When my husband and I bought our first house together, we were mainly excited to say goodbye to the apartment. Sure, we had a basic wish list of what we wanted our house to have—a backyard, second bathroom, a finished basement—but what the house actually looked like, we kept an open mind.
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So it was a happy event that we ended up buying an adorable Cape Cod in Staten Island, New York. This style of home actually got its name from the early 17th century New England houses with gable roofs that could withstand severe weather, especially in the winter.
“Mantle-style homes evoke a simpler time,” says Eugene Colberg, principal of Colberg architecture. “There is a nostalgia and a lightness to the layout, often a small structure with a few rooms and stairs in the middle.”
Yes, it really does sound like your home. Allow me to share a few reasons why I love our Cape.
The benefits of living in a cape
A Cape Cod creates instant curb appeal.
I know I’m partial, but I believe that classic Cape Cod architecture is one of the most beautiful homes on any block. The pitched roof is striking and the front door in the center gives a pleasing symmetry to the exterior.
Many Cape Cods also have dormers on the second floor—those are the small spaces that extrude from the roof. We don’t have sprigs, but I covet the look when I see it on other mantles. They may not do much in terms of extra square footage, but sprigs add more natural light and create an extra nice aesthetic.
It is the perfect size and layout for my small family.
Our little Cape would probably be described as a “starter home” in listings. It’s a term that I actually detest for its bold assumption about who lives under the roof. And while I don’t believe this will be our forever home—another term I don’t like, by the way—I can say it’s the perfect size for me, my husband, and our Labrador Retriever mix.
Our home is currently a two bedroom but there is space on the first floor to create a third bedroom. Between that and our second full bath—which isn’t always something you see with small capes—we feel good about our prospects when it comes time to sell.
We have cold winters here in New York, and while we don’t usually get as much snowfall as our neighbors further north, we’ve been covered in recent seasons. The snow looks pretty pretty on our gable roof, but it usually doesn’t stay there very long – and that’s a good thing. You old New Englanders were on to something when they made the sloping roofs that make it quite difficult for ice dams to form after a snowfall.
There’s one caveat: Storms can be fierce in the Northeast, but when you’re on the second floor of a Cape Cod-style home, it sounds like the world is ending. I learned that the hard way during a particularly scary thunderstorm. It turns out that when your roof is that much closer to your head, even the soft patter of rain sounds like an impending disaster.
Disadvantages of living in a cape
To be clear, I am grateful for our lovely home. But as a housing and property writer, I am not above focusing my critical eye on my own home. Here are a few things I want to share with house hunters looking at Capes.
The second floor is actually half a floor.
Cape Cod homes are often billed as one and a half stories, and for good reason – our second floor doesn’t have nearly the same amount of square footage as the first floor. Upstairs we have two large bedrooms connected by a very short hallway that leads past our bathroom.
Then there is the fact that the bedrooms have pitched ceilings on either side of the room, thanks to our pitched roof. We have set up our furniture just right, but I confess to you, dear reader, that I have bumped my head ceiling more times than I can count while cleaning or making the bed.
The second floor gets hot in the summer.
As I write this, we’ve had a bit of a break in warm weather this summer – but it’s been a doozy with an air conditioning bill to prove it.
“Cape Cod-style homes located in warmer climates are difficult to cool in the summer, as the heat in the attic makes the upper floor warm,” says Alex Capozzolo, co-founder of Brotherly Love Propertya home buying company in Philadelphia.
We don’t have an attic, but we have found our second floor to be quite stifling when the mercury rises. We’ve found that it gets pretty cold in the winter too, but I’d much rather deal with adding a heavier comforter to our bed than keep the heat on full blast.
Colberg says a Cape’s small and simple floor plan makes it a good starting point for expanding—but there are certain ways to do it if a homeowner wants to keep the distinctive Cape style intact.
A renovation plan that would preserve the Cape’s exterior calls for the addition of forward eaves, or “bump-outs.” which is usually at the back of the home. (There are capes with front bump-outs, although this changes the look of the home a lot). Our home’s bump-out is actually at the back of the second floor – it was added to create the second bathroom at some point after the original construction of the home. We are glad the previous owner did it for us, because having a second full bathroom in a small home can only help us with resale.
A home that is built to last
Since we don’t really need more space, my husband and I are content to make minor interior improvements over time. We realize that when we sell this house, there is an excellent chance that the new owner will do a roof lift and turn our cute little house into something completely different, like a center hall Colonial. It’s another lovely style for sure, but it’s not a Cape.
I can’t control what the next owner will have in store for our little Cape, but I’d much rather focus on enjoying our home. This may not be our forever home, but it’s a good feeling to know it can be. “A well-designed Cape Cod-style home can last the average American family a lifetime,” says Capozzolo.