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5 Quick Ways to Differentiate Your Home

Just how desperate are people to "fit in," to adhere to a sameness, a trend? Does it extend to home design?

We did some research in an average neighborhood populated with split-level homes. It's a typical cul-de-sac in suburban Ohio...exactly 850 feet long, 16 houses. Of these 16, 11 houses are some type of split, either bi-level or raised ranch. 12 of the 16 houses have vinyl siding, and all of those are some shade of tan/beige or faded green. Of the remaining homes, 3 are brown, 1 is white.

Sounds pretty dull...but it gets worse.

12 of the houses have landscaping walls built of pre-cast, interlocking stone. 9 of the houses have fiberglass composite front entry doors with cut glass in an oval pattern. 11 have identical style shutters. 7 have identical driveway lights. 12 have colonial style double-hung windows. And on and on and on.

Despite the sameness, it's an attractive neighborhood. Lawns look good, landscaping is sharp, everything is clean. All but two have a six-figure household income. Unfortunately, money doesn't buy class.

Now obviously you don't have the cash on hand day in and day out to change your vinyl siding or re-landscape your property. So let's take a look at some simple things, some common mistakes, and some ideas to help you differentiate and stand out in your neighborhood of sameness. We'll start with the easy stuff...

1. Plastic Flowerpots. Next time you bring home a beautiful plant in a hanging basket, ask yourself why you would even think of displaying it in a cheap white plastic flowerpot with a cheesy white plastic hook. This really ought to be a no-brainer, but drive through any middle class neighborhood in the country and you'll see the unmistakable glare of white plastic flowerpots. The only thing I can think of comparing this to is serving a custom made wedding cake out of the box it was delivered in. You wouldn't think of that -- such a beautiful creation needs to be served from a silver cake stand or something like that. Why serve up a beautiful plant in similarly cheap container? Think natural. Be it a ceramic pot hung with braided rope or a wire basket with a coconut mat liner, or perhaps a cane basket, think natural. It's a natural plant; it needs aesthetic harmony with a natural container. If you can't afford to hang six plants in ceramic pots, just hang one or two. A few tasteful hanging plants will out-class a quantity of plastic pots any time. And please, don't save the empty plastic pots. They add nothing to your home but clutter. Recycle them.

2. Exterior Light Fixtures. Many neighborhoods have house after house with identical exterior light fixtures. Developers and contractors used identical fixtures when the homes were built, mainly to save by buying in volume, to assure that installation would be as simple as possible, and to satisfy homebuyers' ridiculous need to fit the current style or trend.

A quick change is an easy way to differentiate. Unfortunately, most of us go to Home Depot or Lowe's to find stuff like this, and the cycle repeats. Try antique dealers, online specialty websites, or wherever to find unusual fixtures, then paint or refinish. (Be sure that the style fits your overall "theme" or look; remember to maintain design harmony inside and out.)

I recently purchased a six-sided aluminum lantern to hang in place of a spotlight. I cleaned it, used steel wool to take off the corrosion, then painted it a copper color and dabbed on some green paint to create a verdigris look. I replaced the clear glass lenses with custom cut slag glass, and now I've got a one-of-a-kind lantern that people routinely compliment. When buying older fixtures, make sure the wiring is current or re-wire if necessary. Use an electrician if you have any doubts.

3. Put Some Color in Your Paint. Old saying in the Army, "if it moves, salute it...if it doesn't move, paint it." Take a quick assessment of your exterior, looking for the items you could quickly and easily spruce up with some color. The most obvious are doors, window trim, shutters, garage doors, even the mailbox. The important thing is to think in color. Lots of split-level homes are built with white trim. No reason to stay with white -- in fact there are plenty of reasons NOT to stay with white. Use a color that works with your siding or main house color, and go for it. (Worst-case scenario is that you wind up re-painting it white). Take a loose shingle or some extra vinyl to your local paint store, and let them make recommendations if you can't think of anything.

4. Paint the Foundation. Most split-level homes are built on a poured concrete foundation, or perhaps a cinderblock foundation with a poured concrete cover. Paint it. It's as simple as buying paint and slapping it on. If your house is painted, use the same color. Heck, you can generally use the same paint. Your paint store will tell you that you need special paint for concrete, but unless you are in an extreme weather environment you absolutely don't need special concrete paint. Whatever you use, it's important to match the main siding color of your house; you don't want a two-tone effect. One thing to be aware of is that some cinder blocks or concrete will soak paint in like a sponge, so you will need to compensate for heavy coverage when you buy the paint.

Again, take a sample shingle or a piece of siding, and ask your paint specialist to match it.

5. Cover Your Indecent Exposure. Got your attention? You probably don't realize all the embarrassing "stuff" that's hanging out in public view. Go to the curb in front of your house, pad and pencil in hand. Write down every man-made item you see other than those inherent to the house. Plastic storage bins. An aluminum tool shed. A Fisher-Price sandbox. The hoop you store your garden hose on alongside of the house. A drain pipe along the driveway. An air-conditioner sticking out of a window. Electrical outlet covers. Look at it all, write it down. Be ruthless. Ask the kids if they see anything you might've overlooked.

Fact is that none of these things add visual appeal to your home. Even if you've got the nicest tool shed ever made, you've got to minimize its exposure.

How then, to proceed? Take a look at your list and write down all the potential ways to hide or obscure these things that you can think of. A few carefully planted arbovitae can minimize the visual impact of a tool shed. Some matching paint will hide the electrical outlet cover. Some rocks and ferns will hide that drainpipe.

Some items will be tougher than others. You may have to move the garden hose to the back of the house. A small rock wall may be needed to cover up that clunky plastic storage bin. Remember to always use natural materials, or you might as well not bother. Keep in mind that brick, ceramic, iron, copper...all count as "natural" materials. Stainless steel, plastic, rubber, and fiberboard are not. Present the exterior of your home in harmony with nature, and you'll be going a long way toward separating yourself from the dull sameness of the neighborhood.

If you are in the process of searching for a contractor for a particular project, please know that you can use Angie's List to review, and ultimately obtain a quote from a local contractor in your area. We recommend this service because it enables you to find reliable carpenters, plumbers, electricians and remodelers based on reviews from your neighbors, rather than by picking the biggest advertisement in the phone book. Contractors can only be included in Angie's List if somebody else -- a customer -- thinks they should be in there. Most importantly, it tells you which contractors to avoid. (It's worth a click).

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