Louis' Articles,  New England Home

Zillow Talk

New Englanders are making resolutions in 2014 far exceeding anything in the past.  Why now is hard to answer, but just, for example, consider the prudent Yankee homeowner.

After a long period of caution — some might say neglect — many a homeowner has finally resolved to hire a designer to redo the “disaster” of a living room, an architect for the longed-for studio addition, a builder, a lighting designer, a landscape architect.

Still, others are testing their resolve and strength of character at an even higher level — they are quitting their addiction to Zillow cold turkey.

What is Zillow?

Zillow is a website that tells you what a home is currently worth on the market, whether it has gone up or down in value, its square footage, monthly mortgage, and everything else you need to check up on the homes of friends and neighbors. Even the least nosy homeowners can get hooked, furiously calculating the wealth and fortunes of the unsuspecting folk around them.

The Browns talk about how loaded they are, but are they? — Let’s just enter their address into Zillow and see for sure…And while we are at it, let’s check on your long-lost Cousin Libby. It turns out she is Old Money indeed — drives around in a 1995 Ford Escort with 250,000 miles, while according to Zillow, the “little farm” she invited us to is worth 3.4001 million, up from 3.9378 the day before.  

But what starts as an innocent search of the Browns or Cousin Libby can balloon into a full-fledged habit, almost impossible to kick. Zillowed-out homeowners can barely look up from their screens — secretly checking up on the home values of practically everybody. But the real fix for the Zillow addict always comes around to assessing his own — whether the fates are with him that day, that very hour. Value up means so much more money to blow; value down means Zillow must have missed some of the refinements only the owner would know about. How would Zillow know about our new floorboards made from reclaimed planks off the Mayflower?

One addict described the sensation of Zillowing-out as “riding a roller coaster around your block forever and ever. It’s thrilling, as well as nauseating.” Will he be getting off the ride? “Not this year,” he said. “That’s a little too ambitious — but I have resolved to try, as soon as we catch up to the guy next door. His place is way over-valued.”

Former architect Thomas Burke has retired out of Zillow range to Jamaica, Vermont, in the shadow of Stratton Mountain. Back in 1991, Burke worked for architect Ben Moore on the Vineyard. Keeping up, or surpassing, the Jones or the Browns was remarkable even then. “Potential clients would say, ‘Ben, I’ll show you exactly what I want — this house you’re looking at, only five feet bigger in every direction.’ And Ben would say — you don’t understand if you want it five feet bigger in every direction it won’t be the same house.’ Fortunately, Ben was able to turn down work like that. He had more than enough business.”

Designer Kate Coughlin of Boston, MA has clients anyone would want: “They want to have a lot of fun. They are after a more light-hearted, family-friendly aesthetic…tired of all the heavy brown furniture. One very traditional client I am working with now just requested a neutral palette dotted with mid-century pieces for her new home in Aspen.”

Interior Design Magazine has dubbed Judd Brown of Pawtucket, RI, a Design Giant eleven of the past thirteen years. He, too, says there is a call for mid-century, as well as something he calls misty (and somehow we know exactly what that means, though Zillow hasn’t a clue): “Design elements like Mid-Century tie the present into the past but have a lighter, refined feel. Paint color, stains, and finishes will be muted and earthy, and at times misty in feel, especially in homes that are on the coast.”

After graduating from Boston College in 1986, designer Cecilia Walker went off to see the world as an executive for fashion companies, Stride-Rite, Ann Taylor, and Levi Strauss and in 1992 for Laura Ashley in the Back Bay. “Milan and Paris would set trends — and then they would appear in the mainstream a good two years later,” says Walker, whose office is in Hingham, MA. And it’s still true, says Walker, only now you have sites like Houzz and Pinterest giving people the impression that with a few clicks they are current and ahead of the mainstream. But that is an illusion. “Benjamin Moore Classic Grey has become the go-to neutral, but grey is two years old. Benjamin Moore’s Manchester Tan will be replacing it, just as gold knobs and brass handles will be replacing ones in chrome and polished nickel.”

Architect Jimmy Crisp of Millbrook, NY, designs luxury homes in the nearby Berkshires, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Virginia, and “all over.” Crisp predicts a trend that may have that represents a way of life before the era of air conditioning: porches. “Some architects won’t take small jobs,” says Crisp in his Louisiana accent, “but there was this client six or seven years ago who only wanted a glassed-in porch. We ended up doing work not only on the porch, but the kitchen and living room, as well. After that, one of my firm’s designers Sandra Mahoney and I devoted the next year to writing On the Porch: Creating Your Place to Watch the World (Taunton Press.) We picked architects’ porches from all over the country and sent photographers out to shoot them.”

“Some clients are concerned that a porch will cut down on light inside. But we have never had a problem. We often use grey deck paint, which reflects off the porch and brightens the inside anyway. Porches are just a wonderful transition space from outside to inside. And they make homes look bigger and better — you’re enjoying nature, but you’re also protected. After a particularly tense day, I cannot wait to get home to my porch and just relax with friends and family. Something changes, though it’s hard to define.”

Also hard to define, but much sought after, is the Bilbao Effect, according to Michael Casey, a retired architect in Provincetown, MA. Just as Frank Gehry’s design for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao completely transformed an aging industrial town in Spain, “people are increasingly drawn to iconic works of architecture: Big Ben, the Sidney Opera House, the Pyramids, the Arc de Triomphe, China’s Temple of Heaven, Boston’s Custom House Tower to name a few. They are beacons welcoming us back,” says Casey, relaxing on his deck with its twilit view of the 252 foot high, all-granite Pilgrim Monument commanding the Harbor. “And while these icons are great projections of power which is a hard feeling, they are also soft in that they are gathering places where people can feel part of a community. Why architect Willard Sears chose to model Pilgrim Monument after a Renaissance tower in Italy remains a mystery, however.”

Memo to Zillow: never underestimate the value of an architectural icon in the neighborhood — or an extraterrestrial vehicle for that matter.

Israel-born designer Karin Sharav-Zalkind of Newton, MA, recalls the surreal effect of installing three of the iconic bubble lamps by George Nelson (1908-1986) in nearby Brookline. “The house was on the street, and when you drove by, it looked like three space ships were floating around inside. Even though designers are focused primarily on creating beautiful interiors, we need not forget about the impact on the exterior. How, for example, does a window treatment look from the street when it’s closed as well as when it’s open?”

Boston-based designer Anthony Catalfano offers a solution that allows for privacy inside, curb appeal outside and understated elegance all around. “Forgo fussy drapery treatments,” he says. “Edit out complex valance trims with all those contrasting linings. Clients these days are looking to us for more tailored, simpler fabrics and upholstery. Specifically for windows, that would mean fabric panels with finishing tape along the edges hanging from a drapery pole to the floor — nothing more.” In November, in full view of the iconic Custom House Tower, this magazine inducted Catalfano into its Hall of Fame.

Can we give up Cuban cigars and candy cane — at least for a week?

Perhaps… but we tried that last year, and we never got anywhere. Can we finally resolve to hire a kitchen designer to make life possible again? Perhaps, but maybe antique linoleum will come back in style.

Can we give up checking the property values of friends and neighbors on Zillow? We will certainly try, but isn’t our duty to warn them about any downticks? Then can we at least kick the habit of looking in their well-tailored windows as we pass? — Well, that may be asking a lot. There could be space ships floating around inside.

And if they happen to float outside, what are you going to do?

by Louis Postel as Published in New England Home 2013