The modification issue is really not all that easy to address which is why we haven’t really talked about breaking out of the row before now. Neighbors’ “improvements” are something people constantly have to deal with. When you’re not attached, you can mostly ignore the changes if you don’t like them. However, when you live in a row and a neighbor decides to make a personal statement and do something “unique” with their home, it can often blow up into an all-out community brawl.
You may be thinking to yourself that the answer is really straight-forward. If you live in a row, you must submit yourself to looking exactly like your neighbor or else become the neighbor who no body likes. End of story.
Well, if you are expecting us to promote cookie cutter homes, we’re going to surprise you. Row houses do not have to look the same to look great in a row. However, there are things you have to consider.
One: Consider Yourself
Before you buy your row house do yourself and your future neighbors a favor and think about what sort of person you are. If you are ok with conforming, choose a row that’s more consistent. If you are a little more expressive, look for a row that’s been altered already. Especially older row house neighborhoods can have quite a few mixed dwelling rows. If there is already a few out of the box houses in the row, no one will care what you do to your house, within reason that is.
If you are very conformist and want to live the epitome of row house life by living on a very uniform block and also will be very upset if your neighbor alters their home, make sure you check to see that the block is protected under zoning laws that keep the integrity of the block intact. This way you can let the zoning people fight the battle for you.
Two: Anticipate and Get Involved
If you are in a neighborhood that’s emerging, perhaps a previously fringe neighborhood that is now undergoing gentrification and redevelopment, join the local community board or neighborhood association. Propose guidelines and rules that will keep development responsible. Become a row house advocate and get neighbors involved with their community. Row houses need protecting and a strong community is the best defender.
Three: Practice Responsible Development
If you’re going to make improvements, practice responsible development. Think of the relationship of your needs with your neighbors and with your block. Is your improvement going to make your neighbors miserable? If your neighbors know you are considering their feelings, they might be more open minded to your plans.
No matter what, you absolutely must thoroughly engineer the project. Check to make sure you are not putting the structural integrity of the row in danger. Make sure you get reputable contractors. When you share walls, you’re not just working on your house, but your neighbors as well. Make sure you have ample insurance to cover any damage to your house or others. Have open lines of communication with your closest or attached neighbors. Imagine how upset you would be if a sledgehammer plowed through your dining room wall during dinner.
The great thing about getting neighbors involved is that if you have a good relationship, often you will find all sorts of things available for loan, like ladders, paint brushes, sanders, (it’s amazing what people have) and probably some helping hands as well.
Aesthetics have got to be the most touchy of all topics. If you make improvements to the back of your house, you will probably have to consider less. But the front? What a can of worms! Again, the more uniform the block, the more you have to consider design and appearance. Symmetry and balance in architecture has been a theme since ancient Greece. It’s not breaking news that the human brain favors pattern and consistency. The unexpected and unbalanced makes people uneasy which is ok for some things like opera houses and modern art museums but not rows of domestic row houses. So when you’re making improvements consider materials and style.
You can get away with a lot if you make sure your improvement uses similar materials to the other houses in the row or to the historic design of the house. For example, although most Federal row houses are made out of brick, wooden clapboard siding wasn’t unheard. If you wanted to, you could probably have either on your Federal-style row house. If you want to do something different to your house structurally, such as adding another floor or enclosing a porch, use the same materials as the other houses such as a similar brick color. If you enclose your porch, use similar materials to what the house is made of. Make the additions as seamless as possible. The more they look like they were original, the better your improvement will be received.
It’s important to do some research. Don’t paint your circa 1850 home in bright, neon, lime green. However, if you have a Victorian townhouse, you might be able to get away with brighter colors and some interesting paint schemes, a la Painted Lady. Don’t try to turn your Greek Revival into Art Deco. However, you may have luck turning Tudor into French Chateau if you get creative. Sometimes you do have to be sensitive to what the house is or isn’t. The more familiar you are with your house’s style, the more likely you are to make a sensible improvement and the less likely you are to inspire thoughts of “what were they thinking?” from neighbors and visitors.
Aesthetics are completely related to how uniform your block is. The more uniform, the more you should consider staying true to the block. The less uniform, well – then you can do whatever you want, within reason.
Don’t forget that you can do whatever you want inside your home, as long as it doesn’t damage the integrity of your house or your attached neighbors’ homes.
Five: A Man’s Row House is His Castle
In the end, your house is your house. Your neighbor’s house is your neighbor’s house. He can do whatever he wants with it, within the law and zoning regulations, as can you. After all is done, you might like his addition so much that you want one yourself, in which case you’ll have to swallow every bitter word you exchanged. Better to keep things civil.
The real estate agents I spoke with felt that although it tends to cause concern among neighbors, unique modifications to row houses generally don’t decrease the value of the other homes in the row. Sometimes seeing the potential can actually attract new buyers. Likewise, sometimes being able to modify your house gives you more pride in your block.
Another thing to remember is that even a strange improvement is better than a mothballed or boarded up home. It’s better to have an odd house or two and have the block be well cared for and tidy than having complete uniformity but with litter, graffiti, and dilapidation. Good landscaping, or stoop-scaping, is important too. Besides providing shade and beauty, trees can hide all sorts of strange architectural things.
To help ease fears, I’ve collected a few pictures from articles we’ve done as well as some from around Philadelphia of rows that are very consistent and those that are not. More photos will be added shortly. The pattern seems to be that newer rows, those built post 1900, seem to be more uniform than those built earlier. It might be a logical conclusion that over time, the houses are bound to be altered a little bit. Especially as houses fall apart, mid-row, the ability to build new helps preserve the row.