can really help the budget. The only problem may be that your accumulated finds may not be finished in complimentary wood tones, as was the case with us - the contemporary table hails from a design store and buffet and chairs were scooped up at different consignment shops. I’m okay with two distinct wood finishes mixed together in one room, as long as there’s repetition to reinforce their presence. So, the chairs and buffet were sprayed in a glossy platinum paint finish, while the rich chocolaty tone of the dining table mimics the newly refinished floor.

sarah richardson design real potential subdivision house

Don’t be too stuffy

If you want your dining room to be a place that’s used and enjoyed instead of ignored, I suggest you outfit it in a way that reflects your personality and the way you live and entertain. Forget fussy china and prim, proper place settings, and set a table that mixes fun patterns with practical easy-care dishes and accessories. By applying the same mix and match approach to everything from your furniture to your fabrics to your finishing touches, you’ll be able to create a room that inspires you to whip up a feast and call up your friends to invite them over for a memorable meal!