Flex Rooms: See the Possibilities

Many homes today feature flex rooms that don't have a preconceived purpose. Here's how can you help consumers see their value.

May 1, 2010

Because of their inherent flexibility, bonus rooms can help sell a house.

That's what Adam Gavzer, who specializes in selling lofts — often with quirky room layouts — quickly learned.

"Many loft owners have some sort of creative aspect in their work or personal lives," says Gavzer, who works at McGuire Real Estate's San Francisco office. "I've seen these spaces used for many different things. They can be tailored to suit the needs of the owner." Examples he's seen include a massage treatment area for a home owner's clients, a potter's studio, or a sewing room.

In listing a two-bedroom home in northwest Arkansas, Helen Dansker, a practitioner with Crye-Leike, is coaxing potential buyers by promoting a flex room. Currently used as a nursery, it's a gorgeous space with French doors and lots of natural lighting, a welcome change from window-less flex rooms.

"It's a room that can be used for umpteen billion different things," she says. Ideas she's heard potential buyers throw around are a music room, home office, exercise space, arts & crafts area, or a study.

This flexibility trend has stretched to custom-home builders too. "People are asking us to design spaces that are more flexible," says John Kelsey of Wilson Kelsey Design in Salem, Mass., "especially if they are downsizing."

Key Attributes

Kelsey lists two Boston-area projects of his as examples. In one, a couple downsized from an 8,000 square foot suburban home to an 1,800 square foot condo in the city's Back Bay neighborhood. Their 150 square foot bonus room is used as a guest room, home office, and TV room — with the help of a Murphy bed for guests and built-ins to stow the television and computer when not in use.

"All of this has to be custom because we're working in a small space," Kelsey says. "We're asking that little room to do a whole lot. When the room is a study it simply looks like a paneled room. You really don't have any idea that this stuff is there."

Another project is within a Colonial home built during the 1780s. Kelsey worked with the family to add a room to the rear of the house, near the kitchen. It's used for homework, watching movies, and reading books, and it also has a wet bar. French doors face south and open onto a patio. "It's a whole lot more green than building a new house," he says. "In this case, they needed to add on a little bit to change how people live today."

"'Irrational exuberance' is gone," says Bud Dietrich, an architect at Harold Forrest Dietrich Architects in Deerfield, Ill. "People tend to be looking for smaller-sized homes. Master bedrooms that are the size of Grand Central Station are a thing of the past."

Yet this quest for an affordable smaller home doesn't come without a plea for flexibility. Dietrich has noticed his clients want to stay in their homes longer, a major shift from the trading-up trend in recent years. For a three-story home he's now designing for a family with young children, "the guy's already got plans for how he'll set up [the lower-level bonus room] once the kids are grown and off to college," he says.

"There are at least seven different ways to use a bonus room," says Leslie Mann, a practitioner with Hallmark Sothebys International Realty office in Boston's metro northwest suburbs, "but you have to stage it only one way. Otherwise, buyers get confused. It ends up hanging them up."

Avoid Confusion

At first glance, that extra room can often seem baffling to potential home buyers. And attempts to demonstrate how it could be used may backfire if they aren't well thought out.

Be wary of introducing a use that won't appeal to the majority of buyers. Mann's brokerage listed a home with a quilting room, which they found did not appeal to the crop of potential buyers: families with young children.

Mann suggests using virtual-staging software (such as Virtually Staging Properties) that allows you to digitally reimagine the space. Those photos can be inserted into a listing or even shown during an open house.

"Clutter eats equity," says Jill Vegas, author of Speed Decorating (Taunton Press, 2009). "Sometimes that bonus room has become a hodge-podge room for the treadmill you no longer use or mismatched furniture."

She offers the following tips in staging an extra room. "It should be sparsely furnished, like a guest room or a home office. Say it is the craft room now. You'll want to put all that stuff away," she says. A clutter-free desk is also attractive in a home office, and if the intention is to show the space as a guest bedroom, then place slippers next to the bed and a vase of fresh flowers on the nightstand and assemble a basket of toiletries. All of these steps cost next to nothing but can lead to a quicker sale.

"People are going to see it and get it right away," Vegas says.


Residential Styles & Structural Elements


Hipped dormers have a hipped roof with three sloping planes that meet at the top. Prairie Style and Craftsman houses will sometimes have hipped...