Give me a quiet neighborhood with low traffic flow and the feeling of a small-town setting. Give me readily accessible bike and walking paths with natural open spaces and gardens.
Give me street designs that emphasize courts, circles or cul-de-sacs rather than through streets. And wherever possible, preserve local historic structures or features that define the community and give it a distinctive personality.
Much lower on my wish list, despite a new study on American home buyer preferences, are tennis courts, swimming pools, a gated entrance to the development and a community golf course.
Builders and developers frequently put too much emphasis on high-cost, high-design amenities, says the new study, when consumers really favor low-impact amenities that don't disturb the land much.
"All too often developers project onto buyers what they themselves would want. But they can easily be wrong," the study said. "Then, not only have they not improved the community, but they might have made it cost more to live in."
The study was conducted by American Lives Inc., which specializes in focus groups and consumer polling for major home builders. The research was based on a statistical sample of 440 recent buyers of new and resale homes in Florida, Arizona, California, Texas and Colorado. It covered buyers of homes at price levels from less than $150,000 to more than $250,000 in suburbs, small towns and master-planned communities.
Some of the differences were intriguing. For example, although having a gated entrance to a new development was relatively low on the priority scale for both sexes, men were 1.5 times more likely to consider it "extremely or very important" than women.
Men also thought having a golf course, swimming pool and public amphitheater for concerts and shows within the community were more important than women did. Women, on the other hand, were more attracted to communities offering an exercise and fitness center, a teen activities program and a town center with small shops and coffee bars. Women also were more likely than men to rank tennis courts as an extremely important amenity, and less likely than men to put a premium on having churches or other places of worship within the community.
Buyers of resale homes, whether in new, master-planned or existing communities, were more likely than new-home buyers to want a town center with shops and places for people to meet and socialize. They also put higher value on having established schools, guards who patrol the community at night and a shopping center adjacent to the community.
Resale buyers differed from buyers of new homes in other ways. New-home buyers are more likely to value strict community controls on architecture and lot sizes. In other words, resale buyers don't necessarily buy into all the original concepts of certain planned communities, such as rules that prohibit painting a house a color not specified by the architectural review board.
In a finding that appears to run counter to a highly promoted planning and design trend among developers, the study says that "neo-traditional" or "new urbanist" concepts, found in such heavily publicized new communities as Celebration and Seaside in Florida, appeal to only a tiny fraction of current buyers.
Just 10 percent of the consumers polled liked all the key design elements of neo-traditional or new urbanist community planning, which emphasizes narrow streets centered on a town square, traditional and regional house styles with prominent front porches and garages hidden in back, and higher-density development with houses close to the street and smaller front yards instead of large, private yards.
Though half of all buyers were attracted to much of what neo-traditionalist community designs offer, two issues that repeled them were "narrow street patterns" and high density.
Density is a tough sell because consumers like the small-town, old-time feel and the de-emphasis on the automobile, the study said. But many consumers also want more privacy and bigger lots.
The way to go in such developments, the study said, may be to mix "small-town design (town center, gathering places) with a (variety) of housing styles and densities." Toward the center of town, lots would be smaller and would be houses closer together. Farther out, lots would be bigger and owners would have more room and privacy.
Given the strong consumer sentiment for the basic elements, a design blend like this could be what more planned communities look like to attract home buyers in the next decade.