Experts at International Builders Show say home buyers want flexibility more than size

By Steve Kerch
Saturday, January 30, 2010

Americans want smaller houses, and they are willing to strip some of yesterday's most popular rooms, such as home theaters, from them in order to accommodate changing lifestyles, consumer experts told audiences last week at the International Builders Show in Las Vegas.

"This is a traumatic time in this country, and the future isn't something we're 100 percent sure about now, either. What's left? The answer for most home buyers is authenticity," said Heather McCune, director of marketing for Bassenian Lagoni Architects in Newport Beach, Calif.

"Buyers today want cost-effective architecture, plans that focus on spaces and not rooms, and homes that are designed 'green' from the outset," she said. The key for home builders is "finding the balance between what buyers want and the price point." For many buyers, their next house will be smaller than their current one, said Carol Lavender, president of the Lavender Design Group in San Antonio. She said design features that resonate with current buyers include large kitchens that are open to the main family-living area, old-fashioned bathrooms with claw-foot tubs and small spaces such as wine grottos.

"What we're hearing is 'harvest' as a home theme -- the feeling of Thanksgiving. It's all about family togetherness -- casual living, entertaining and flexible spaces," Lavender said.

Paul Cardis, chief executive of Avid Ratings, which conducts an annual survey of buyer preferences, said there are 10 "must" features in new homes:

-- Large kitchens with islands. "If you're going to spend design dollars, spend them where people want them -- spend them in the kitchen," McCune said. Granite countertops are a must for move-up buyers and buyers of custom homes, but for others, "they are on the bubble," Cardis said.

-- Energy efficiency. Among the "green" features touted in homes, energy-efficient appliances, insulation and windows are the ones buyers value most, he said. Although large windows used to be a major draw, energy concerns are giving customers pause on those, he said. The use of recycled or synthetic materials is only borderline desirable.

-- Home office/study. Buyers would much rather have this space than, say, a formal dining room. "People are feeling like they can dine out again, and so the dining room has become tradable," Cardis said. And the home theater may also be headed for the scrap heap, a casualty of the "shift from boom to correction," Cardis said.

-- Main-floor master suite. This is a must feature for empty-nesters and certain other buyers and appears to be getting more popular in general, he said. That could help explain why demand for upstairs laundry rooms is declining after several years of popularity gains.

-- Outdoor living room. The popularity of outdoor spaces continues to grow, Cardis said. And the idea of an outdoor room is even more popular than an outdoor cooking area, meaning people are willing to spend more time outside.

-- Ceiling fans.

-- Master-suite soaker tubs. Whirlpools are still desirable for many home buyers, Cardis said, but "they clearly went down a notch" in the latest survey. Oversize showers with seating areas are also moving up in popularity.

-- Stone and brick exteriors. Stucco and vinyl don't make the cut.

-- Community landscaping. Preferably it includes walking paths and playgrounds. Forget about golf courses, swimming pools and clubhouses. Buyers in large, planned developments prefer hiking among lush greenery.

-- Two-car garages. A given at all levels; three-car garages, in which the third bay is more often than not used for additional storage and not automobiles, is desirable in the move-up and custom categories, Cardis said.

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