The 5 Retro Home Features Buyers Want Preserved, According to Experts

published Jan 24, 2021
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Some people count sheep when they can’t sleep — I visualize my dream home, or the one that got away. This past spring, a beautifully preserved mid-century modern ranch was listed for sale in my hometown. Apartment Therapy Superfan Stewart Magnuson (aka my dad) and I masked up and toured the home, marveling at its retro features and architectural surprises (a dumbwaiter!). Alas, the house sold to Not Me, and friends back home keep me updated on the activity outside, which points to the direction of remodeling. I’ll probably never learn what the new owners are doing to that sweet home, but I imagine they too fell in love with the iconic look of the mid-century era. Some things are just meant to be saved. I spoke with real estate experts to learn the retro features house hunters want preserved, and their insights are right on the money. 

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Beamed ceilings

Sometimes the real statement in a home is overhead. Daniela Benloulou and Nicole Graff, co-owners and principal designers for Los Angeles-based interior design firm Hamsa Home, are seeing a resurgence in demand for unique ceilings. “Any kind of architectural detail that is on the ceiling, something like beams, or if it’s copper ceilings or anything else that’s like that — that’s definitely something that seems to stand the test of time,” Benloulou says.

These wood beamed ceilings are standard in the iconic Alexander Construction Company homes of Palm Springs. Niko Esposito, Palm Springs-based realtor specializing in mid-century modern real estate, explains, “Midcentury is all about lines. Midcentury is about your roof line, midcentury is about the lines and proportion of the home.” To achieve that in-demand look, the ceiling is key. “You’re basically seeing the construction… you see the beams go across, which are the posts, and then you see the slatted wood,” Esposito says. Whether painted or stripped to reveal the original wood, detailed retro ceilings are in.

Wide-open spaces

Retro architecture, and mid-century modern in particular, showcases open spaces and massive windows. Realtor Lou Zucaro, who specializes in mid-century modern architecture, shares that this feature is in demand right now. “The big thing — and this has only been accentuated the last year during the pandemic — the big thing for people looking at these homes is, first of all, the open nature of the layouts,” Zucaro says. One room organically spills into another, creating a sense of cohesion. 

Zucaro shares that large windows, and even complete glass walls, are another feature buyers are preserving. “The idea there was to blur the lines between the indoor and outdoor spaces and make people feel more connected with the natural world around them, which has been shown to really help in somebody’s mental and emotional well-being,” Zucaro says.

Breeze blocks

In Palm Springs, Esposito says, “the biggest feature hands down that people look for… is, number one: breeze block.” In regions with warmer climates, the geometric designs of breeze blocks are all the rage again, serving in gardens as a sort of patio wall, or enclosing a carport — another standard feature of retro architecture. The blocks are often found inside the home as well, to divide a room without fully enclosing a space. Esposito has found that buyers are looking to keep blocks intact whether outside or in for the complete retro vibe.

Fireplaces and mantels

With regard to classic mid-century modern homes, Esposito attests, “The fireplace was integral.” The same materials that were being covered or converted just a few years ago are now sought after for preservation. Dark brick and larger stone materials are those in particular that house hunters have on their radars.  

“A lot of the old fireplaces are made with really nice ornate details, and so keeping a lot of the surrounding structure of the fireplace, but then maybe elevating it by adding a stone hearth,” Graff says. My Dream House (RIP) had a massive stone fireplace that stretched along an entire wall, and included a built-in bench and planter — the exact type of details that buyers are looking for. 

Tried-and-true appliances and fixtures

While it can be tricky to maintain a decades-old refrigerator or vintage light fixtures, Zucaro’s clients are going the distance to preserve the look. “A lot of those old appliances — especially when it comes to things like range tops and cooktop ovens — a lot of those things were designed to last forever and they still work perfectly fine,” Zucaro says. For those dedicated to preserving the retro look of a mid-century modern kitchen but unwilling to budget for expensive modern reimaginations of vintage products, finding a specialist who rehabilitates or preserves those appliances is key. 

The same goes for light fixtures. “People a lot of times will want to preserve vintage lighting fixtures especially if they’re in good condition, because a lot of those fixtures are considered to be kind of classics and are no longer made,” Zucaro says. 

While hardware and design stores are teeming with new takes on old designs, nothing matches the genuine thing. If a piece is intact and safe to use, buyers want to preserve those fixtures. Benloulou and Graff see this with their clients, and encourage them to lean in and maintain the original retro pieces. “For the most part, if it’s something that we think is really charming or lovely and adds character in a way that doesn’t impede on the overall goals, then we strongly recommend that they keep those historical details,” Benloulou says.