Light Done Right

Lighting can do wonders for the look and feel of a home, inside and outside. Tips, design trends, and more.

August 1, 2006

Artificial lighting does more than brighten a dark room. It sets a mood, draws the eye to special architectural details, and makes a home's entrance inviting long after the sun has set.

Then there's the decorative angle. With bulbs housed in big colorful paper lanterns, dangly crystal chandeliers, or crisp modern glass pendants, lighting also can be a focal point on its own.

Lighting offers yet another plus: When done right, it helps you showcase your listing's best features and speeds a sale. In this column, you'll learn about the various styles of lighting fixtures for indoors and outdoors, and get tips on how to use lighting to your greatest advantage when selling a property.

Illuminating Vocabulary

First, know how to speak the lighting language. These are the basic lighting terms to know when talking with clients:

  • Lamp. The light source, sometimes called a light bulb, which can be incandescent, fluorescent, or halogen. Lamps come in a range of colors and wattages.
  • Incandescent lamp. The most widely used source of illumination for the home, invented by Thomas Edison. It's inexpensive and can be dimmed, but is inefficient. Light is produced by means of an element heated to the point of incandescence.
  • Fluorescent lamp. More energy efficient than an incandescent, it comes in many wattages, colors, shapes, and can be dimmed, if it has a dimmable ballast in the unit and a fluorescent dimmer control.
  • Halogen lamp. An incandescent lamp that contains halogen gases, it offers a crisp white beam, but is more expensive than an incandescent.
  • LED. A new light source, the light-emitting diode comes as a tiny bulb, gives off little heat, is more energy efficient than a fluorescent, lasts 50,000 to 100,000 hours, and comes in various colors. Downsides: These lights can be expensive, though the price is dropping, and they can be harder to find than regular bulbs.
  • Compact fluorescent (CFL). Although expensive, these fluorescent lamps conserve energy, last up to 10,000 hours, and have a high-quality color rendering capability, but are still pricey, though less than LEDs.
  • Light fixture. A complete lighting unit that includes a lamp, a sometimes decorative housing for the lamp, and a connection to the source of electrical power.

Return on Investment

Rather than choosing lighting fixtures after a house is built or remodeled, design experts advise home owners plan their lighting look from the get-go so that lighting fixtures will fit in seamlessly with the rest of the home.

Built-in lighting may be costly, but it's worth it, experts say. For that reason, built-in lighting such as recessed ceiling fans, sconces, and outdoor ground fixtures should be mentioned in property marketing materials and during home showings; discerning buyers will take notice.

If your seller clients didn't go the built-in route, you can impress potential buyers by showing them how they can gain a light-filled interior by investing in a few portable fixtures such as table or floor lamps that you add into your staged interior.

When discussing the listing with your sellers, always be sure to ask them if they plan to take any built-in fixtures with them such as chandeliers or sconces. If so, those items need to go on the list of exclusions from the get-go.

Advise your buyers and sellers that they can find a range of lighting fixtures — in different price points and styles — at discount and home-improvement stores, but retail lighting showrooms offer an advantage. Many of them have lighting labs, which are room-like vignettes showing how lighting will really look, and are staffed by consultants who will help home owners develop a master lighting plan, sometimes for no fee if purchases are made.

Creating a Finished, Sparkling Look

The best lighting plans include three layers: general or ambient lighting that illuminates the entire space; mood lighting to create a special glow in designated areas; and task or accent lighting to play up architectural details, furnishing, or art.

"Lighting makes rooms breathe, adds drama, magic, and romance — and makes home owners feel comfortable," says New York lighting and furniture designer Sergio Orozco.

To decide how much light to use and where to use it, home owners should decide what tasks they'll perform and what features they want to accent, Orozco says.

You also should keep that advice in mind when prepping a home for sale; highlight areas of the home in which you'd like buyers to envision themselves going about daily life. Task lighting can turn attention to a granite countertop or an undermount sink, while accent lighting can make the Colonial-style fireplace stand out.

Here are some more indoor lighting tips from Orozco:

  • Use a consistent style. Factor in the style of décor and home's architectural detailing. An elaborately decorated dining room may look better with a period crystal chandelier than a trio of funky colorful pendants.
  • Be task-specific. Lighting should be selected for tasks at hand. To see a computer screen well, for instance, place lighting behind the monitor so it's not reflected on the monitor.
  • View rooms at night. Before making a lighting purchase, know what the room looks like at night, without any natural light.
  • Try sconces. Consider wall sconces when trying to create an elegant, romantic effect.
  • Don't forget the cover-up. Be sure all fixtures have some type of cover so a bulb isn't visible.
  • Use individual switches. Install several switches to control lights individually. Don't forget dimmers.

Light Up the Outdoors

One easy way to expand a home: Make the backyard and deck visible from the house, even at night. Outdoor lighting can accent pools, gardens, trees, walkways, and entryways. Safety is an added bonus.

The biggest challenge of outdoor lighting is to use the right amount of light — not too much, but not too little, says Joe Rey-Barreau, Consulting Director of Education at ALA and Director of the Lighting and Design Center at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. He also offers these tips for making a big impact outdoors:

  • Be selective. Rather than light up the entire yard, select a few features to highlight. Shy away from floodlights. Instead, use soft lighting that mimics the moon on a clear night.
  • Conceal the source. Whenever possible, choose and install outdoor lighting before landscaping is completed so transformers and wires can be concealed. Even if you don't plan ahead, you should try to safely hide the lighting behind shrubs or bushes so the fixture isn't apparent — unless it's a decorative fixture, of course.
  • Protect against the weather. Select weather-resistant aluminum products.
  • For flexibility, go portable. Portable lights can be moved throughout the yard whenever you want. One day you can light up a pathway to the gazebo, the next day you can focus on the garden.
  • Experiment. Think about aesthetics and how different types of plants look in artificial light. It can be difficult to judge, so experiment by placing fixtures in different spots.

New Design Trends

Thanks to new technology and ambitious designers, lighting is becoming more fashionable every day, says Monty Gilbertson, CLC, manager of Lighting Design by Wettstein's in LaCrosse, Wis. Among the hottest new trends:

  • Tiny lights. Miniature recessed lighting uses MR11 or MR16 low-voltage halogen lamps to illuminate ceilings, shelving, and more. The diameter of these fixtures is less than 3 inches.
  • Deep finishes. Oil-rubbed bronze, brown, and silver are popular finishes.
  • Ultra-modern chandeliers. Metal fixtures in modern shapes are hot sellers.
  • Familiar shapes. Simple geometric lamp shades with beading, embroidery, or fringe.
  • Pretty stains. Tea-stained glass for pendants and chandeliers is replacing alabaster-colored glass.

Learn More

There are many Web sites you can visit to learn more about lighting, including and the American Lighting Association's Web site. Books on the topic include:

Light Your Home by Elizabeth Wilhide (Collins Design, 2005). A good general compendium, this volume explains the main types of lighting and defines terms well. It also shows photos of rooms with attractive functional and decorative lighting.

Designing with Light by Victoria Meyers (Abbeville Press, 2006). An architect, Meyers offers good text and photos to show how lighting can help transform contemporary commercial and residential spaces with lines of light, colorful beams, and dramatic shadows rather than from decorative fixtures.

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).


Residential Styles & Structural Elements


A member of the Victorian family, the Stick house boasts a lot of detailing. However, few Stick homes incorporate all the possible features....