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Wednesday, July 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 58.0° F  Fair
The Paper


Imagine a house
When a unique property needs just the right buyer...

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Anyone who's ever gone house hunting knows the situation. You find a great house, but there's a slight catch. It's next door to a rental, or the kitchen is small and can't easily be expanded. Or the yard is too small - not much you can do about that. Yet there's a special something that wins you over despite the negatives: a glimpse of the lake from the picture window, original woodwork, quirky round windows in a garage door.

I'd passed this house hundreds of times on my way to and from work. A classic mid-century modern ranch home on a quiet street in Maple Bluff, it had good lines, big picture windows, an exposed basement with even more large picture windows, and a nice corner lot a couple blocks from Lake Mendota. It wasn't Richard Neutra by any means, but it struck me as having potential.

The house went up for sale. And it stayed up for sale. Why, I wondered - what makes a theoretically great house like this linger on the market? The asking price seemed in line to me, considering the neighborhood, the size of the house, and the current market.

The house, at 915 McBride Rd., brings up some of the reasons a house that has a lot going for it can end up sitting for a while. When I first went to look at the house in August, it was being represented by Realtor Jane Stauter; it's now being represented by Realtor Bob Espeseth.

Espeseth notes the house is in a well-established neighborhood that's likely to stay stable for a good long time. He also points out that the house across the street from it was built new in the last couple of years; the home on that lot previously was torn down. Espeseth imagines that 915 McBride would appeal to "a rehabber," a younger family, and possibly someone who wants access to a golf course.

Stauter was on hand when I toured the house. She also suggested that it probably needs "a major redo."

I, on the other hand, was trying to imagine how a house like this one could be made into a CB2 showcase with as little remodeling as possible.

In the end, Stauter may be right that the house needs major work. In any case, "the house needs a buyer that can imagine what it can be like," says Stauter.

Inside, there were mid-century modern hallmarks like a large open living area with a wall of unbroken windows and a high vaulted ceiling with exposed wood beams. There was something at war with this mid-century modern aesthetic, though. Many details, both decorative and built-in, were in a style that I can only describe as medieval Spanish.

The big windows were broken up with diamond pane inserts. The dining room chandelier looked like it could have tortured someone during the Spanish Inquisition. The fireplaces - all four of them - were each in a different style. And the curtains in the sunroom seemed to be illustrating scenes from The Canterbury Tales in brocade.

Divorced from the house itself, each of these things in its own way was kind of extraordinary. Canterbury brocade drapes! Four working wood-burning fireplaces! (Espeseth notes that the fireplace in the dining room is built so that it can actually be used as a grill.) A light fixture you are not going to find anywhere else. Although I did see a similarly daunting light fixture in a "Curbed LA" feature in the dining area of a house previously owned and restored by Diane Keaton, and Ms. Keaton is known to have a good eye. The Spanish details didn't seem to go with the overall style of the house, but they were kind of cool. They kept it from being cold, or cookie-cutter.

More problematic: a built-in, round, family-restaurant-like booth in the kitchen, the kitchen itself (small), the bathrooms (small), and a strong musty smell coming from the basement. (The carpeting in the basement has since been removed in an effort to solve that problem.)

The bright royal blue carpeting throughout would have to go, but that was an easy fix - especially with hardwood flooring already under it.

"The house itself is well built," Stauter observes, and the previous owners took good care of it with regard to mechanicals, roofing and other major upkeep.

Another plus: there was room to enlarge the kitchen, and knocking out a row of bookcases would open the living room up further. The under-utilized entry area, with terrific red Spanish tiles, could perhaps be put to better use other than just entryway space.

The lower level would need work too, but the stone fireplace with the heavy wood beam mantel was a great focal point.

Arguably, I was the very person that house needed. But the last time I moved, I swore it would be the last; if I moved, it would be to a smaller, not to a bigger, house. I was only a gawker, curious about what it takes to hook up the right buyer with a singular house.

Madison Realtor Patty Elson "loves unusual properties." She loves the people unusual properties attract. "It's a win-win!" she says, before relating stories of several mid-century modern houses she's sold over the years.

A much smaller group of buyers is going to be interested in these homes, says Elson, especially in a smaller market like Madison, so "your marketing has to bring in those people who you think are going to be attracted." One mid-century modern she sold in University Heights was "an oxymoron, right? Because people who are looking for homes in University Heights are expecting a Tudor, an Arts and Crafts or a Frank Lloyd Wright-style home."

You shouldn't try to make the house something it isn't, Elson says, but highlight what is unique. Some 1950s homes, drawing on Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian ideals of privacy, have withdrawn entryways, smaller windows in the front, and don't present well to the street. "They're designed to present to the interior, so you have to talk about [what's attractive about] that lifestyle," Elson notes.

Some buyers fall in love with the very unusual period details that might turn other buyers off. A 1950s home in the Midvale Heights neighborhood had originally been featured in the Parade of Homes and had many fun design elements of the period that recalled The Jetsons, Elson remembers. That's rare, because over time, elements like that are often removed in remodeling.

In another Parade Home, this one from the 1960s, the owners had kept up the house but "never updated any of the architectural elements." When an art director from an ad agency saw the place, he bought it. "He had a wonderful flair with what the house could be."

With a ranch, which might not always look that interesting photographed long and wide from the curb, Elson likes photos that highlight details - for instance, a close-up of natural, dark cedar shake siding that is characteristic of 1950s homes. "Capture someone's imagination," she says.

Elson likes telling a story about the house, going through records to find out if it was designed and built by an architect, for instance. One was designed by an architect named Henry Ford (no relation); another by the late Middleton architect-builder Marshall Erdman. "That says everything to the right buyer."

"Days on market," or DOM, is sometimes seen as a way of determining price, from either the buyer's or the seller's end. But for homes that are unique, DOM may simply indicate it's going to take a longer time for the right buyer to come along. Realtors have seen the same house come on the market; one time it sells almost immediately, the next time it sits on the market for over a year. Then the right person comes along and loves it as soon as she sees it.

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