Fireplaces: The Hot Home Feature

Warm up with sensible tips on how to market your listings, fireplaces. Learn the correct vocabulary, the different styles, and what fireplaces reveal about a home's architecture.

October 1, 2007

Not only does a fireplace make a house feel cozy and warm, it also can be the focal point of a room and an important design element. So when you're helping a buyer find that perfect home, or trying to market your listings to their fullest, don't overlook the fireplace — your buyers certainly won't.

Indeed, nearly a quarter of buyers said finding a home with one or more fireplaces was "very important" in their home-shopping decisions, according to the 2007 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® Profile of Buyers' Home Feature Preferences.

Having a fire snapping and crackling indoors is certainly not a new idea — since prehistoric times people have been using fireplaces, of one sort or another, for warmth and to cook food. The earliest indoor fireplaces were simply fires that were lit in the center of a room, which was quite smoky and probably not too healthy. In the 14thcentury in Europe fires began to be placed next to an exterior wall under a hood that would channel smoke out through the wall. Chimneys were eventually developed and, in more recent history, smoke-free fireplaces have become popular.

By being knowledgeable about the different types of fireplaces, you'll be able to talk them up more with a prospective buyer. Here's a primer.

Types of Fireplaces

Fireplaces don't all operate the same. There are several different types of fireplaces, including the following.

Wood Burning. The traditional standard found in many older houses. They require a chimney to vent smoke out of the house and are either custom built out of stone or brick (called masonry fireplaces) or they're prefabricated — in other words, mass produced thus less expensive. Prefabricated fireplaces are typically made with metal. Despite being more work to maintain and relatively inefficient energy-wise, people still love wood-burning fireplaces.

Gas burning.These fireplaces burn natural gas or propane and are either vented or vent-free. Vented means there is a traditional chimney or some vent to the exterior of the building. Gas fireplaces have ceramic logs that simulate the look of a wood burning fireplace and are turned on and off with a switch or button. The benefits of a gas fireplace include not having to buy wood, build and feed the fire, or clean up ashes.

Also a gas-fueled fireplace doesn't generate the air pollution that burning wood does. In some areas of the United States prone to air pollution, wood burning fireplaces are even banned and gas fireplaces are the standard.

A few types of gas burning fireplaces include:

  • Gas inserts that are installed into an existing wood burning fireplace to convert it into a gas burning fireplace.
  • Direct vent fireplaces that are vented out of an exterior wall so there is no need for a full chimney rising up through the roof. The fireplace must be placed near an exterior wall. This is a great solution for someone who wants to add a fireplace, as long as it works to have it on an exterior wall.
  • Vent-free gas fireplaces require no chimney and no vent. They are stand alone heaters. These can be installed anywhere in a house since it's not necessary to have them close to an exterior wall.

Electric fireplaces. These fireplaces are relatively inexpensive and easy to install. They don't require a chimney or any venting — simply plug them into an electrical outlet. Some heat is produced and, like gas burning fireplaces, these are turned on and off with a switch. They are also relatively easy to add to an existing house.

Outdoor fire pits. These have grown in popularity as home owners increasingly design outdoor living areas. They can be as simple as a freestanding fire pit or a more elaborate built-in outdoor fireplace. Having an outdoor fire, which is typically a wood-burning fire, with seating around it is like adding an extra room to a house. Some basic improvements to planting, furniture layout, and the ground surface can transform an outdoor area into a prime entertaining (or hang out) space.

Add Some Extra Sizzle

It's possible to change the look of a fireplace. If a buyer doesn't love, for example, the red brick facing on a traditional masonry fireplace, it can be painted or plastered over by a mason.

Glass doors can be installed on a wood-burning fireplace to make it more energy efficient. While many people think it looks nicer to have an open fireplace, glass doors will prevent warm air from being pulled up the chimney and out of the house.

A mantelpiece can be changed relatively easily, too. A new mantelpiece, or molding, that compliments the architecture of the house will improve the overall architecture.

So don't undervalue the importance of a home's fireplace — it alone can interest a buyer in a property, so you'll want to play up the charms of existing fireplaces and any opportunities to add new ones.

Dissecting the Fireplace: 5 Terms to Know

Help buyers notice the different elements of a fireplace. Here are the common terms you need to know to describe this feature:

  • Hearth.The fireproof material in front of the fireplace, either on the floor level or, in more modern styles of architecture, on a raised platform. The depth is usually 12 to 18 inches and must meet building code requirements.
  • Facing.The fireproof material on the wall surrounding the opening of the fireplace. It can be made with brick, tile, stone, metal, or most any fireproof material. It also must also meet building code requirements.
  • Mantelpiece. It frames the facing and can be quite ornate. An alternative to a mantelpiece is a heavy molding that surrounds the facing, or else a simple horizontal shelf over the fireplace. It's important that the look and design of a mantelpiece (molding or shelf) suit the architecture of a house.
  • Chimney. It draws smoke up and out of the house. Inside a chimney there is a damper, which opens and closes to regulate the airflow. It's important that the damper be open when a fire is lit. The flue is a fireproof passageway for smoke to go up through a chimney; it is typically lined in a material such as clay or concrete.
  • Firebox. The area of a fireplace where the fire is lit and burns.

Leslie Banker is co-author of The Pocket Decorator (2004) and The Pocket Renovator(2007),  published by Universe.


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