While the home-buying process can be exciting, there are days when it's also confusing and stressful for those of us without professional design experience — but it doesn't have to be! If you've wondered what designers seek out during their home search, you're in luck. We've asked top Southern designers to share their aesthetic must-haves (structural integrity and inspection approvals aside), which the rest of us may overlook. Here's what they'd suggest to guarantee success.
Designer Julie Dodson of Houston's Dodson Interiors suggests beginning the process by making a list of your essential must-haves. "Everybody's list is different," she says. "When you're looking at houses, make sure it has the things on your list. For me, it was a soaking tub in the master, an outdoor fireplace, and great natural light. Also, a house that flows well is important. Think about how you and your family live day-to-day."
Designer Philip Mitchell, who has completed projects in Charleston and throughout the South, recommends restoring older homes and advises waiting until you find one that speaks to your heart. "Your house isn't just someplace you live. It's part of the story of your life," he says.
If you prefer architectural elements but they are not already existing, perhaps in a new build, it's possible to add them, says Florida designer Kara Miller of Kara Miller Interiors. "I am looking for a setup where I can fairly easily implement these charming details, such as a window seat, a Dutch door, etc.," she says.
Whatever you're looking for — we hope you find it. And in the meantime, here are fifteen aesthetic elements designers love when on the hunt themselves. Hopefully, it helps you identify beautiful details you might otherwise overlook and find a home that's your perfect fit.
Standout Architectural Details
"I love molding and trim," says Dallas designer Kara Adam of Kara Adam Interiors. "I look for it in every home. Another thing I search for is those awkward architectural spaces—cozy nooks and alcoves."
A Gracious Entrance
What made Adam decide her current home was the one? "The foyer," she says. "I loved its curved staircase, the inlaid waterjet cut wood floors, wainscoting on the walls, and huge crown moldings." If you're on the hunt, Adam also suggests keeping an eye out for niches that offer a place to read, a game table, or a small window seat. "Those are the moments that can make a home feel personalized. Having funky spaces and irregular shapes are opportunities to put your fingerprint on a space," she says.
Ideal Furniture Arrangements
Designer Jean Liu of Jean Liu Design loves when a home encourages ideal furniture placement. "Look for charming details, but be sure to look at each room and think through how furniture might be arranged," she says. "All too often, we are asked to help clients furnish homes where there isn't a logical wall in a bedroom to place a headboard, or there's no way to center the living room sofa due to a structural column, etc."
Dutch Doors and Window Seats
When searching for a new home in Dallas, designer Jason Jones of Studio Thomas James zeroes in on architectural elements that add instant character. "For that reason, I adore Dutch doors and window seats," he says. "While I built my current home, I stuck to my mantra that character is everything. Even though it is new, it has a sense of old-world charm that still draws me in."
Reproduction Windows and Functional Shutters
Mitchell loves the charm and character of original windows, but also loves to see that they've been updated. "I like double and triple glazed reproduction windows because of their practicality and insulation factor to keep the cool air in and the heat out," he says. "Working shutters are also a big plus as they help to keep your home cool during summer and are a smart, eco-friendly, and cost-efficient measure. If you are considering replacing the windows, I always recommend that they are in keeping with the original style found on the house as they were designed to complement the home's architectural style."
Facing The Right Direction
"When looking at homes for my clients in a hot, Southern climate, I note the direction the house is facing and take the time to research prevailing wind patterns in the area," Mitchell says. "This ensures that the house has sun where you want it and breezes to keep the house comfortable. Mature shade trees and planting can also be wonderful, but make sure that they have not grown so large as to obstruct those cooling breezes you want to enjoy."
Look For 'A Good Staircase'
When asked what a designer would notice as a home's selling point, Florida's Kara Miller of Kara Miller Interiors doesn't hesitate: "A good staircase!" she says. "These are often very costly to redo." She also loves quality windows in a home. "My heart goes pitter-patter when I see an old home with good windows," she says. "If you are not in a hurricane zone, then keep them as is, or have them restored."
Quality Craftsmanship In New Construction
"It's hard to replicate the charm of history and character," Miller says. "If you are looking for new construction, I would say to pay close attention to the quality of the cabinetry and finishes, so you don't find yourself having to replace them in six years if they start falling apart."
Original Crown Molding and Window Hardware
Designer Amy Studebaker of Amy Studebaker Design loves original architectural details. "Elements that have been there for years, such as moldings, wood floors, and window hardware, bring character and warmth to a home! When my husband and I found our home, we loved that the house had original crown molding in the foyer. Other areas of the home had very basic moldings installed during an addition, so we had the original crown replicated and installed, giving the entire home just the right touch to make them feel as though they had always been there!"
Enduring Curb Appeal
"I gravitate more towards Southern-style architecture," says Dodson. "I love a balcony. My husband and I recently purchased a 1940's home in Houston; when we pulled up to the house for the first time, I immediately said, 'I love it.' I just knew. I think when you are house shopping, and you see the one, you know. I had an instant love affair with my house."
Spaces That Can Be Improved With Paint
"I think the home's potential is something designers can recognize instantly," Dodson says. "For instance, if a home has everything you want but feels too dark, it can maybe be transformed with a coat of paint. For my home, I was drawn to its architecture. Upon purchasing, I immediately painted the exterior to make it more our style—it's amazing how much paint can transform a home."
Quality That Will Endure
Upon entering a new home, Adam says designers are first to notice its quality and likelihood to last. "I like a home that will still be beautiful in 20 years, that looks past the trends. Investigate molding, trim, doors, and windows to help identify the quality of the build."
A Home Ready for a Renovation
After living in eight homes in the last seventeen years, designer Shawna Percival knew what she was looking for in her recent home search: a light and bright space in need of a renovation. "I wanted to leave my mark and transform our home into just the right space for our family—and wanted something in its original state, with no prior renovation," she says. "We knocked down walls and gutted the place, building it back up to suit our family—and filling every corner with sunshine—which feels so good!
Abundant Natural Light
"You cannot buy (or often easily add) natural light, so that is the number one element I pay attention to when house shopping, as it has the greatest effect on my mood at home," Percival says. "This is also something I point out to any of my clients who are looking for a new home, as the light directly impacts how you feel in a space. It changes the way you see colors and elevates the mood. I am a firm believer that light and bright homes make light and bright people! At the very least, it can't hurt!"
Exterior Architectural Details
Designer Christian Ladd was sure that her current home was 'the one' when she saw the exterior architecture. "While a new build has many benefits, in my opinion, there's nothing quite like an old, historic home filled with charm (and quirks)," she says. "Often, when searching, home buyers are so focused on the bigger picture that they overlook the little details that make a home truly special. I was drawn to my home before stepping inside because of the exterior details. The ornamental cast stone fixtures are from the 1920s."