As the lease was set to expire on the Pasadena condo we're currently renting, I, my husband and our young spawn were in the market for a home to buy. Spring selling season is upon us and we wanted to buy while the market is still crapped out. Plus, having just closed escrow on our old place back in Chicago, we were eager to again experience that thrilling sensation of taking a multi-thousand-dollar hit on a home investment. It's a character builder, y'know?
We putzed around on the real estate website Trulia. And we've been in touch with a Realtor friend who set us up to receive automated emails from the MLS for listings that match what we're looking for.
Have you guys seen some of the shit people have done to their houses? Perfectly good Spanish revivals, midcenturies and Craftsman-style bungalows in perfectly awesome locations, cankered by a grotesquely out-of-proportion marble fireplace here, an arbitrary Doric column there and, eye-rape of eye-rapes, sponge painting all over the walls.
Then, of course, there are the McMansions:
I realize there are DIY fixes for some of the ugly. But I should mention that what my husband and I collectively know about home improvement may or may not fill a square of toilet paper.
Recently, amid my complaining about fugly houses to a Silver Lake artist friend, he asked, "Oh, have you seen the 'hipster fences'?" As I nodded yes, in feigned shared derision, I wondered, "What the hell is a hipster fence?"
"Feigned," because fortunately, I'm at a point in my life when snarking on hipsters has lost most of its joy. You know what? I Googled it, and it turns out I like the damned thing. It's not the fence's fault it looks sharp on a bungalow. Don't judge the fence, man.
"The fencing turned into sort of a cliché for everything that we do," says Steve Jones, owner and founder of Better Shelter, the boutique real estate firm that's more or less the granddaddy of the Northeast L.A. "hipster flip" phenomenon. The fence "became this kind of ubiquitous thing that sort of held up, that everyone kind of knocked off. And that's fine, you know? I think it contrasts nicely with a lot of the vintage bungalows we're working with."
If you've been on the northeast side recently, you've likely seen the flip -- usually a smallish, architecturally interesting home that 1) fell into disrepair then 2) got scooped up and renovated by a firm like Better Shelter. Not to be confused with a regular ol' flip job, a hipster flip is the kind of structure that, through its incorporation of classic architecture and modern design elements, seems custom-built for a particular type of home buyer who, say, listens to indie music, belongs to a CSA and has some sort of liberal arts degree.
And maybe for some of us non-hipster types, too. I mean, I didn't go to art school or anything, but these sweet little flip jobs are just the kind of thing I've been looking for.
But one fence does not a hipster flip make. Here are seven more signs that say "Someone who wears black-frame glasses probably designed and/or lives in this house."
1. It's in Northeast Los Angeles.
Jones started out doing his home-flippin' magic in Orange County. Something special happened when he came up north to fill a certain void in the market, explains Matthew Manner, erstwhile collaborator of Jones' and owner of Extraordinary Real Estate, a boutique brokerage firm with sensibilities similar to Jones'.
"I was talking to a lot of agents and buyers in the area and they were, like, "We can't find anything redone under $500,000." So I approached Steve. I was, like, Steve, you should bring your design up here, and if we buy houses for, like, in the twos then sell them for under five, I think we can do well. So we started doing that, and it became mega successful. Then everyone jumped on the bandwagon."
In part, explains Jones, it's the area's esprit de corps.
"Everyone wants to feel a part of some community or tribe, or whatever you want to call it. In Highland Park, for example, all you have to do is drive down York Boulevard and you can see what's going on. The place is like, percolating."
The Northeast side -- in particular, the heretofore predominantly Latino Highland Park -- has become a refuge for the arty, progressive and civic-minded faction that's often priced out of surrounding markets. With its socioeconomic and cultural diversity in flux, it's a place increasingly amped on the energy of its own morphing identity. All this energy needs a place to put up its feet at night. And preferably, that place would not be so hideous and/or dilapidated as much of what's available in the "non-millionaire" price range for hip home buyers who can't pay the Silver Lake premium. Flip jobs like Jones' in neighborhoods like Highland Park fit the bill.
The other big piece is the native architecture of the neighborhoods, most notably the high concentration of Craftsman-style bungalows in Highland Park -- a designated Historical Preservation Overlay Zone, a district where proposed alterations to structures are subject to review by the city planning department -- many of which have fallen into disrepair and are ripe for the flipping.
2. A McMansion it's not. The flip embraces its modest beginnings with a mind to modern design.
Let's take a moment to look back at the earlier photo of a McMansion. Y'know, lest we forget the horror.
OK, so as remodels go, the hipster flip is more or less the antithesis of that. First of all, it's modestly sized, usually less than 1,200 square feet; it's in proportion to its lot and to the rest of the neighborhood.
Secondly, flippers like Jones and Manner take care to work within the original aesthetic of the existing structures and neighborhoods. Manner says he experiences a visceral ickiness in the pit of his stomach when he sees a home that's been worked over by a clueless flipper -- one who, for example, rips up good hardwood to put in laminate, or who "puts arches on a Craftsman," he says, shuddering. It's like a woman with natural beauty, he explains, who "shaved off her eyebrows and put Bondo on her face.
"It's, like, you could have been so beautiful," he laments to the hypothetical woman-house.
Though the goal isn't exactly historical reproduction, either.
"I wanna inject a little bit of youthfulness," says Jones, "a little bit of modern into it, so what I'm looking for are these sort of modern elements juxtaposed with this vintage thing, a modern-vintage hybrid."
3. Its exterior paint job is high-contrast, with a bright-ass front door.
Gray exterior walls, white trim and a bright, tangerine-colored door -- I can't envision another color scheme that proclaims "modern and urban" with such elán. Of course, the door doesn't have to be that particular shade of orange; it just has to pop enough to create interest.
"The bright door is meant to spark curiosity," Jones explains. "[It] just adds a splash of color without going too overboard."
4. It sports xeriscaped -- drought-tolerant -- plantings.
Los Angeles gets an average of about 15 inches of rain a year and, as anyone who's lived here for a while can tell you, some years are a lot drier than that. Thus, xeriscaping, including plants like cacti, is a natural fit for the hipster flip. For one, explains Manner, "It's more of a progressive thing. It's more on the green front."
But there's also the aesthetic, kind of a cool and ordered minimalism that matches the modern exterior palette and complements what's been preserved of the original architecture.
Jones also likes to save the mature fruit trees he finds at some properties, plant new ones, and build raised veggie beds in the yards in the hopes that future residents will be able to "live off the land a little bit," even in the middle of the city.
5. Interior walls are "bathed in white," and the floors are dark wood.
White is clean, bright and expanding. White interior paint lets the beauty of the building show through.
Contrasted with the dark wood of the floors, the feel is kind of a crisp modern classic.
6. "Hexagon and subway" tiles adorn bathroom floors and walls.
But really, you had me at "no beige seashells." Manner notes that the flippers can't take credit for this one, though: "That's a very classic '20s element that's not really ours at all."
7. One-of-a-kind, vintage pieces accent the architecture.
In a continuing theme of preserving, reusing and upcycling, Steve Jones is all about incorporating unique flea market finds into his designs. The stained glass, hardware and light fixtures he picks up at the Rose Bowl and Long Beach Veterans Memorial flea markets become part of restoring what many of his flips had lost over the years.
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"A lot of the homes, when we get ahold of them, they've been kind of stripped of their personality and character," he says, "and so with a lot of them it's just a lot of stuff that we pick up, and we invest that back into the home."
Though the hipster flip has its detractors -- critics often invoke anti-gentrification arguments and deride the style as "IKEA-like" -- it's hard for a potential home buyer like me to look at one of these and not be all, like, "Daaayum."
Since I first learned about hipster flips, my husband and I have gone into escrow on a home in the Baldwin Hills area. It's not a hipster flip, but I still like it pretty well, despite a little bee issue and a sink in the master bath that, in the words of my aforementioned Silver Lake artist friend, "says 'Marriott.'" And we can always put up a fence or two.