You just bought a little property in a neighborhood of much nicer homes, but the thing is a mess. The door was something from a local hardware store purchased in the 90s. The laundry addition was slapped on at a different angle than any of the rooflines, and there are three different colors of brick from three time periods. All the mature shrubs and trees were planted too close together and now look more like a jungle than a suburban front yard. There is just something off about the entry columns because they don't seem to be related to anything else on the house.
Where do you begin?
When was the house built? The age of the original home is the best clue to the style if it is hard to identify. If the home needs a new porch, you can always build higher quality, but if you refer to the home's original style, the columns will be appropriate in scale and form. It will visually fit. Of course, you may be gutting the property and building in a newer style because that is what is selling locally, but as a rule of thumb, building true to the original style should be your first remodeling rule.
Can you see the door from the street? Are the walking paths well-lit? Do the stairs have solid railings and the gutters keep ice off the walks below? Is the landscape overgrown and obscuring exits, lighting, and house numbers?
Any tenant or potential owner will have an emotional response as part of their logical assessment of your property. If they perceive the place to be safe and welcoming, you're well on your way to securing that great first impression. Of course, you are also liable for your tenant's safety, so addressing safety concerns as an essential remodeling move is as much for your well-being as theirs.
We know that human brains like order and readily identify patterns. If you can't decide how to organize a long, blank wall or layout a new front yard, go to basic design principles first. Dive into the Rule of Thirds, The Golden Mean, and determine if a symmetrical or asymmetrical composition is appropriate for the property's original style. One or two strong moves are preferable to a lot of fussiness.
The Rule of Thirds simply states that if you take a canvas and divide it into three equally sized horizontal sections and three equally sized vertical sections, the resulting grid provides a sort of road-map that helps you choose where to place your design elements.
"The Golden Ratio describes the perfectly symmetrical relationship between two proportions. Approximately equal to a 1:1.61 ratio, the Golden Ratio can be illustrated using a Golden Rectangle: a large rectangle consisting of a square (with sides equal in length to the shortest length of the rectangle) and a smaller rectangle."
Determine your first design moves and watch everything else fall into place.
Not only do you need to respect* the existing styles, property setbacks, and scale (ex: all 1 and 2-story,) you don't price yourself out of the area. Aim for the upper edge of what is on your street or match new development within a 6-10 square block area. Imagine buyers or new tenants driving this area because they like the rent bracket or it's close to their employment. Stay in their price range but provide them one of the nicer options within it.
This is a dynamic issue, so the property should be evaluated in terms of similar properties and how the area is evolving or depreciating every few years. You can even ask appraisers for current comp properties to see where you stand and how you can plan your next phases for your property.
*respecting the neighborhood does not mean you have to copy everything identically. It may mean you introduce a new style and new materials, but the proportions are similar to your neighbors. Maybe you build the first three-story home into the neighborhood, but match the Victorian up the street in style, so it works.
Your pre-war cottage builder didn't have fiberglass insulation and thoroughly believed in the virtues of lead pipe and asbestos tiles. Of course, you want to avoid a true return to the original style when it comes to energy efficiency, safety, and incorporating the latest technology.
Of course, there are exceptions to many of the above points, but if you become familiar with the basic principles of design as they apply to remodeling, you'll become better at knowing when to break the rules. If you don't know where to begin on your property upgrading adventure, this is a great place to start.
Good luck and Avoid the Awkward!