There's always been a market for nice old homes that emphasize the quality of finishes over the quantity of square footage, but that market seems more pronounced in the wake of the overall housing boom. Luxury home builders are reporting high cancellation rates; expensive newer homes are languishing for months before selling, often at steep price concessions; and some homeowners who may have dabbled with the idea of “trading-up” to 8,000-square-foot new homes are reconsidering the inherent charms and durability of older homes instead.

QUIET REVOLUTION In Atlanta, Wright Marshall has noticed “a lot of inventory” of speculative luxury homes priced in the $1.2 million to $1.6 million range. Many rose from the rubble of tear-downs, says the president of Revival Construction. “They were built fairly cheaply and seem to be completely out of scale with the neighborhood,” he says. “I have to wonder if there's a market for all these larger McMansions.” (See “The Remodeling Tax,” page 11.)

What's interesting, Marshall notes, is the still-robust market for older, far more expensive homes — including two of his own speculative remodels. One, shown at left, went quickly for $2.7 million; the other was listed in May for about $2 million. The difference is in the details, he says. “[These remodels] are done very, very well, and they fit in” with their neighborhood, he says. These features include custom mahogany doors and windows, limestone entry surround, and antique-wood-paneled rooms, as well as security, speaker, and lighting systems. Yet even those high-tech systems respect the homes' age. “We don't tend to overdo recessed light,” Marshall says. Exterior gas lanterns, sconces, and floor/switched outlets “are more appropriate for older homes.”

Modest scale and stellar details earned this home its $2.7 million sale  price.
Brian Gassel Modest scale and stellar details earned this home its $2.7 million sale price.

PERSONALITY PLUS Million-dollar new-home mediocrities are inspiring quality renovations at the lower end of the affluent market as well. Marshall says many clients with homes valued around $500,000 “are seeing that what they can get for a million isn't worth it.” He says there's always been an “education cycle” for this market — talk to a real estate agent, weigh the options, opt to stay and remodel — “but the cycle is shorter now” before they see the value of investing $200,000 or so in their solidly constructed older home.

In southern New Jersey, Jay Cipriani agrees that the education cycle is running faster, but he says there's now an indelible imprint of those impressive new showcase homes. “Folks are saying, ‘Well, if we can get these few amenities, we'll stay here another 15 or 20 years,'” says the president of Cipriani Builders, a $6.5 million remodeling company. His kitchens typically feature dramatic — but not extravagant — touches seen in model homes and the media, such as crown molding, tall wall cabinets, granite countertops, and pot-filler faucets mounted behind the stove.

Individuality also drives many of these decisions, but it's unclear whether that's a conscious reaction to mass-produced new homes. “Even the ceramic tile in the backsplashes has gotten much more elaborate and personalized,” Cipriani says. “They're going for a unique product.”