W.G. Tait, Inc. Bear Lake Trading Company Home Page
By Lynnell Nixon-Knight | Photography by E.Anthony Valainis

A marriage of vintage style and modern amenities demands attention to detail but no compromise on function. The Francis' new master bath shares the Jacuzzi corner tub, granite countertops and large windows of most modern baths, but molding, brushed nickel hardware and plantation shutters give the room a farmhouse feel.

Washington Township has some of the finest neighborhoods Marion County has to offer: The streets are wide, the lots are generous, and the homes seem elegant and spacious. But sometimes on closer inspection, even the most appealing houses have less-than-attractive features. The Francis home is one example.

Casual passerby would find little to criticize in the elegant Georgian Colonial-style home, with its refined white columns and perfect British symmetry. The house is relatively new-only eight years old-and comfortably spacious, with roughly 6,000 square feet of living area. The handsome exterior has tremendous curb appeal, and the home has a desirable location within its sought-after neighborhood.

So, when it came to being sold, why did it languish on the market not once but twice in its short life? Built as a spec home, it remained for sale for some time before being purchased by its first owner. When that owner put the house on the market, it again stood unclaimed for an unusually long time-especially considering that its site is prime real estate.

The problem was in the home's layout. As a relatively new residence, its interior had many of the requisite bells and whistles, such as a richly paneled library and hardwood floors throughout. But the interior was dark, awkwardly designed and hard to make work for nearly anyone.

Jerry Francis purchased the house realizing that a good remodel could bring out its potential, although initially he didn't fully grasp the scope of the project. "Jerry's instincts about this house were wonderful, but he needed a professional to come in and help him understand his instincts," says Bill Tait of the remodeling firm W.G. Tait, Inc. "Any time a product sits on the market a long time, you can buy undervalued and hope the cost to fix it up can turn around and make a profit."

"The house has an excellent front elevation and looks wonderful from the road, so it drew a ton of people to look at it," Tait says. "But the problem was, it disappointed visitors the minute they walked in. Some things you can get past, like when the paint color and carpet are not what you want. In this case, however, there were some major issues." Specifically, the kitchen, the master bath, and the entire upstairs had design problems (although the upper level's problems weren't immediately evident).

For starters, the relatively new kitchen needed a complete remodel. According to Francis, the original materials were of good quality, but the layout was poor. "It was nice stuff, but the wrong style," he says. "The kitchen was dull and tired-it didn't seem like a fun place to work or gather."

Though the house has a distinctly vintage interior style, the kitchen bore contemporary pickled cabinets in a light maple finish and Corian countertops. Ovens were set side-by-side rather that stacked, and the lighting throughout was inadequate. But perhaps most offensive of all was the island, an oddity of stainless steel and wrought iron. "It did not look good," says Francis, ruefully.

Gutting the kitchen was the only way to address all of its problems. The original cabinets and countertops were ripped out and replaced with new white cabinets topped in a warm taupe granite. A more functional design improved the workspace layout, and the plans included increased ambient and task lighting as well as state-of-the-art stainless-steel appliances.

The replacement island matches the rest of the cabinetry in style, but is stained a warm walnut tone and topped with beautifully marbled granite in a pale gold color that picks up the countertops' subtle gold hues. The kitchen's brushed-nickel hardware is simple and doesn't compete with the interior's warm, simple design.

An open, freestanding bar island with matching white cabinets now separates the kitchen from the great room without cordoning off each space. The floors are beautifully featured in this design-so the existing light-tan carpeting was removed and the hardwood floors were refinished with warm walnut stain.

Another major area of concern was the master bath. It had the same pickled cabinets with Corian countertops as the kitchen, with taupe walls. Access to the shower area was awkward, and to Francis the shower's interior seemed claustrophobic. "Again, the materials were good, but the design was sub-optimal," he says.

The master bas was fitted with bath cabinets of the same design as those in the kitchen, granite countertops and a Jacuzzi corner tub. The flooring was replaced with small pale stone tiles, and additional lighting was installed as well. The shower was entirely rebuilt and lined with stone tile matching the floor. The entrance to the shower is lined with a coordinating granite accent, and a large sheet-glass door faces the double windows in order to maximize the natural light. "Now, the master bath is a comfortable space," Francis says.

When he bought the house, Francis knew he'd have to remodel the kitchen and master bath, but he thought the project would end there. "Downstairs is all I was going to do," he says. "But Bill suggested the upstairs was actually more important."

Tait felt the home's biggest problem was the layout of the upstairs bedrooms and baths. "I said, ‘Jerry, the second floor is priority number one, the kitchen is two, and the bath is three if you want to stage these projects," he says. "Remodeling a kitchen and bath is pretty common, but in this case the upstairs was an absolute killer, which is pretty atypical."

One of the bedrooms had no connected bathroom, while two of the other bedrooms shared a connected bath and had very small closets. The fourth bedroom was extremely small-with no bath or closet.

"This was something buyers could just not get past," says Tait. "The typical mom and dad loved the house-loved the exterior, the good schools, the close shopping. They might be disappointed in the cabinets and floors of the kitchen and master bath, but could deal with plugging in some new stuff. However, when they went upstairs, it just didn't work. How would kids and guests make all that work? It just wasn't good. In fact, the layout upstairs was probably the worst I've ever seen."

Using an experienced eye, Tait determined that the upstairs problem could be fixed by using the existing space. He retooled the walls, eliminated the fourth bedroom and incorporated its space in three bedroom suites with walk-in closets.

"Bill has a great sense of what you ought to do to a house," says Francis. "And more importantly, he knows where to stop. You can easily over-improve a house and not greatly increase the livability or add value."

Balance is important to Tait, and his philosophy is that a house is usually a person's single biggest investment. "Your house needs to perform not only in the family way, but also perform in the value way," he says. "There's no sense spending this kind of money on something, and when your life changes or you're ready to move on or your kids move out, then you have to sell the house for less than what you have in it."

There's more to the process than simply knowing the cost of building materials, Tait says-it's also important to know the area and marketplace well, keeping abreast of trends and current statistics. "If builders understand those things well, they can better advise their clients," he says.

Remodeling construction on the Francis project took about five months from beginning to end. "That's significant, but not as long as it would take to build a new house," says Tait. It was a fast-track project, but Francis was comfortable with Tait's suggestions due to the good relationship they'd developed from another extensive remodel Tait did in 1997. "My direction to Bill was to do everything to the house that would improve its livability and appeal, and that I expect to recover my expenses at sale," says Francis. "He listens well and understood what I wished to accomplish-and he also knows what he doesn't know. He's surrounded himself with talented people like designer Alicia Ohorogge and decorator Forrest McGinniss."

Tait is the first to agree that he knows his limitations: "I could purple and orange together and think it looks great, and my wife or a designer would shoot me." While he demurs from speculating why the original builders made the decisions they did for this particular house, he is willing to concede that sometimes builders may select less-expensive materials because they think they're doing the right thing by keeping costs lower. "I've just learned from experience that sometimes spending a little more in the right places will yield a better value overall," he says.

The house certainly seems worth the effort. The interior shows elegant craftsmanship in details such as the seeded-glass entablatures, the tall ceilings and rounded archways, the wood of the stair railings. With the problems posed by the kitchen, master bath and upstairs eliminated, the Francis home is a gem. It is now easily worth its market value and provides plenty of eye-pleasing livability.

With no more land in Washington Township, major remodels will probably increase in the future. Francis suspects there are many houses that would benefit from updates: "But I don't think I want to do another one right away."


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