In Defense of Molding

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Like those invasive Argentine ants, house flippers are busy digging, churning and transforming our old corner of Los Angeles. One of the most obvious markers of a house flipper around these parts is the ubiquitous horizontal “flipper fence.”

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Another unfortunate sign is the disappearance of interior molding. Note the example above. In the process of ripping out interior walls, built-in cabinets and other period details, the molding often ends up in the dumpster. For some reason, it’s never replaced.

This is unfortunate. Molding is both functional and ornamental. Functionally, it serves to hide the inevitably imperfect intersections between walls, ceilings, doorways and floors. Conceptually, it creates a hierarchy between rooms (the living room should have larger molding than the bedroom, for instance) and it serves to mark a transition between spaces. It feels different to walk through an ornamented door than it does through what is merely a hole punched through a wall.

Modernist architects such as Richard Neutra derided molding as “dust catching” and, to this day, you’ll never see any crown molding or baseboard in the pages of the influential Brahmin lifestyle magazine Dwell. But I doubt high minded design is driving the aesthetic of the house flipper set. Rather it’s simple cheapness and, perhaps, a lack of skill. This is a real shame when you’re paying nearly a million dollars for a thousand square foot shack in a city that, let’s just say it, ain’t Paris.

The truth is, it’s not that hard to put up molding and it really does hide bad drywall work or old lath and plaster problems. Our 1920 bungalow, thankfully, had most of its molding still in place. I replaced what was missing (even though my carpentry skills do leave a bit to be desired).

If your molding is missing here’s a video on how to replace it. Baseboard is even easier, and has the added advantage of protecting your walls from vacuum cleaner bumps.

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12 Comments

  1. It’s the calculus of a flipper…

    Trim carpenter might cost a few bucks to install some period appropriate woodwork that might cost more than some standard trim options available from Home Depot, so out it all goes and bring on the white on white color scheme. People come into the open house, marvel at the “newness” of the flipped house, and seethe a few months later when all the cut corners are apparent.

    Flipped houses are the Monets of modern dwellings. Everything looks fine from a distance, but up close it can be a jumble of discordant workmanship.

  2. Ditto, I am so with you on this one. I would also add that these properties are further ruined by numerous walls being taken out in order to create an “open concept” space. Many of these homes were designed so that the kitchen mess stayed in the kitchen and was not visible to everyone who walked through the door, but flippers always take down walls and thereby totally alter the original design idea…and how many lovely built-in bookcases, arched doorways, and hutches are sacrificed and thrown in the trash pile, all to make a 1,300 square foot home look bigger — when it isn’t. You want open concept? Buy a tract home built in 1990 or later.

  3. We live in a 1925 craftsman-style bungalow that was insensitively “remodeled” in the 1960’s. Occasionally, when ripping out 1960’s trash in an attempt to restore some of the original dignity to the building, we find bits of the original trim and weep. For example, the original baseboards were 1″x8″ old-growth Douglas Fir and were virtually knot-free.

    In this area (Coastal British Columbia) in 1925 this was not an extravagance. Although the house was built for a mill worker’s family in a lumber company town, just about all the lumber, framing as well as trim, is old-growth Douglas Fir because that was all that was readily available in the area at the time.

    Unfortunately, during the 1960’s, the owner decided that this was not modern enough, so he ripped out all the trim: baseboards, door and window casings, crown molding, wainscotting – the LOT – and replaced it with spindly spruce rubbish with unpleasant patterns routed in it.

    We are slowly replacing this with trim in the original style using, as far as possible, salvaged Douglas Fir, but it is a slow job.

    Of course, the ultimate horror is that we also have an avocado green bath tub, which we would like to replace with an old cast-iron, claw-foot tub. Fortunately, we do NOT have bright orange shag-pile broadloom.

  4. Molding helps give a home character! It’s essential in an older home, otherwise the interior doesn’t fit with the architecture. But it’s also great in a newer home — our house was built in 2000 but when we first walked in both our realtor and I saw the molding, the more traditional setup of the rooms, and knew it was what I wanted! The crown molding, the wainscoting, the detailed baseboards and door frames all help to make the house feel like someone put effort into it, rather than the stucco boxes so many builders plop down these days.

  5. It’s a cost/benefit thing for the flipper. The labor involved in lovingly preserving architectural details comes directly out of the profit margin. And don’t think for a moment that the pipes and wires have been upgraded. This is America. You only fix what shows. 😉

  6. It’s not just the architectural details that a flipper ignores in the pursuit of short term profit. In my family’s first home–a Cape Cod built in 1937–the floor in the 3/4 upstairs was covered with “builder” carpet. Underneath? Beautiful wide plank red pine flooring. The previous owner heard pine flooring and covered it up not knowing how rare this type of flooring has become.

    This was also the same person who left a GE monitor top refrigerator in a corner of the basement thinking it was worthless junk. Their loss I suppose.

  7. I think one thought is being missed. The flipper is trying to make money, not good historical buildings. Our economic situation is topsy-turvy so that the average family has difficulty affording a “vintage style” house. The flipper is the only one that can buy the house and we are stuck with their economic decisions and architecture.

  8. What is a “flipper fence?”

    I agree with you and most all the comments, but also recognize that there are those of us wishing to downsize that would honor the older home and spend time to carefully renew it inside and out. I love seeing older and often rundown and often rental neighborhoods that are revitalized when people come in and transform them to their long-gone glory and actually live in them.

    We can’t wait to find and remodel a small bungalow (actively searching) in which to live out our senior years.

    • A flipper fence is a front yard fence with horizontally arranged slats–it’s a way of signaling that the home has been “updated” inside.

  9. When we first looked at this house built in 1902, we could see into a “kitchenish” area clear through the house on the back wall. As I came down the hall and into this area, I realized that someone had “remodeled” and “modernized” the house. The actual kitchen was a huge room that originally had a pass-through to the dining room and a wood stove for heat and cooking. I replace the 14′ section of wall so that the view from the front door was much improved. That room because the laundry room. In that room were counters that were about halfway between my knee and waist and only 12″ front to back. Those were ripped out, but the top cabinets, about 14″ deep.

    They had enclosed and extended the porch to what I now use as den/family room. The rest of the house has 6″ curvy trim around the doors with bullseye corner blocks at the top and plinth blocks at the bottom. This new room made from the porch has the skimpiest, cheapest molding around the doors and windows. In the other rooms, the baseboard molding in 10″ high. This room has 3″ baseboards. This work was done by a family living here, not by a flipper.

    Thankfully, the kitchen had two long windows left. I shortened one window so I could have a window over the sink. The other window was shortened and widened to two windows wide so the table could go nearer the window and plenty of light would be available.

    The remodeler and I were not a good fit. He did not want to put back the original trim. He said it would be difficult to get it down and he just wanted to rip it out and “Put some nice, new, modern trim” and it would be cheaper than reclaiming the old trim. He wanted to remove the 10″ crown molding in a room I was not remodeling!

    1950’s ornamental supports replaced the old round columns at some point in the past.

    Wood door facings and trim protects the sheet rock from dings! A friend bought a house that survived a fire and removed all the trim, burned or not, tore it all down to studs and left off the trim when he replaced the insulations and sheet rock. It was the saddest house I have ever seen. I thought he was going to put up trim, but he said this was cheaper and cleaner. No, just sad. The house had no character.

  10. a friend who lives in a multistory condo complex recounted her joy to me when they did an interior remodel and added crown molding, to make it look a bit nicer. Their joy came from the discovery that by adding the crown molding, they no longer heard most of the noise that they used to hear from the upstairs neighbors! Something about the pressure of the molding on the ceiling muffled what had been like the skin of a drum.

  11. I feel very strongly about crown moulding. I’ve installed it in several homes, and I’ve never once regretted it. I think it adds to the polished look of a room, and like you say, it compensates for some problems with the walls. I hope to see more people incorporate it into their home designs. Thanks for the great defense.

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