7 Curb Appeal Tips for Selling Your Cape Cod-Style Home: Play Up That Classic New England Charm

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So you own a Cape Cod-style home? You’re in luck. Once meant to be practical to protect from harsh New England winters, the Cape Cod minimal design is now a coveted style. HGTV once designed a dream home inspired by classic Cape Cod architecture, and there are entire books on the evolution and preservation of these cottages.

Simple structural details, colorful doors, symmetrical features, and exterior shutters are just a few qualities that make Cape Cods unique. Not to mention, who doesn’t love a hot summer with neon skies and the sound of waves in the distance, or a winter night spent bundled by the fireplace central to the house. That’s Cape Cod living, and that’s what buyers picture when they seek out these homes.

But if your Cape Cod home has lost its charm, it may fall flat when the time comes to sell it. Maybe you’ve been there for years and slacked on the landscaping or added decor that falls out of line with this style.

No worries—home design gurus and real estate pros know how to spruce up your Cape Cod Curb appeal with a few tricks that stay true to the tradition:

Let’s dig in a little more to the history of these homes, then we’ll show you how to make your Cape Cod house turn heads from the street.

how to sell a house in a slow market
Source: (Susan Law Cain/ Shutterstock)

What’s unique about Cape Cod-style homes?

Above all, simplicity is what makes these homes so distinct. The front facade is generally flat with the same number of windows on either side of the door and an entry that doesn’t protrude or intrude into the structure.

“It’s very symmetrical,” says Dakota Riley, a real estate agent who ranks in the top 1% of her region in Massachusetts. “It’s the kind of house that everybody draws when they’re a five-year-old.”

And that’s because Cape Cod-style homes have a rich history. They’re no frills, no thrills, and were designed to stand up to the cold. For example, low ceilings held heat from the chimney that almost always ran through the middle of the house. Additionally, steep roofs were meant to keep debris, snow, and rain from building up.

Cape Cods were originally built in the U.S. by settlers who modeled it after the simple and square homes that populated England. But the style came back into fashion after World War II when young families needed affordable housing. Those are the homes you see throughout much of the New England area today, and modern builders tend to replicate the style throughout the U.S.

Even though this style dates back to the 1600s, it wasn’t referred to as a “Cape Cod-style home” until the 1800s. The president of Yale at the time coined the phrase after a visit to the Cape. And like most trends, the style has evolved over the years.

Depending on when your Cape Cod-style home was built, bedrooms on the second story may have dormers. These are small vertical structures that stem from the roof, contain a window, and are meant to make rooms feel more spacious. Exterior shutters are also part of the Cape Cod home’s charm, sometimes functional and sometimes purely aesthetic. Modern builds might have a front or back porch. Traditionally, they also have clapboard or shingle siding.

But if your siding is worn, your windows old, and your landscaping dead and drab, it’s not exactly going to get buyers revved up on nostalgia and old-world charm. So how do you revive the curb appeal for these classic homes?

A picket fence outside a cape cod home with curb appeal.
Source: (Michael Petrila/ Unsplash)

1. Add or replace the fence.

As if the rich history of these homes wasn’t enough to fill buyers with nostalgia, a fence can instantly add character to your curb appeal and give off more of those classic American home vibes.

Plus it adds privacy without quarantining you from your neighbors. As Riley says, it’s just enough separation between your home and where everybody’s walking their dog.

But it’s all about the right style. A chain-link fence doesn’t cut it, so if your front yard is sporting one, it’s time for a replacement.

HomeLight asked Mette Aamodt, an architect from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and CEO of a boutique house architecture design firm in the greater Boston area, about fence style for Cape-Cod styles homes, and she had a few suggestions:

  • White picket wood:
    This is the more traditional option. It makes sense for the Cape Cod style because of its ties to the vision of the American dream. Don’t worry, you don’t have to chop your own wood like they did back in the day. Check out this prefab option from Amazon.
  • Horizontal wood:
    It’s OK to break the traditional mold; just don’t stray too far. If you want to keep the Cape Cod charm but prefer a modern spin to stand out (Aamodt’s specialty), she suggested a horizontal wood fence similar to this one.
  • Vinyl:
    Just because it looks like wood doesn’t mean it is. For example, check out these vinyl fences installed by Cape Cod Fence Co. According to the experts at Bob Vila, vinyl will cost more up front, but wood costs more to maintain over time. If you go that route, point out the low maintenance option to buyers.

2. Put in bigger windows.

If you live in an old Cape Cod-style home, you’ve got itsy bitsy windows—not exactly a selling point.

“Traditional Cape Cod homes have small windows to protect the interior from the harsh climate, but they were dark on the inside,” says Aamodt.

“Now that we have insulated double or triple pane windows, there is no reason not to make windows bigger to get more sunlight on the interior.”

Well except for one caveat—cost. New windows can run you anywhere from $700 to $1,200 per window, plus installation. Discuss it with your agent and ask whether there’s enough ROI at stake given your specific home and the market conditions.

That said, there’s no doubt that large windows look great when buyers pull up curbside. IF you are going to spring for new, Andersen is a reputable window company and has created a guide to Cape Cod-style windows and doors. The gist is: Opt for double-hung and choose a lighter, neutral finish. Leave the color pop to the shutters.

Planters used to create cape cod curb appeal.
Source: (Craig Tidball/ Unsplash)

3. Add planter boxes to windows.

If you’re not ready to spring for all new windows, you might choose to just replace the front windows for the sake of curb appeal. Explore adding a bay window if it makes sense for your layout. “That adds a whole other dimension to the home,” says Riley.

But there’s another option. Fake it ‘til you make it by adding planter boxes at the base of each window. It’ll make windows appear larger and add more dimension. You can choose between wood, metal, vinyl, and fiberglass. That said, classic wooden window boxes will look the most natural.

Depending on the style you choose, a window box will run you anywhere from $10 to $120. Ready to install? First make sure you have a drill and 3-inch galvanized screws. Then follow these steps from This Old House, a 40-year-old home enthusiast brand, to install your window box:

  1. Choose a window box that’s about 6 inches longer than the window.
  2. Line up the brackets with the window frame, not the outer border. And hang the window box an inch below the windowsill.
  3. Pre-drill a pilot hole and then fasten with 3-inch galvanized screws.
  4. Once the brackets are installed, situate and center the planter box.
  5. Fill with small, colorful perennial flowers.

4. Upgrade to new exterior shutters or repaint existing ones.

Whether they’re functional or purely aesthetic, shutters are common elements on Cape Cod-style homes and can also make windows appear larger.

While the Cape Cod-style home is generally unembellished, you won’t break any rules by adding exterior shutters.

If you already have them, a new paint job is always a safe bet. And don’t be afraid of color.

According to the paint company Valspar, vivid blues, reds, and greens are all on point colors for exterior shutters on Cape-Cod style homes. They will balance out otherwise neutral tones.

Here’s how to DIY a new shutter paint job according to Ace Hardware:

  1. Remove the panel shutter with screwdriver or drill. If they aren’t removable, you’ll have to tape off the edges instead.
  2. Now it’s time to clean. Use an all purpose cleaner on vinyl shutters. For wood, scrape off peeling paint and lightly sand. If that doesn’t remove old residue, you might have to use a stripping agent (found in the paint section).
  3. Choose a semi-gloss paint, and paint the ends and sides with a roller. Use a small brush for the middle panels. Apply two coats and let dry overnight.

5. Simplify outdoor decor.

Just as an agent will tell you to take down personal pictures inside and other items that are too customized to your taste, your front yard should have minimal decor that feels neutral.

“Don’t make it too fussy,” says Aamodt. This is especially important with Cape Cod-style homes which thrive on a minimal approach.

You may love your front lawn ornaments or think it’s cute that your crew of gnome statues greets people at the front door, but the fewer personal touches, the easier it is for a buyer to picture their own setup. If you have a front porch, a few Adirondack chairs help play up the Cape-Cod style. Riley also suggests a rocking bench.

A simple seasonal wreath will also make the house feel homey. “Nothing overly done or obnoxious,” says Riley, “Just a very simple wreath, I think is a nice touch to the front door.”

Here’s an example of a wreath style that looks great no matter what season it is, and another that adds greenery without getting gaudy.

Rose bushes used to create cape cod curb appeal.
Source: (Pret Basu/ Unsplash)

6. Throw in a pop of color to your landscaping.

While Cape Cod-style architecture is better left neutral, landscaping is your opportunity to play with brighter colors. Remember that fence we talked about earlier? Aamodt suggests lining it with a couple of rose bushes to make it pop more. You can also add flowering shrubs around the lawn or along a walkway.

According to Riley, flower boxes are not only great for making the windows look larger but also for adding color pops, especially when you have a classic farmer’s style front porch. Popular choices include coral bells, hydrangeas, geraniums, and daylilies—but any colorful perennial is fair game. Here’s a full list of which flowers thrive based on season and amount of sun.

These small changes help make a good first impression on buyers, and NAR found that a lawn care service, landscape maintenance, a general landscape upgrade are the top three most desired projects buyers want to be completed.

They’re also the projects most likely to increase home value. Even more, according to Homelight’s Top Agent Insights Report for Q2 in 2019, 91% of agents agree that a basic yard care service is the no. 1 curb appeal project and a must-do for sellers. Plus, the estimated ROI is 352%. It’s official: A good lookin’ yard is in demand and it’s a money maker.

Source: (John Powell/ Unsplash)

7. Reveal the original siding.

According to Aamodt, traditional Cape Cod homes have either cedar shingles, panels or painted clapboards for siding. But there’s a chance someone covered it with vinyl siding. While vinyl may require less maintenance, wood gives the home a more striking appearance.

If the home is covered with vinyl, reveal the original wood siding and give it a facelift by washing it and repainting it. “The beauty of wood cannot be replaced,” she says.

Check out this quick guide to see the before and after of refinished wood siding. A few things to keep in mind:

  • It has to be painted every 5 to 10 years to help prevent rot and insect damage.
  • It should start no less than 6 inches from the ground.
  • You might have to replace damaged planks.

Just remember, Cape Cod charm is likely what attracted you to this style in the first place, and it’s part of what may attract new buyers as well. “It’s really a house for the people that really appreciate the charm,” says Riley. Do everything you can to bring that out, and you’ll have no problem getting an offer.

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