The flight to the suburbs by home buyers appears to be turning into a flight to the "exurbs," judging from a new survey of 1,144 prospective home buyers conducted for the December issue of Professional Builder magazine.

The exurbs, defined by Professional Builder as "outlying areas" between suburbs and rural areas, are the choice of more than 41 percent of prospective buyers of detached homes who were interviewed for a Professional Builder survey entitled "What 1988 Buyers Want in Housing." An independent research firm conducted the national survey.

The next largest segment of prospective detached-home buyers, accounting for 27.1 percent of the total, want to live in rural areas, and 27 percent said they want homes in close-in suburbs. That left 4.7 percent preferring to live in a central city.

Since 83.5 percent of the Professional Builder sample expected to buy detached houses, the figures show a big demand for exurban homes.

Moreover, in a separate sampling of prospective buyers shopping for attached housing, such as town houses or condominiums, nearly 36 percent want the homes to be in an outlying area or exurb, and 5.8 percent want a rural area. About 42 percent of this group prefer close-in suburbs, but only 16.5 percent want to live in a central city.

Among the factors spurring home building and buying in outlying areas are improved highway access, cheaper land, a shrinking supply of prime suburban sites, more employment in outlying places and the willingness of buyers to live farther from cities if they can get better housing prices.

Other findings in the survey include: The major reasons for wanting to buy another home were that the current home was too small, a job was changing or the location was poor. However, 14 percent wanted to move because they didn't like their neighbors; 13 percent wanted a bigger or better kitchen; 11 percent wanted more or larger bathrooms, and nearly 8 percent said there was "no excitement" where they were living.

Nearly 42 percent were unhappy with the sales personnel at housing developments they visited, feeling they were "too pushy," were not knowledgeable about the homes selling, were not interested in prospective buyers or made them feel unwelcome.

The high price was given as the biggest obstacle to buying a home (by 34.1 percent of the sample). Failure to find a home they felt was worth the price caused 24 percent to hesitate; 21.2 percent felt the cost of financing was too high and 20.7 percent said coming up with the down payment was the biggest problem. Most of those surveyed said they expected to pay more for a home this year than last year, however. This year's anticipated price of $115,100 compares with $102,000 that most prospective buyers expected to pay last year.

The prospective buyers were asked to rank a number of home-design features on a scale of 1 to 5 and gave their top ranking of 4.5 to "lots of storage space." Multipurpose rooms, which can be adapted to various uses, and kitchens with windows were the next most popular features, with 3.7 ratings. Home-entertainment centers, built-in furniture and dramatic window treatments all received 3 ratings, as did cathedral ceilings. (Flat ceilings were ranked almost as desirable, with a 2.9 rating.) Interior lofts and home-fitness centers fared rather poorly; lofts were ranked 2.4 and fitness centers, 2.2.