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Home 'suite' home
Experts provide simple steps to make your condo feel like a home, not an apartment or hotel

By RICK ROMANO

 

Once thought of as that first step to finding a "real home," condominiums are competing for home buyers who no longer consider them a stepping stone to buying the proverbial house with a yard and a white picket fence.

According to real estate experts, condos are outpacing single family homes in construction and running even in pricing. They say the market no longer distinguishes much difference in the value. But to maintain that equity, it is essential for condo buyers to make their residence a true home rather than a glorified apartment.

The right move

It starts with finding the right property, says Jim Young, sales director of Shorewest Realty’s downtown office.

"There’s something for everybody, including single professionals, couples, families and retirees," he says. "All of these people are looking and that’s what Milwaukee figured out."

Young says the lifestyle-driven condo market now offers everything from traditionally smaller apartment-style spaces to multiple level and loft spaces featuring several thousand square feet, and access to outdoor living makes it essential that buyers carefully consider their home lifestyle.

"Someone who is looking to downsize from a very large home may not be the perfect buyer for a three-story condo because they may not want to deal with the steps," Young notes. "But someone who wants to create a home and give everyone a personal space likes the idea of three floors where you have enough room to really stretch out and not constantly run into family members.

"I just spoke to someone who is moving here from Illinois because of business," Young adds. "He wants to keep his house in Illinois and buy downtown because he doesn’t want to live in temporary housing. For him it’s about getting something that will be his own place and increase in value."

Young knows there’s "no one right answer to making a condo a real home. That’s why it’s really about sitting down with the buyers and asking the right questions and listening to what they want. It comes down to three categories: the must haves, the ‘Gee, I’d like to have’ and the absolutely don’t want."

He adds that split-level floor plans fit when someone has guests on a regular basis. Those who don’t want to give up their love of gardening can continue tending plants on balconies and courtyards. Garages also come in several styles, Young notes, adding that nothing feels like your own home more than an attached garage with immediate access to your own personal space.

Want to feel even more like you’re in an individual home? Young suggests looking into duplexes that have been "condo-ized." He calls them "twindominiums," and notes the advantage of making building improvement decisions with just one neighbor.

There’s one last piece of advice — "Like all home buying, it’s all about location, location, location."

Home environment

Condo owners want the best built-ins focusing on baths, kitchens and other luxuries once thought of as attainable only in a single family residence, says Christine Celley, co-owner of Custom Craft Construction in Brookfield.

"These are people who really want to enjoy their spaces," Celley says. "They start out by saying they are not happy about the way something looks or the locations or something is dripping. Then their eyes are open to the possibilities. They don’t want the tub with the shower surround unit; what they really want is a luxurious shower with some jets on the wall or a handheld shower head with a bench. Other people really like to cook and entertain so they are building gourmet kitchens.

"These people are not afraid to think outside the box," she adds. "They approach it like, ‘This is our place and we want it to feel like us and not be concerned about what will someone say if they come to buy this home.’"

Celley says this thinking is universal, whether condo buyers and owners are young professionals, couples or retirees.

Personalization favorites, Celley says, are the use of windows or movable panels suspended from a very high ceiling that can help give oversized rooms a feeling of intimacy. When it comes to condo association rules, she adds that some buildings allow personalization of space just outside a unit’s front or rear door.

Essentials of décor

Ridding a space of an apartment feel is a matter of planning and creativity, says Greg Holm, an interior designer for Peabody’s Interiors in Whitefish Bay.

"The idea is to not leave the interior the white box apartment shells that a lot of them start out with and to make it their own by adding architectural elements like crown moldings and baseboards," Holm says. "In kitchens and bathrooms, add nice finishes to counters and nice appliances.

"In the construction phase, you can use a designer to help you determine how to open up some walls so that instead of having three smaller bedrooms, we can take one of the bedrooms and open it up to become part of the general living space and create a much larger feel," he says.

He adds that to make spaces look appropriately large, select furnishings that match each room’s scale. Use glass and other reflective materials’ lighting to help make rooms look larger. Long hallways can be made to look larger or more dramatic with strategic lighting and mirrors.       

Overly large rooms can be scaled down with overstuffed furniture, dividers and darker colors, he notes.

Holm also suggests that a condo can be refreshed rather inexpensively by repainting walls while keeping the same furniture. Taking everything out of one room and reorganizing it in décor and furnishings also can give new life to a living space.

"We ask clients questions to determine whether they prefer traditional, contemporary or modern — a softer form of the more trendy contemporary style," Holm adds. "We have them tear out pages from architectural publications so that we can see their style preferences. That’s the best way we can help them create their own space — one that will suit them and make them feel at home."