The iconic midcentury modern tract homes built by Joseph Eichler in California, with their clean lines and light-filled spaces, have become sought-after real estate prizes. But as one San Jose couple discovered, while the aesthetic still feels strikingly contemporary, the middle-of-the-last-century construction may not be—and renovating an Eichler home comes with a unique set of challenges.
When Andrea and Scott Ysebert purchased their Eichler in 2016, they were overjoyed to have scored a house with the features that Andrea had eagerly been searching for: mahogany walls, an original kitchen with updated finishes, high ceilings, and walls of glass. These were signatures of the California modern style pioneered by real estate developer Joseph Eichler, a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright who built homes in the San Francisco suburbs and Southern California from 1949 to 1966.
But these homes are now 60 years old. They typically have no attic space, sit on slab concrete foundations, and are often in need of custom fixtures to fit their nonstandard spaces.
The Yseberts’ 2,000-square foot, four-bedroom, two-bath home had gotten some relatively recent updates. Five years before they bought it, solar panels were added, the bathrooms were renovated, and new carpet was added.
But after the couple moved in, they uncovered a few issues—it turned out their midcentury beauty, built in 1957, had plenty of flaws beneath the surface. So after five months, they embarked on a major renovation project that eventually transformed their classic home into a true showpiece.
Now, about a year after the makeover was finally finished, the Canadian natives shared their experience with us.
Assessing problem areas
Soon after the couple settled into their new home, it became clear that they’d need to make some home repairs. The couple, who both work in the tech industry, already knew they’d want to make adjustments to fit their personal style. They wanted to move the kitchen to create a more open floor plan, merge two of the bedrooms to create a large office, and switch out the relatively new carpet for hardwood flooring.
They uncovered some unpleasant surprises right off the bat, and a few of them related to the work done in 2011.
“We discovered the fixes made were very surface-level—enough to look decent at first glance, but not done properly,” Andrea says.
On closer inspection, the carpet was worn after all the open house walkthroughs—and when they pulled it back, they discovered swarms of ants. The tile work in the bathrooms was shoddy, and the kitchen finishes weren’t much better.
They also found that the radiant heat flooring—a signature Eichler feature—wasn’t available in two rooms that had been added to the home, and the existing radiant heat coils were starting to fail in the bathrooms—“where you want it most,” says Andrea.
Oh, and the sliding glass doors no longer locked, which meant they had to stick pieces of wood in the track as an improvised security measure.
“It was super valuable living in the home for a short amount of time before renovating,” Andrea says. “You had a sense of what did work and what didn’t work.”
Going all in on renovations
The to-do list grew and grew.
“Once we dug in, we set out to deal with the ants, the windows, the radiant heating, and termite damage in the walls. And then, we just went in for a full overhaul, with the bathrooms too,” Andrea says.
They decided to keep the original mahogany wood wall paneling, but re-stain it, replacing the brown with a rich gray, the preferred palette for their renovation.
As the project list expanded, the budget ballooned. However, having just sold their San Francisco home, the couple had set aside funds to manage the financial crunch. And the first-time renovators figured it would be less stressful to consolidate the improvements and get them over with.
“If you have the resources to do everything at once, do it,” Andrea says. “We poured months into our renovation, but within a year, we had the home we dreamed of.”
A major challenge with any Eichler home renovation is the concrete slab foundation. There’s no crawl space underneath these homes, which means any changes to plumbing, piping, or heating requires breaking the floor. In the Yseberts’ case, the concrete base also had to be opened up to add or replace radiant heating.
The two made the renovation project a second job, researching the finishes, fixtures, and fixes they preferred. Once work commenced, they moved out of their home for 13 weeks.
Anatomy of the Eichler makeover
Here’s how it turned out.
The company that installed the original radiant heating way back in the ’50s was enlisted to overhaul it, six decades later. The slab was opened up and new coils were laid in such a way that the home now features three heating zones that can be adjusted depending on need.
“For the rooms we’re not in very often, we just turn down the temp. It’s more efficient,” Scott says. Once the infrastructure was in place, the couple selected white oak flooring, a counterpart to the rich gray stain on the wood-paneled walls and ceiling.
Andrea and Scott knew immediately they’d move the kitchen so that it would look out onto the backyard. They selected Alno, a San Francisco company, to design it with a minimalist, European look. The Miele appliances are black, the Cambria counters are white, and gray laminate cupboards and glass cabinets add sleek storage.
To their surprise, Andrea and Scott found that the standard sink widths weren’t so standard in the ensuite master bath. Rather than creating a custom sink to fill the space, they moved the wall of the bathroom to fit the new sink, poured new concrete floors, and added a heated towel rack and LED lighting to the mirror. The tile in the guest bathroom was completely redone, including the floor, which is now graced with hand-screened clay tiles from New York.
Two smaller bedrooms were combined to create a spacious office that fits the couple’s two oversized desks and showcase their cool collection of toys.
Once the couple and their two cats, Dash and Poro, moved into their newly redone home, they had the home’s exterior painted dark gray to complement the stain on the walls inside. They also ran a gas line to the side yard so they could add an eye-catching fire pit out back.
Now happily ensconced in their redesigned home, they both confirmed they’d do it all again.
“The experience was both stressful and yet completely rewarding,” Andrea says. “Every time we sit back and look at our home, we feel so happy with how things came together.”
“For those renovating an Eichler, have patience,” says Andrea. “But take solace in knowing that these homes are very special, and if you can work with its nuances, it will be so worth it.”
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