What it Really Means When a Home Has Good Bones

Find out how to determine whether a home has “good bones.”
Text by
The Dwell+ library of how-to guides has been unlocked for free for a limited time courtesy of Level, whose smart locks pair high design with an intuitive approach to home entry.
Learn More

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

It’s important to confirm that there are no rotten columns, beams, or other damaged supporting elements before you buy a home.

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. 

Maintenance problems can be extremely expensive to repair.

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 

The right location can be a critical element of having good bones.

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. 

Wasted space and inefficient uses of rooms and circulation are objectively undesirable.

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. 

Still, it’s possible to remove or relocate non-structural walls in a home with good bones.

4. Longevity and Character 

Many home buyers are looking for some original or character-defining features.

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

One of the hardest things to do when looking at potential homes is to overlook existing finishes, colors, and materials.

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. 

Tip: Focus on the shape of the room, the existing windows and daylight, and the flow of the space.

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?

Related Reading:

10 Critical Questions to Ask Yourself Before Buying a Home

9 Critical Tips to Read Before Kicking Off a Home Renovation