The boxy little rambler and its more spacious neighbor, the split-level, were the height of suburban splendor when Coon Rapids experienced its building boom a half-century ago. About half the city’s homes were built before 1980, and those are two of the most common styles.

Today, midcentury homes can feel more outmoded than modern.

The answer isn’t to move to newer suburbs, Coon Rapids officials contend.

Instead, consider a remodel.

To entice families to stay, the city is offering up to $5,000 to homeowners undertaking a large-scale remodel costing $35,000 or more. It’s also offering a free two-hour consultation with an architect and affordable financing. Homeowners planning more modest remodels still can qualify for low-interest loans.

The offerings are the city’s latest effort to revitalize its housing stock — Phase II of its Home For Generations program.

“We do want to keep families here,” said Coon Rapids neighborhood coordinator Kristin DeGrande. “Housing values are starting to come back. People are becoming more confident, and we want them to invest in their homes.”

The Home for Generations program is breaking new ground because the city is offering grants — free money — to qualified homeowners, and there are no income requirements, city staffers say.

Phase I, in which the city bought, remodeled and showcased five older homes to spur remodels, proved so successful that it was featured at the National League of Cities conference and is a contender for a Harvard University Innovations in American Government award.

There have been nearly 100 remodels within a half-mile radius of the model homes.

Tough sell

Convincing residents to stay put can be a tough sell, especially when older homes go toe-to-toe with new construction in neighboring suburbs such as Andover and Blaine. Limited square footage is often the biggest hurdle for growing families to overcome.

“We don’t have much opportunity for move-up housing,” acknowledges Cheryl Bennett, the city’s housing and zoning coordinator.

But some Coon Rapids homeowners are thinking outside the box — building additions, reconfiguring existing space and finishing basements to make their homes feel more spacious and modern.

Overall, the city has seen an increase in building permits, which includes remodeling projects, over the past several years: from 5,394 in 2007 to 6,879 in 2012.

In part, that’s a sign that homeowners — sold on the perks of their established neighborhoods, including large lawns, canopies of established trees and connections with longtime neighbors — are investing in their homes, city staff say.

“Generally speaking, it’s a lot more affordable to invest in your existing home and make it what you want it to be,” DeGrande said.

The housing market crash, which left many homeowners owing more than their homes were worth, could also be fueling this new fix-it mentality.

A pair of remodels

Jess Bennett and her husband are part of Coon Rapid’s fix-it-up phenomenon. They finished a second remodel on their townhouse in 2012.

They moved into the 2,500-square-foot home when their oldest son was 2 months old. At first the home, built in 1985, seemed so spacious. Then, their twin daughters were born.

Like many families, they owe more than their home is worth. They tried to sell but couldn’t find a buyer and decided to make their current home work. During their first remodel, they enclosed their second-story loft to add a large third bedroom.

As their children grew, the walled-off kitchen felt awkward and confining. The Bennetts ripped out interior walls, creating an open floor plan on the main level. They added a large kitchen island and turned the informal eating area into a computer nook.

Now the children can sit at the island for an after-school snack and homework time while Bennett preps for dinner. “It’s now one big, open space. I can see everything. It’s just amazing,” she said. “I love our neighborhood. I love our house; I really do.”

She said neighbors have toured the new open-floor plan, and it’s created a lot of buzz.

Help for all incomes

Now, qualifying homeowners who remodel can use the city’s Home for Generations grant, architectural and financing program to help cover costs. The City Council rolled out Phase II in March. It’s starting with a modest pot of $25,000 for grants. If the city receives a flood of applications, it is likely to seek more funding, DeGrande said. The city has $500,000 available for loans.

The city wants to amp up the curb appeal of homes, so interior remodels are eligible for only $2,500. To receive the full $5,000, the project must include some exterior work. That can include installing a new front door, dressing up the first porch with columns, or adding brick or stone to the home’s facade.

“We hope homeowners will think bigger about the project,” DeGrande said. “Everyone benefits with better curb appeal.”

Julia and Dylan VanAvery are thinking about remodeling their 1950s Cape Cod. They’re hoping to qualify for the city’s new incentive program.

“I have been following the Home for Generations program for years. I thought it was great,” Julia VanAvery said.

She’s excited that Phase II will help families of all incomes with remodels. The VanAverys moved into their home in 2006 with one child. They now have three children, ages 2, 6 and 9.

They were caught in the housing crash, and selling isn’t an option. They’d like to create a master suite in the basement and add a family room on the main level.

“What was supposed to be our starter home is now looking to be our forever home,” Julia VanAvery said. “We are going to be living here, and we need to make it as comfortable as possible.”

A home run

The city launched its Home for Generations initiative in 2009 after City Council members brainstormed about a home-revitalization program at a council retreat.

During Phase I, the city purchased five older homes — four foreclosures and a short sale — that were typical of the city’s 1950s, 1960s and 1970s housing stock. The smallest was an 800-square-foot rambler. The largest was a 2,000-square-foot split level. With the help of a contractor, the city redesigned the homes inside and out and opened them up as models. The idea was to create some momentum for remodeling in the city.

Officials believe the project did inspire nearly 100 remodels, according to building permits. There were 33 building permits taken out in a half-mile radius of one of the remodeled homes at 537 109th Av. There were 32 permits pulled in the half-mile radius surrounding the model at 11610 Juniper St.

Becky Johnson and her husband were inspired to remodel their 1956 rambler after walking through the Juniper model two doors down from their home.

“It gave us the courage to move forward,” Johnson said. “It was the same floor plan as ours. You could see what you could do with it.”

The Johnsons bought their three-bedroom, one-bath rambler 12 years ago. Three daughters later, the house felt a bit tight.

“We wanted another bedroom, and we needed another bathroom downstairs. God help my husband,” Johnson quipped.

After seeing the city’s showcase home, the Johnsons remodeled the basement, adding a second bathroom and fourth bedroom complete with egress window and large closet. There’s also a family room.

Johnson said she’s now content to stay put. She embraces the comfort and safety of her established neighborhood.

“It’s settled. There are people who have been here forever,” Johnson said. “There is a certain comfort level.”

With three children in day care, it’s an affordable home for them. Plus the girls, ages 2, 5 and 7, love the big fenced-in back yard and the large driveway where they ride bicycles and doodle with sidewalk chalk.

“These are parts of the home we can’t live without,” Johnson said.

For more information, contact Kristin DeGrande at 763-767-6517 or