Rescuing a Desert City Mid-Century Modern Flipper
Alistair McLean
Category: Renovations

Alistair: Posted on Tuesday, 1 July 2014 1:24 AM


Secret Design Studio has been neglecting this blog for too long, yet we still get great feedback from lots of people about the content, some of which is quite old.  So we have decided to re-invigorate the blog to focus on what Secret Design Studio actually does in helping clients with their mid-century modern homes.

Secret Design Studio was thrilled to receive an enquiry from Tim who fell in love and purchased his Mid-Century Modern home without knowing much about the style, except he liked the house.  He said  “I simply loved the layout and could instantly envision myself living here. It’s a bit larger than absolutely necessary, but the open space is so relaxing and inviting and just perfect for socializing.” This is so true of many homes of this style and era – with their open plan living and great relationship with their outdoor living areas they make great party houses.


His home is located in one of the first master-planned communities by Palmer and Kriesel in the United States and was the epicentre of cool in the 1960’s. Perhaps the coolest thing about Tim’s home is that the rear boundary backs onto a golf course, and his living rooms are orientated to the golf course, with the bedrooms to the street.

Like many homes built in Palmer and Kriesel developments it is built on an almost square parcel of land, as opposed to the our standard of much narrower lots, which are 3 or 4 times longer than the width.  The house is sited slightly closer to the front boundary than the rear boundary, with smaller horizontal ribbon-style windows facing the street to minimise the heat from the western sun.


I could see that Tim’s interest, passion and finances were very common with many of Secret Design Studio’s clients.  He wants to do the right thing for his home and celebrate his homes original character, but also wants to ensure that it is still up-to-date with the comforts of the 21 century.  However for a project of this scope he doesn’t have a huge mountain of cash, and he doesn’t know where to start to make it all work.

From his work to date I can see that Tim has got lots of enthusiasm to hunt down the best deals and put in the hard work with some of his mates, but this piecemeal approach risks looking like a mess if it doesn’t have an overall plan, or vision to tie it all together. Often new home owners gravitate towards what they understand and what they can readily grasp and in Tim’s case he is a detail man.  His initial enquiry to Secret Design Studio revolved around the right artwork and curtain materials for his living room.

But he really needs to step back a bit and look at the bigger picture of the house and the relationship with the garden and the golf course. Once a clear design direction is in place then the finer details usually fall readily into place – and this is where Secret Design Studio will be helping.


Tim’s home was built in 1963 and incorporated some palm trees, including one near the front door which has since grown up through the entry pergola, which may have been roofed over.  It was probably originally landscaped and may have been a display home for one of the local builders judging by the three bathrooms in a modestly scaled house. It looks like the home had some renovations in the 1980’s which included large ceramic tiling throughout the home, and a particularly nasty salmon paint job for most of the interior.  Unfortunately this is a fate common to many 1960’s homes. Usually by the 1980’s a lot of the interior fixtures are looking very dated and worn out to 1980’s tastes so are replaced with what may have been fashionable at the time, but often don’t work with the style of the home.


In 2011 the home was placed on the market and from the real-estate agent’s photos it looked like it may have been a foreclosure sale.  There was very little done to make the house look presentable.  They hadn’t even put the toilet seat down in one of the bathroom photos! The palms survived, but if there had been any other landscaping it was now a dustbowl.



It looked as if somebody had ripped out the old bench tops, which may have been ceramic tiled, then put the house on the market, where it was purchased by a flipper. Flipping is a term used primarily in the United States (but is catching on here in Australia) where a house is purchased by somebody who wants to put it back on the market to make a profit.  Usually a flipper will complete some superficial (and cheap) “renovations” to improve the appearance of the house. Often they are happy to paint over any problems, and conceal any issues before placing it back for sale.  Any work is not for the long term, but just to look good to get a quick sale, so that the flipper can move onto the next deal.

So typically of a flipper renovation the walls and cabinetwork were painted to look nice, white and clean. Granite bench tops were added to the kitchen and bathrooms (but over the original cabinetry), and an internal wall was added to divide off the study area. Tim noted that “the granite counter tops were sinfully ugly and I recognised them as pre-fab units that cost $140 per 8′ x 2′ slab. Cheap and yucky.”


This photo illustrates one the dangers of flipped houses when the flipper is trying to impress with finishes rather than substance.  The original kitchen cabinetwork was not constructed like our cabinetwork is today with sheets of melamine faced chipboard which is strong enough to support granite stone slabs.  The original cabinetwork was made using traditional furniture making techniques with small pieces of timber connected with dowels and rebates. The tops would have been a laminate sheet, or ceramic tiles, fixed to a sheet of chipboard or plywood which is quite light compared with a granite stone slab.

The easiest way to tell if a kitchen is an older construction technique is to look at the drawer positions.  If the drawers are in a single row, underneath the bench top (as in the diagram), then it is more than likely to be the old furniture style cabinets.  If the drawers are arranged in a bank of three or four drawers, with the cutlery at the top, then it is more likely to be the newer construction style with melamine faced chipboard.  Other clues are the cupboard door construction – framed or solid, and the hinges – visible or concealed?


The good news is that Tim’s 1963 kitchen cabinetwork appears to be holding up the slab for the moment, and hopefully it will remain structural until the budget means he can afford a new one!  If he has kitchen doors and drawers that are starting to stick it may mean that the base cabinetwork framework is under stress and perhaps he should move his new kitchen plans into high gear.


Other crimes against Tim’s home were the installation of the granite benchtops in the bathrooms.  It looks like that there may have previously been a tiled vanity top with a terracotta coloured tile that also went up the wall to make a two course backsplash. The clunky, chunky, new granite backsplash doesn’t conceal the original tiles and finishes awkwardly mid row.


But perhaps the biggest crime was the painting of the lava rock fireplace to lighten the look of the dominant fireplace feature.  This is the equivalent of applying a distressed shabby-chic paint finish to a piece of teak furniture, but unlike teak furniture it can’t readily be removed.  The lava rock is a very porous stone, and soaks up paint like a sponge.  It may have taken two or three thick coats of paint to fully block out the natural colour.  It is a real pity that the flipper decided to do this as painted rock loses its natural character, and the new mustard gold paint contrasts with the lava rock used on the exterior.


However despite the flipper’s ill-considered “renovations” Tim fell in love, purchased his new home and decided to complete some preliminary work before moving in.  In Tim’s case he purchased the home for quite a bit more than the flipper had bought it from the bank. There clearly wasn’t that amount of work completed in the 10 months that the flipper had owned it, so they made a tidy profit.

However the flipper had converted the un-liveable house (without benchtops, basins, sinks and tapware) into a clean and liveable home that caught Tim’s eye.  While the work completed was not to a good standard the flipper did save the house by taking it off the market and prevented it from becoming further run-down.

Tim also did well in purchasing a home at a keen price for the area, where a lot of houses in the street have much higher valuations. In fact there is a similar sized home, only six doors up, on a similar sized lot, also built in 1963, (possibly by the same builder), with the same rear golf course aspect  which is currently selling for more than twice what Tim paid for his home.  Despite this other home having a beautiful kidney shaped swimming pool and some desert-appropriate landscaping (including the same majestic palm trees) I prefer Tim’s house as it is a blank canvas and I know Tim will be working hard to make it a showpiece.



As is often the case with mid-century homes, and usually the case with flipped homes, preliminary work can often snowball into something much bigger and more expensive than anticipated, and I will be covering some of Tim’s work to date in a future blog posting.