What it Really Means When a Home Has Good Bones

By Kate Reggev / Published by Dwell

Find out how to determine whether a home has “good bones.”

People frequently talk about "good bones" when it comes to purchasing a home, but it's not crystal clear what that actually means. It can be an argument for purchasing a superficially unattractive home, but there are also plenty of residences that have been badly designed, poorly remodeled, or not flexible enough for your lifestyle. It takes a bit of coaching to train your eye to see the possibilities—while also avoiding pitfalls. Below, we walk you through the process of spotting a diamond in the rough.

1. Look Out For Structural Weaknesses

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"A high-performance, heavily tinted glass was used within the skylights’ double-glazed units to reduce summer heat," Simpson says. Autex Industries provided the insulation for the year’s cooler months, and the addition of a second, more geometric ceiling hides modern-day electrical and mechanical cords.

Photo: Shannon McGrath

When sniffing out a home with hidden potential, first make sure that its structural elements—quite literally the building’s bones—are in good shape. It’s important to confirm that there are no rotten columns, beams, or other damaged supporting elements; no termite damage; nor any other structural issues. Although these areas can be difficult to spot without a close inspection, there are some subtle hints you can look for: water damage on floors and ceilings can indicate areas of possible mold or rotten wood, while buckling or swelling floors or walls may indicate termite damage. 

The architects used blackbutt wood for the flooring and Whisper White paint by Dulux throughout the interior.

Photo Courtesy of Alicia Taylor

While not always a deal breaker, these problems can be extremely expensive to repair, and if you’re going to be putting money into a home, you ideally want it to be in places where you’ll see or feel the result, not in areas that are hidden under floorboards or behind walls. 

2. Location, Location, Location 

Two adapted prefabricated modules perch above a site-built garage. Exterior materials include sustainably harvested cedar rainscreen; HardiePanel made from recycled materials; and standing seam metal siding, known for its longevity and energy efficiency.

Photo: Jaime Kowal

No matter how much work you do to a home, you simply can’t change its location. That’s why the right location can be a critical element of having good bones; this extends to siting and orientation on the property. It may be important to you that the kitchen gets good morning light and therefore has a lot of east-facing windows, or that the home has great natural cross-ventilation, where it’s been oriented to take advantage of prevailing winds. These elements are intrinsic to the home and are very difficult, if not virtually impossible, to change without significant work.

3. Check For an Efficient Floor Plan

Elements like square footage and a working layout can be very subjective— 1,000 square feet might be plenty of space for one person, but not nearly enough for another buyer—but wasted space and inefficient uses of rooms and circulation are objectively not desirable. 

In the main living space, two sofas are arranged around a fireplace, with long pendant lights hanging from the high ceiling.

Photo: Rafael Gamo

That’s not to say that a few non-structural walls can’t be removed or relocated in a home with good bones, but rather that the general flow from one room to another works well. It’s also important that space isn’t wasted, that there aren’t oddly shaped, non-functional spaces or redundant rooms. Otherwise, you’re paying for square footage that simply isn’t useable. 

To make sure the light well over the dining area read as "a hole, rather than just a bending of the Sheetrock plane," Sherman clad the first-floor ceiling in inexpensive tongue-and-groove cedar closet liner from Home Depot. Bonus: "I like the smell of cedar," says Sherman, and now the house carries a faintly woodsy scent.

Photo: Dustin Aksland

4. Longevity and Character 

In another one of Aumas' vignettes, he pairs a stuffed fawn from the Parisian store Design et Nature with a disco ball he used in a window display.

Photo: Christian Schaulin

While it’s not imperative for all homes with good bones to be built of super-high quality materials or to be filled to the brim with historic character or uniqueness, many home buyers are looking for some original or character-defining features. It might just be hardwood floors throughout the home, or a brick fireplace with some original molding, but these kinds of elements suggest that the home has history, and also that these features will stand the test of time and live long into the future. They can also work as focal points in the home, giving them personality and flair that would be hard to find elsewhere. 

5. Let Go of Undesirable Cosmetic Finishes

Graphic wallpaper complements the color scheme and adds visual interest. Adding bench seating and built-in shelves around the La Redoute table helps to delineate this space as a study and dining area within the larger room.

Photo: Jennifer Sath

One of the hardest things to do when looking at potential homes is to overlook finishes, colors, and materials that you don’t like, because they can really impact how you see the space. While it’s hard to pretend that a space with bold 1980s wallpaper doesn’t exist or that a dirty, smelly shag carpet doesn’t cover the entire second floor of a home, try to tap into your imagination. 

#ChezMarieSixtine #Paris #France #designmilk
Photo by Julie Ansiau

Photo by Julie Ansiau

Envision the room without the offensive finish, and focus on the shape of the room, the existing windows and daylight, the flow of the space, and perhaps even what it would look like with your favorite paint color on the walls and your own furniture in the room. Feels better already, doesn’t it?

Need more home advice? Check out 10 Critical Questions to Ask Yourself Before Buying a Home.

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