people over 45 years old whose children have left home.

And they are a homebuilder's dream, because empty nesters often have high incomes and a penchant for indulging themselves after years of financial responsibility for their children.

But builders often mistakenly underestimate the size of the new home that empty nesters dream about, according to a survey conducted last year for the National Association of Home Builders. Empty nesters may be looking for a floor plan that is different from that of their present home, but they don't want considerably less space.

In fact, they are looking for homes only 5 percent smaller than their current homes, according to the survey. Most want two-story detached houses, not town homes, with plenty of room to entertain and a small yard.

The annual survey, conducted by the George A. Fulton Research and Consulting Firm of Fairfax, polled more than 2,000 potential home buyers nationwide, Fulton researcher Frank Taplin said last week. He said the survey queried first-time buyers, homeowners looking to move to larger residences and empty nesters about their housing preferences.

The potential homeowners were asked about the cost and size of the house they were looking for, Taplin said. They also were asked a battery of questions about what type of housing features they preferred, such as tile or wood entrance ways, microwave ovens, skylights, intercom systems, built-in shelving, wet bars, patios, kitchen pantries and whirlpool tubs.

Taplin said the survey, conducted annually for the past seven years, helps builders choose what type of home to build for the three classes of potential homeowners -- move ups, first-time buyers and empty-nesters.

"It helps the industry see preferences so they can build products that the people want," said Taplin. "Often, our survey merely confirms suspicion. But sometimes we point out a misconception, for instance that empty nesters prefer town homes. They really don't."

The survey suggests that builders interested in tapping the empty-nester market build clusters of single-family, detached homes on small lots. The less grass to mow, the better.

Empty nesters also want top-of-the-line features, according to the survey. They often ask for a walk-in kitchen pantry. Fireplaces, patios and a separate tub and shower in the master bathroom are also popular. Most ask for three bedrooms, one of which they plan to convert into a guest bedroom or office.

They want all this at a price tag of $98,500, according to the survey.

Of course, not all empty nesters are willing to sell their family homes and move, said Taplin. Many bought their current homes when mortgage rates were low and are reluctant to take on increased payments for a house that may not be much different from the one they live in.

For most of the empty nesters who do move, the motivating factor is a desire for a more energy-efficient home that is easier to maintain. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said they are looking for less yard maintenance, and 19 percent said they are looking for a better neighborhood. Only 34 percent said they are seeking a smaller home.

Taplin said 2,176 prospective buyers answered the survey's four-page questionnaire, which was distributed last year. They were given the questionnaires while visiting model home complexes in Boston, suburban Washington, St. Louis, Houston, Portland and suburban Los Angeles, said Taplin.

He said the survey was conducted in low-, medium- and high-cost housing developments and in both detached and attached developments to get a cross-section of America's home buyers.

The survey also noted that most first-time buyers are young couples earning an average of $33,500 a year and planning to pay $82,000 for their first home. Even first-time buyers prefer single-family detached homes to town homes, and most want three bedrooms and two baths.

Most of the move-up buyers are families with children earning $45,800 and willing to pay $113,800 for a home with three or four bedrooms and at least two baths. They are ready for a little "sparkle," the survey found, and are willing to pay extra for a fireplace, skylight and patio. Basically, they are looking to move because they need more space.

Taplin said this year's survey of potential home buyers is already under way. "This way we can monitor trends," he said. "It is a complex market. . . . Surveys help builders keep abreast with what buyers want in the market."