How to Buy a Mid-Century Home: An Architect’s Guide

12 min read Today, let’s do a deep dive into the best ways to find and buy a mid-century home!

vintage yellow for sale sign

Whether you’re looking to buy a mid-century home that is 100% move in ready, or a dire fixer-upper on a fire sale budget,  I can help. Here are a few great universal MCM house hunting tips.

I’m a designer who specializes in helping homeowners update and improve their MCM houses. So, I have a particular interest in people looking for a fixer-upper. This post will focus on how you can find buy a mid-century house full of potential just waiting for you to make it your own.

Hang on a second: this blog post is now a podcast episode! Want to share it with someone who’d rather listen than read? Check it out here!

What you need to know to buy a Mid-Century Home (the long version)

I’ve got great news for anyone looking to buy a mid-century home of any type. They come onto the market almost constantly these days.  I’ve been in my own MCM neighborhood three years. It seems like there always a home on nearly every block that’s just popped out a “For Sale” sign.  

Some advice from your friendly neighborhood (MCM) realtors

Mid-century ranch houses all over the country are slowly but inexorably turning over.  Families who went from raising kids to retirement in their houses are selling.  

Realtor Matt Silvern of Home Sweet Home Madison says, “Ranches are ideal for all age groups.”   No singular demographic group seems most invested in buying these ranches. They appeal to both millennials looking for a family house and retirees downsizing from larger homes into single level living.

That popularity means you need to think fast. Madison Realtor Alex Saloutos warns that “the best homes sell the day showings start, or are under contract the next day.”

Alex and I “met” in an neighborhood online forum. We were both trying to persuade a local homeowner not to replace her original cedar siding with vinyl. (WE SUCCEEDED!) He loves to sell the tastefully updated move-in ready homes. But you can get the best value for what he calls “granny” homes. They’ve been well taken care off and they don’t “have three or four remodeling jobs that you’re paying for in the list price and now have to redo!”

The Special challenge of house hunting for a fixer-upper!

You: Looking for an under-loved home that you can fix up yourself. Want to get the best value. Tailoring the most precise fit to your personal mid-century Style.

This is for you!

My speciality is helping people use design to improve a mid-century house. So, naturally, I’ll focus on tips to help you buy a mid-century home to remodel.

Some of my advice may be different from the classic house hunting advice.  You are planning to make, not find, your dream home. You don’t need to nail down the perfect finished project or ideal layout for your life.  With this advice I’ll help you recognize a home with the POTENTIAL to be perfect.  

Home buying team, Assemble!

Even if you love to DIY, you aren’t going to find and buy a mid-century home to remodel without some team work. Here are the key players you’ll want on board:

Lender

Part of being ready to make your offer quickly is having your financial ducks in a row. Shop around to find a friendly lender, figure out in advance what kind of mortgage you qualify for and get pre-qualified before you start seriously searching.

You don’t want to miss out on your dream house because you put off a visit to the bank!

When you plan to buy a mid-century house to remodel, consider the construction costs in your plan. Some mortgages are structured to cover remodeling as well as home purchase. Alternately, you might buy the best house you can afford, then save for DIY improvements as time goes on. Again, a friendly lender will be a great asset here!

Realtor

You need a realtor who is totally in tune with the concept of mid-century charm.   Here’s the thing: the most friendly realtor who can’t see the appeal of the MCM era, won’t be able to understand what you’re looking for.  This will waste your time and theirs.

You need someone who knows and loves MCM homes.  They should be able to recognize a house for you from the MLA listing as soon as it comes on the market.   

Matt Silvern is not only a realtor, he also owns and is updating a MCM home of his own. He says, “I find the designs are an absolute delight, present themselves wonderfully,  and are often “quiet” and have an understated  curb appeal.  When you find one that has been lovingly cared for, restored, or modernized, I find it blends in so nicely to the shape and size of the lot it is built on, and its landscape. “

Matt finds himself admiring the houses he shows right alongside his home buying clients. He points out features like:

  • wood trim (especially around those amazing big picture windows)
  • brick work (decorative as well as the chimney)
  • flooring (interesting vintage tile and hardwood floors)
  • exteriors (siding & landscaping)

He also helps keep an eye out for things that might need work like:

  • electrical (how is it coming into the house and where, lighting, age of the panel, age and type of outlets and switches)
  • foundation (materials used, drainage, water, windows and window wells)
  • mechanicals (furnace, AC, water softener use and whole house fans)
  • hazardous materials (possible asbestos tile, old carpet, lead paint)
  • roof (pitch of roof, type of materials used, gutters, down spouts & drainage)

Be clear with your realtor (and yourself) about what type of Mid-Century home you’re looking for.

  • Is it vintage cute or edgy avant garde?
  • Are you interested in a house that could need an addition?
  • How much do you want to invest in updating old systems versus adding new features?

Your ideal Mid-Century realtor should know your deal-breaker issues. Make sure they “get” what you really love about MCM homes!

If you need some help figuring out your MCM style before you buy a mid-century home, take the style quiz to help yourself get clear.

Inspector

When you’re buying to remodel you want to know exactly what you’re getting into. Hire an inspector you TRUST and go over the house with him or her from top to bottom. Take notes, or better yet, ask if you can make a voice memo of the process. You’ll get a report but you want to remember everything that comes up here.

Designer

It’s not too early to get your design team on board. I am happy to consult with clients and start brainstorming the remodel possibilities on site before they even decide to offer.

If you have trouble visualizing big picture changes to layout, bring a designer (or a design minded friend) with you to each home so you can make sure you’re seeing beyond furnishings and paint to the real potential of each house you preview.

Prepare for a Hot market

Here’s what’s true regardless of whether you’re looking for a turnkey finished mid-century home, or the most rundown of fixer-uppers. You need to move fast to get your house.

My retiree neighbors regularly get letters offering to buy their homes for cash! Many houses in mid-century neighborhoods sell before the open house! Be ready to move quickly as soon as a house you love comes on the market. If you already know your area, keep an eye out for signs that a house may soon be for sale and reach out in advance.

Note: this pressure may be one of the reasons you choose to look for a mid-century fixer-upper.   It might be too difficult to get your offer in for a house that looks move-in ready.

The clock is ticking, so be ready to jump

Realtor Alex Saloutos knows there are a lot of the “granny” homes ” coming on the market that have had the same owner, if not the original owner, since the 50s and 60s.  I like homes like this because the sellers have a lot of pride of ownership and they’ve been well taken care of.” If you want newly updated MCM home – or even the perfect vintage house in the right spot – you’ll have to move quickly.

He adds, “the early bird gets the worm. Buyers need to watch their email alerts for new listings closely. The right agent – who truly understands what the buyer is looking for, is very responsive, knows the market – will be proactive. You want someone who’ll get in touch with the buyer the moment “the one” hits the market and knows what to do to write a winning offer.”

I bought my Dream Ranch three years ago and learned a lot in the process! I missed a few other opportunities before I was mentally ready to leap as soon as I had looked. When it came to this house, I knew the moment I walked in that I wanted to buy. I made a strong offer the same day.

Write a love note with your offer letter

I also included a “love note” with my offer package. This strategy works especially well for houses which have been in the same family for a long time.   

In mine, I talked about myself as an architect enamored of mid-century homes. Both my training and pdreferences made me love this house.  Describe your expanding family’s needs, the place you grew up, or the way this house reminds you of wonderful times from your past.

Note: Don’t say anything disingenuous in your homeowner love letter.   Just tell them what you honestly feel.

TARGET THE RIGHT LOCATION

Before you start your search think about where you want your home to be.  It’s worthwhile to devote some time to deciding what makes a neighborhood or area really sing for you.   

For example: every home I’ve chosen for myself is in easy walking distance from a public library.   Seven of the last ten years, I’ve lived in homes less than two blocks from the nearest library.  It’s kind of a deal-breaker for me.

You’ll have to decide what’s most important for you to have in close proximity. For that matter, figure out what “close” even means to you.

You want to buy a mid-century home that is near the essentials of your daily life:  work, shopping, community, worship, parks, schools, and more. The good news: mid-century homes are typically walking distance to all these things.

In any case, location is one thing you can’t change about a home after the fact.  Make this choice wisely.

SNIFF OUT GREAT SITE ORIENTATION

Consider where your house is in its neighborhood or area. But, ALSO, you want to think about where a mid-century house is located on its own lot. Look for a house well-suited to both your region and climate.  

This isn’t necessarily something you’ll find in any mid-century house.   Mid-Century houses are likely to be oriented to whichever direction the street faces than to maximize passive solar heating and cooling. Do your best to find one that won’t set you up for a lifetime of heating or air conditioning problems!

You’re only going to encounter a building for a short amount of time, on one day, in one season.   Do a little preparation in advance to consider how the opposite season will affect any house in your area.   Then, when you walk through a house, think about how the light will change through the course of a day.

CHECK MAINTENANCE STATUS

When you’re planning to remodel, still look for a house that’s in relatively good shape structurally.  It’s no fun to spend your remodeling budget on the invisible mechanics of a house.

Note: Some things are going to need updating when you buy a mid-century home.

Even planning to find a vintage treasure and do a light-touch restoration means some elements need updating and replacing.   

If no one has ever changed out the electrical system, replaced the furnace, repaired the roof, or updated the major appliances, then you’ll need to do those things.   

What you’re looking for is a house with a minimum amount of behind-the-scenes work. The good news is most mid-century houses hit a sweet spot in time.

Unlike homes built before the 1930s, an MCM home is likely to be built with fairly standardized materials, and construction conventions.  

On the other hand, unlike homes built later ( in the seventies and beyond) it will likely have great building materials. Expect to see older growth timber, oversized / sturdy joists and beams, strong sheathing, cross-bracing and more.   

An unfortunate tradeoff is that MCM homes are less likely to have good insulation, leak free windows or other energy efficiency indicators.  This is often unavoidable. Plan to live with it or upgrade to modern standards!

Figure out what’s important … and not

Important issues might be:

  • water damage in the basement or from roof leaks
  • ongoing cracking and settling in the foundation walls
  • scorch marks near light fixtures or electrical outlets
  • too many major systems – electrical, heating, air conditioning, plumbing, roof – all needing to be replaced or updated.

Unimportant issues might be:

  • faded finishes on doors and cabinets
  • peeling paint on the exterior of the house
  • poorly-maintained deck or patio
  • anything related to a room (kitchen or bathroom, e.g.)  you plan to majorly update

When shabby slides into unsound

Do watch out for areas where maintenance issues cross over into structural problems. Here are some examples:

  • peeling paint on original wood siding is not a problem … until it starts to result in rotted wood that will need to be replaced.   
  • drippy fixtures in a bathroom you plan to overhaul don’t matter, unless they’re leaking into the substructure of the floor or damaging something happening in the basement below.
  • outdated light fixtures are no big deal unless you see signs of smoke damage around outlets or switches, which can mean fire danger.

Remember when you’re looking for a house that you plan to update, you will find maintenance or structure issues.   Your goal is to buy a mid-century house to play around with. You don’t want to spend all of your time, attention, and budget on major systems repair, leaving little energy left over for cosmetic and layout updates.

SEEK SECRET EXTRA SPACE

While you’re looking around a prospective house, keep an eye out for empty spaces that could be filled in. Here’s why.

Often the most cost-effective and least troublesome remodel takes place within the existing walls (or footprint)  of a house. Anytime you can skip excavating a new foundation, you save yourself money, contractors, coordination time, and trouble.   Just rearranging spaces within a house can make nearly miraculous improvements!

Sometimes, though, working out how to fit everything you’ve dreamed of into the existing area can feel a bit snug.  Just a few extra square feet makes all the difference.

Unfinished basements

See my post on how the unfinished basement is the secret weapon of Midwestern Mid-Century ranch houses for more on how to double your square footage.

Garage-to-house transitions.

Likewise check for any roofed over spaces between two buildings.

If your house is attached to its garage by a breezeway, that can be your opportunity to add a modern inside-outside transition room. It can also be a place where you bring laundry up to the first floor.   Or expand your kitchen with an eat-in nook. Or simply create a more pleasant flow from the kitchen to the backyard.

Attics

A mid-century home likely doesn’t have a roof steep enough to make usable space in the attic. However, keep your eye out for a house that feels like it has awkwardly low ceilings inside but a slightly sloped roof.    Tearing out existing ceiling and bumping it up to match the roofline, especially with the addition of a skylight or two, makes an astonishing transformation.

It doesn’t add anything to the square footage of your home  but can dramatically increase the feeling of spaciousness.

FIND DREADFULLY DATED FINISHES

When you’re planning to buy a mid-century house to remodel,  you’re not looking for one that’s been updated to someone else’s taste.  In fact, you want one that’s had as little work done to prepare it for sale as possible.

IF you’re choosing a so-called “granny” house, you may be inclined to interpret dated as vintage and be absolutely charmed by it.  

Even a tragic 80s kitchen remodel can work in your favor.   Since you’re buying to remodel, you’ll likely be making changes to key areas like kitchens and bathrooms anyway.   So this is your chance to fix someone else’s “remuddling” errors. In some ways, you’ll have less guilt about tearing out the 80s rework than you would an original vintage kitchen.  

For more on “remuddling” and how to avoid it, check out this great article at Chicago Bauhaus and Beyond.

The more “ugh” moments your future  home inspires in other buyers, the fewer you’ll be competing with to make the purchase.  

Embrace Weird layouts

Now I’m going to give you some advice opposite to what you’ll find in other home buying posts and articles.  Most of these sources encourage homebuyers to only think about cosmetic updates to a future home.   That means you need to be on the lookout for perfect flow and layout — A house that simply needs a new coat of paint or some wallpaper and a few new light fixtures.   

You can think bigger.

If you’re planning to do any remodeling at all, it’s not much more work to knock out a few interior non-bearing walls and change the interior space layout.

Channel your favorite superhero and pretend you have X-ray vision to look through existing interior walls. Look for a chance to connect the kitchen and living room.  Open up hallways to adjacent spaces. Replace windows with glass doors to get extra light and create connection between inside and outside.

Get creative. If the house has too many bedrooms and what you need is an office think about where you could add an extra outside entrance.   If there isn’t enough sleeping space, consider how you could excavate a basement wall to create more natural light and an egress window for downstairs living.

So, do you know what you need to buy a mid-century home?

As hard as it can seem to find and buy your dream home, sometimes having the vision to buy a house you’ll TURN INTO your dream home can be even harder. Still, with these tips you’ll be well on your way.

If you find yourself with more questions about the home buying process, reach out to me, or another designer, before you get started. Remember, you’re not alone in this!

There’s no better time to get started than now!

This blog post is now a podcast episode. Want to share it with someone who’d rather listen than read? Check it out here!