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Common Rowhouse Design Problems & Our Favorite Solutions

Today I want to talk about the beloved Philly rowhouse. A charming, but often modern-design-flawed bit of architecture that is the most common home type in our city. 

Rowhouses come in all shapes, sizes, and eras here but some carry more issues than others when relating to modern living. So I wanted to share some of the concerns I hear about most as a real estate agent, and some of the best ways to work around those design flaws. 

The Trinity Staircase 

The trinity home is generally a 3-story home with one (maybe two) rooms per floor, connected by a tiny, spiral staircase. While generally the tininess of these homes isn't an issue to buyers who are looking in a certain price range or don't need a larger home, the steep, winding stairs are often a dealbreaker. 

Tip #1 - Shore up the stairs. Tightness is one thing, but if the stairs are also really soft or slanted in one direction, it can make the walk up or down all the more difficult. If you need to shore up or replace the treads, it could make all the difference.

Photo courtesy of Bright MLS - 1934 Naudain St 

Tip #2 - Lots and lots of light! If you have the room to add a skylight to the top floor above the stairs, it can be a very welcoming look, but even without bigger improvements such as that, keeping paint nice and bright white and adding lots of light throughout can make the dark corners less foreboding. Try adding LED spot lights or go for a more traditional look with sconces at every turn.
Photo courtesy of Iyashix 

Tip #3 - Give yourself something to hold onto. Having to solely use your balance or your hand on the wall isn't ideal.

Photo courtesy of Bright MLS - 1227 Lombard St

The Creepy Basement 

Old houses have old basements. No getting around that. But even without putting in a ton of money to "finish" a basement into another living space, there are a lot of things homeowners can do to keep the basement from feeling creepy.

Tip #1 - Keep water at bay while freshening up the space with Drylock or similar product. First, parge (or pay to parge) the walls. This means making sure the walls have a coating over all stones and mortar joints. Then, painting the basement walls with a moisture-controlling paint product such as Drylock not only keeps the water at bay, but it brightens up the walls. Also, don't forget about the floors. A little cement patching and concrete paint goes a long way!

Image via Chocalive

Tip #2 - Add a drop ceiling or paint the joists. If you have the height, adding a modern drop ceiling can make the space feel finished quickly while still allowing access to plumbing and electrical. If you don't have the height, then having the ceiling sprayed one color will drastically help the feeling in the space. Go bright white everywhere or give the illusion of depth with a black ceiling.

Photo courtesy of 

Photo courtesy of

Tip #3 - Soften where you can. As long as standing water isn't an issue, bringing in area rugs or carpeting will help the area feel more homey. If possible moisture seems rare, but not unheard of, go with interlocking Flor tiles so you can easily replace any damaged pieces. Add curtains to segment off spaces (such as a laundry area from the HVAC unit) and, by all means, layer on the textiles to any seating areas!

Tip #4 - Add light! Most basements don't have a lot of natural light so adding light fixtures is essential to keep dark corners from feeling neglected and scary. If you leave your ceiling open, high-hat/recessed lights are easy to install and can lend to an industrial/loft look. You can also go for charming pendant or flush mounts if height allows in order to define living/working spaces.

The Tiny Kitchen 

Though there are plenty of row homes that get to boast larger kitchens, for the majority of Philly homes, the tiny kitchen is a common problem. The best solution to these issues is usually to open up the kitchen to another room, losing the lost space a wall takes up and making a small room feel larger. However, if you don't have the money to do a major renovation like this, there are still ways to make your tiny kitchen feel more open.

Tip #1 - Brighten up the space. White kitchens never go out of style, and there's a reason why. They might be easier to spot messes in, but a white kitchen makes for an airier, cleaner feel and opens up the space. Don't be afraid to paint cabinets yourself! A good, self-leveling paint can do wonders!

Photo courtesy of Designlisticle 

Tip #2 - Use Every. Single. Square. Inch. Tiny shelves for common spices, small counters on blank walls for an eat-in kitchen, adding a wine rack to an unusable 9" space, etc. Thinking about layout smartly, you can probably pack in more than you think. Also, if you have the height, add additional cabinets above the standard cabinet height or replace with tall cabinets.

Photo courtesy of House Beautiful

Tip #3 - If you have a bit more space, open up shelves for an airier feel. Open shelves, or at least doorless cabinets, can make the space feel airier, and thus, more open. Just make sure you aren't overcrowding the open shelves as this will defeat the airy look. 

Tip #4 - Work with light. Galley kitchens don't feel so tight when a big window or door brings in a bigger view and a lot more light. Increasing ceiling height where possible and adding lights/skylights will also help small spaces feel larger. 

Photo courtesy of Traditional Home

Tip #5- Be smart with appliance sizes. You probably don't need to cram in that Viking range if you are the average cook. And a huge french door refrigerator isn't necessary if you eat out 3 days a week. Even things like sink size can be rethought as you plan your every inch. 

Photo courtesy of Zuchara Design


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