conroy_edit(220)When I worked at a city magazine here in the nation’s capital more than 20 years ago, I had to cover Washington parties as part of my job. Whether political, cultural, or charitable, they all required guests to wear cocktail attire or better. As a young journalist for a small publication, I didn’t make much money, so I was staggered by the idea of having to keep up with the rich “housewives of Washington, D.C.,” and their formidable wardrobes. Luckily my mother was good friends with her colleague at The Washington Post, then-fashion editor Nina Hyde. Her advice, which Nina followed herself, was to buy one good black dress. The outfit will always fit in, and no one will ever notice you’re wearing the same thing again and again. Boiled down, her rule was: If you don’t have a ton of money to spend, buy a classic. It will give you the best value for your money.

In these times of economic uncertainty, we’re all trying to arrive at a deeper meaning of value. Most of our houses have dropped in value—as defined by the dollars and cents someone else might pay us for them. But if we dearly love our houses and have no immediate need to sell them, are they really worth less to us?

For those clients still willing to risk their hard-earned dollars on a new home or remodel, the tension between commerce and desire is even more fraught. With limited funds and no guarantee their choices will hit the right marks on the appraiser’s checklist, their every decision weighs heavily. Instead of following their fancy, your clients may find themselves drawn to products they deem “classic,” and they may look to you for guidance in determining which qualify.

Now, classic needn’t mean classical, unless that’s the goal you and your client share. And it certainly doesn’t mean “classy,” a word that has always communicated (at least to me) the exact opposite of what its user intends. Nor does classic equal generic—blah and characterless. Classic building products are durable, handsome, and—most important—timeless. Simple products used honestly and with minimal manipulation meet the grade. Objects with clean lines and clear function uphold the standard as well. These products might cost a little more up front, but they likely will save money in the long run because their users won’t grow so quickly tired of their looks or frustrated by their operation.

Your responsibilities don’t end here, however. Application and installation of those products is just as important as the quality of the product itself. I recently toured a Realtor’s open for a small house by a well-known, local architect. The house was just a year old and quite visually striking. But what struck me most was how appalling the finish work was—not unlike the “art” constructions my 4-year-old brings home from school. The realty company touted the architect’s name in its publicity for the project, and I cringe on his behalf. What if a prospective client were to walk through the place? Surely they would leave with the impression that the architect does shoddy work.

I did a little reconnaissance, and my suspicion is that the owner acted as the general contractor—no doubt an expense-saving measure. But what he may not understand is that in cutting corners on construction, he undermined any value the house might have as a design object and as a desirable dwelling. A classic mistake.

Comments? E-mail cconroy@hanleywood.com