From Custom to Commonplace

At its Coles Run Manor development in Manassas, builder Stanley Martin is trying to present buyers with a precise look at what they'll get. The Bedford II model home showcases standard features rather than upgrades.
At its Coles Run Manor development in Manassas, builder Stanley Martin is trying to present buyers with a precise look at what they'll get. The Bedford II model home showcases standard features rather than upgrades. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Kendra Marr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 22, 2007

There's a point when home shoppers get past their initial awe and realize that no, the wet bar featured in the model isn't included in the base price. Neither is the home theater with stadium seating, nor the high-tech kitchen appliances.

But what is, beyond four walls and a roof? The specifics vary by location, builder, size and price, but in general the answer is that a "standard" new house is more elaborate than it used to be. Many features once regarded as exotic are now everyday: Consider central air conditioning and garbage disposals, both luxuries in the 1960s and '70s and now basics in new homes. Especially in the past two years, builders have been offering plenty of free upgrades to attract buyers in a slow market, such as finished basements and plasma TVs.

"The inventory of builders is up so high that to reduce their inventory and get back to the previous levels of success, they are adding more incentives, which become standard," said Victor Furnells, national director at Hanley Wood Market Intelligence, a firm that does research for builders. For instance, he said, no matter what the home price is, today there are more granite and Corian countertops.

"Many of the features that have been successful in upscale new homes have moved into the average price range pretty quickly," said Stephen Melman, director of economic services for the National Association of Home Builders.

And everything is getting bigger, he said. Buyers want more counter and cabinet space. Double sinks, rare two years ago, are now common. Kitchens are continuing to grow.

"People want as much as they can afford," he said.

When the market began to slow, Winchester Homes, a Bethesda-based builder, upgraded its definition of standard, said Stef Belloli, a division sales manager. Hardwood floors, maple cabinets, granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances are included in the base price of most Winchester homes.

"We don't do laminate," said Cynthia Herberg, Winchester's director of marketing.

The company also markets plenty of upgrades, especially in "Your home, your way," its heavily promoted customization program.

Stanley Martin, another local builder, presents a different vision of "standard."

In its Jewel Box Collection model home at the Coles Run Manor development in Manassas, there's no sauna room or chef-style six-burner cooktop. Instead, the house is outfitted with just what the base price includes. That means lower-end carpeting in the bedrooms and vinyl flooring in the bathrooms and kitchen. The master bathroom has ceramic tile, his-and-hers sinks, a shower and a standard-size tub. The kitchen features oak cabinets, laminate countertops and a double-bowl sink with garbage disposal. There are a basic General Electric refrigerator, oven and dishwasher.

"It's realistic," said Kristen Thomas, sales manager at Coles Run Manor. "It's what people are going to own." She said, "People are discouraged when they walk into a home starting at $500,000 and find out it costs $1 million."


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