Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Picky Person's Peeves about Boston Condos

After looking at hundreds of condos in the Boston area over the years, I can pontificate with certainty: There's a lot of disappointment waiting for buyers in my middle-class price range. And even when I venture into my fantasy range, edging up towards $1 million and beyond, or look in neighborhoods beyond the dowtown area that are less expensive, I'm rarely impressed.

I see the same bad design choices again and again: Units in gorgeous 19th-century buildings that once had huge potential were butchered by developers sometime between 1975 and this past winter. In almost every case, the developer hoped to maximize the unit's value in the cheapest possible way — providing "amenities" he or she imagined the average buyer would want — at the expense of taste and common sense.

Cheapo Solutions
In the earlier condo conversions, you find a lot of exposed brick. Exposed brick belongs in converted factory lofts, but almost nowhere else in historic buildings. When I see a wall of exposed brick in a room that also has (or had) parquet floors, fine plaster moldings, and an ornate fireplace, I can only think, "Gee, an opportunity to learn how to plaster."

You also see a lot of this disaster: what was originally a large room with three elegant bay windows — now chopped into two bedrooms by erecting a cheap wall between two of the windows. The weird wall angles and awkward spaces that result from this crime were fine with developers because crappy two-bedroom condos can be priced higher than decent one-bedrooms.

Throwing $$ Down the Toilet
The current trends in condo design involve extra bathrooms and an "open kitchen" or "open layout." Does a couple, living in 1,000 square feet (or much less), really need two full bathrooms and a powder room? Like most people who cook experimentally, I make something awful occasionally. And I dispose of it. I've never served anything that sent us both rushing for the loo simultaneously. When I see a listing for a place that has more bathrooms than bedrooms, I have to assume the developer has experienced bad bouts of family-style food poisoning. Why else would they do it? Bathrooms are expensive and for most buyers (singles and couples anyway), an extra bath or half-bath isn't usually a dealbreaker.

Okay, I suppose that, if you live with someone who spends an hour or more a day on hair and make-up, you'd want your very own bathroom. But looking around Boston, I rarely see anyone (except for punk or goth students) who appears to do that. (Sure, maybe some people are that engrossed in perfecting themselves, but the result isn't apparent. They could be doing sudoku instead.) I spend less than an hour a week on hair and make-up so, please, Madame Condo Fairy, give me a couple of precious storage closets (and fewer toilets to scrub) instead.

I rarely see a bathroom I like. I'm terribly fussy. I'm not moved by jacuzzis, vessel sinks, contemporary hardware, shower doors, beige marble, or anything else I'm supposed to find exciting in an upscale bathroom. I like deep soaking tubs, woodwork, old marble, vintage hardware, and Arts and Crafts tile. In other words, I need a fixer-upper bathroom I can renovate myself. But every seller believes that an "updated" bathroom is an essential, so they do a half-baked job: putting in a fancy sink, for example, while the tub and tiling remain classic 1980.

Stupid Kitchens
The highly popular "open kitchen" baffles me. If I'm sitting in my living room, why would I want a clear view of the toaster, dishes sitting by the sink, and a cat food can? No matter how pretty and pristine my kitchen may be, I never want to see countertops from my sofa. But it's cheaper for developers not to build walls, and they and designers have duped a good portion of the public into thinking that open living is great because your guests and kids can hang out with you in your kitchen. But how it often feels, in reality, is chaotic. And messy. It's much more sensible to be able to shut the door on your dirty dishes than to have them nagging at you from your desk in the living room. And I often can't handle socializing or other distractions when I'm cooking (see "something awful," above).

Many small Boston apartments have disproportionately large kitchens. These are great for a serious cook or a family of four. But most of us city folk living in smaller units are lazy singles or couples. We rarely have dinner parties. Or kids. We go out, or eat take-out. For us, a compact kitchen, separate from the living room, makes perfect sense. But developers, who live in big suburban houses themselves, don't know this.

More Peevish Demands
Another must-have for me is the in-unit laundry. I'm spoiled. My stacked, high-efficiency washer-dryer are in the bathroom, 5 feet from the bed, where I fold everything, and less than 10 feet from our closets and dressers. We have no hamper or laundry basket; everything goes into the dryer to be sorted later. I will never be persuaded to haul laundry down a few flights to some grotty basement, only to wait in line for a washer. As God is my witness, I will never hoard quarters again.

Then, of course, there are all the things you desperately hope for but can't determine from architecture alone.The right location. Convenient parking. Affordable condo fees (no elevator maintenance, no concierge, no looming assessments). Neighbors who are quiet and reasonable, with no offensive habits, like smoking or running illegal daycare centers. (Along the same lines: soundproofing and smellproofing.) Condo-hunting can easily start to seem like a doomed enterprise.

A Little Romance
Many of us live in Back Bay, Beacon Hill, the South End and surrounding neighborhoods because we love 19th-century architecture and interior detail. It breaks my heart whenever I find it's been ripped out and replaced with whatever was considered more tasteful back in 1985. But more and more interiors are being ruined by "modernizing" instead of preserving. I'll keep hoping there's still an apartment out there with most of its lovely original details intact (preferably with a ratty bathroom and a tiny kitchen), just waiting for us to find it.

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