For homeowners wanting to create an exceptional or upscale look for a modest home's interior, it's tempting to look for magical or miraculous solutions, the remodeling equivalent of a too-good-to-be-true diet pill or a can't-miss investment opportunity.
Painting can have a huge impact, but "rich" colors don't have literal financial connotations. Flooring is another contender, but even pricey inlaid marble tile or exotic hardwood planking can't compensate for an entire room that's lackluster elsewhere. Worse still, a single high-end feature like that can call the wrong kind of attention to more modest amenities, making them seem dingy or overdue for the Dumpster.
Given that homes are complete environments with many different elements and features, it's unrealistic to think that a single change will transform the entire look. Still, there is one upgrade that can do more aesthetic heavy-lifting than any other, and that's molding.
Part of that power comes from molding's variety and versatility. From the baseboard skirting the lower walls to the wide crown molding that hugs the ceiling, moldings can add definition and design quality to any wall area or architectural feature: doorways, windows, built-in cabinetry and more.
Molding and other trim creates contrasts, contours and bold lines that can direct the eye around a space, accent large expanses of wall or highlight the outline of an entire room.
Even though elaborate wood trim has been a hallmark of expensive homes for centuries, the visual message it conveys needn't be one of wealth or opulence. Millwork adds depth, definition and character. Structurally, it's superfluous, but it says that somebody cared enough to do the details right.
It lets you look at a home's fine detailing and say, "It isn't necessary, but isn't it nice?"
Unfortunately, in all too many newer homes, quality molding is an endangered species. High-volume homebuilders tend to look for any opportunity to cut costs, so interior designs that feature undersize or few molding elements have become all too commonplace.
Buyers would notice if the roof weren't shingled or the kitchen cabinets were missing, but the lack of subtler elements such as good millwork is easy to overlook when the builder dangles a fireplace, vaulted ceiling or granite countertops in front of a potential homeowner. If your home's interior got shortchanged, a molding retrofit is a relatively simple way to give it more character and stature.
Skimp vs. splurge
A molding retrofit is simple, but not necessarily cheap. Quality wood moldings can run several dollars per linear foot, and that's for stock offerings in common woods such as oak, pine or maple. If you insist on custom goods in cherry, mahogany or walnut, and then add the installation costs, you can drop thousands of dollars outfitting an entire home.
You can cover an entire room in drywall and paint for less money than it takes to treat just 5 percent of that surface area with good moldings. But this is one material that provides a lot of bang for the buck, so if you can get used to the idea of the concentrated cost (think jewelry, not clothing), the decision to upgrade isn't as difficult.
Equally important is the commitment to doing this right. Labor costs for finishing and installation won't differ radically from one molding variety to another, and if you can splurge for the really impressive sizes (tall baseboard, wide crown molding and so on), the outcome will be much more noticeable and impressive.
If you skimp too much on materials, you can sabotage your efforts. A 3- or 4-inch-tall baseboard molding is average and easily overlooked. Upgrade to a 6- or 8-inch baseboard, and it has a visual presence that can't be ignored.
The same goes for crown moldings, which, if narrow, can disappear into a corner but in wide versions will elicit a jaw-dropping "Wow!" from visitors and guests. Even if you don't care about impressing anyone, it's just great to look at. (There are some tricks to using smaller moldings to equal effect; more on this later.)
Fortunately, there are affordable routes to take with this kind of project. First, consider paint-grade moldings, which are often less than half the cost of the premium "stain-grade" stock and also allow more forgiving installation techniques.
These options include finger-jointed moldings (pieced together from multiple short lengths and primed for painting) and engineered substitutes made from medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and similar composites. Natural-finish moldings seem to have more cachet nowadays, but that's a fashion that changes.
In Colonial America, where trees and lumber were plentiful and paint was scarce and expensive, painted millwork reigned as the status symbol. But if having the natural wood grain patterns (called figure) is important to you, there are MDF moldings that feature a surface of real wood veneer.
Actually, molding doesn't even have to be made from wood at all. Urethane composites with a smooth paintable surface are virtually indistinguishable from their organic counterparts and are often less expensive, especially in larger sizes or more unusual "carved" pieces such as corbels or ceiling medallions.
Sometimes, the design or installation techniques can make millwork costs more manageable. Layering small crown and decorative moldings onto a flat board makes for an impressive alternative to a single, wide crown molding, often at a far lower cost.
If your goal is more texture, depth and accents for your walls, using multiple smaller moldings can actually be the better route — if they're combined well. Also, don't limit yourself to baseboard and crown. There's plenty of area elsewhere for picture rail, chair rail, wainscoting and door and window casings to complete the ensemble.
Whatever materials you opt for, experiment with positioning and spacing before anything gets nailed up. And if possible, prefinish the materials before installing; it makes for a much cleaner process and result. Then you can sit back, take a good look at your newly transformed space and be thankful that you didn't settle for new paint.
Give a Room a Crown
An investment of $300 to $500 a room can set a home's "tone."
By Margaret Loftus
If you're not up for spending five figures on home renovations, consider a smaller fix, like decorative molding. While many new homes include at least some trim, others are left bare, with nary a window casing in sight. "Trim work can really add interest, depth, and sophistication to your house," says RealEstate.com's consumer expert Holly Slaughter, "and put money back in your pocket at resale."
An investment of $300 to $500 per room ($8 to $12 per foot) to install crown molding, for example, can help set the "tone" of a home, giving it a more finished feel. "When you're comparing two houses, the one with the crown molding is going to show better," says Steve Berges, author of 101 Cost-Effective Ways to Increase the Value of Your Home (Kaplan Publishing; $18.95). But this is not a do-it-yourself project. Unless you're handy with a compound miter saw and have a mind for geometry, you're better off leaving installation to the pros. Kevin Wales, president of Just Moulding in the Washington, D.C., area, says he often gets calls from homeowners who've made a couple of attempts themselves. "They buy 120 feet of material and realize they've done it all backwards." He explains that crown molding has to be cut upside down and backwards at a 38- or 45-degree angle. Complicating matters is that few ceilings and walls meet at exactly 90 degrees. The carpenters at Just Moulding cut the trim in their shop with high-tech equipment, turning most jobs around in one day. Wales suggests asking at your local lumberyard for recommendations on specialists. Before you get your checkbook out, however, make sure you choose a molding that jibes with the architectural style of your home. "Suppose you have a Mediterranean revival house and you throw in a crown mold that is more appropriate in a colonial house," says Paul Winans, chairman of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. "You've lowered the value." As a general rule of thumb, mission or craftsman-style homes look best with the cleaner lines of plain-profile trim. Save the fancy molding, like wainscoting and multiple-piece crown, for more traditional homes.
This story appears in the December 25, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.
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