Even dreams can be practical. Take, for instance, Gregg and Ann Holden's dream home. When they were building it on Balboa Island in Southern California last year, they spent an extra $20,000 to have an elevator installed to reach all three levels.

It's not that they need the lift. After all, Gregg Holden, 61, recently hiked Half Dome in Yosemite, and Ann Holden, 60, walks a few miles several times a week. But they know the day will come when going up and down 30 stairs will not be such high-stepping fun. And since they hope to live in their home as long as possible, they want to make provisions now for the future.

So they insisted that their architect carve out a 5-by-5-foot space from the ground to the roof and install a hydraulic elevator. They hid it behind doors that look like those leading to closets and bathrooms and decided they would lock it and forget about it for a long, long time.

Or so they thought.

Like other active people who install elevators to future-proof their homes, the Holdens are finding that their elevator is getting a workout.

Step into the expanding universe of convenience, where most residential elevators are sold to those who are able to walk stairs. (Only 1 in 4 is bought for people with long-term physical disabilities, say industry experts.) These homeowners are planning ahead for accidents, aging or the day they sell their home. Unlike a new pool, most of the expense of an elevator is recouped when ownership changes hands.

And they think it is handy and cool to have one.

For the Holdens, the elevator aerobics started the day they moved in. Their unit, which can hoist 1,500 pounds, labored as much as the brawny movers transporting furniture and boxes to the second and third floors. Since then, it has become a handy dumbwaiter when the couple need to haul heavy luggage, unwieldy dry cleaning, even food to the barbecue on the rooftop deck.

Visitors enjoy it as well. Friends who huffed and puffed up the stairs at the Holdens' other houses love the effortless glide to the top and back. The couple's granddaughters use it as a cozy playhouse that moves.

And when Gregg Holden hurt his lower back kayaking seven miles on a recent Saturday, taking the elevator to the second-floor master bedroom prevented pain.

Despite safety features, he has been stuck in his elevator twice. Once, he jumped up and down in it, "just for fun," and it stalled between floors. But by the time he called his wife to the rescue, the machine had stabilized and was on its way.

Another time he was not so lucky. He backed into the cab with a sofa bed on a dolly and his wife was barely able to close the security gate around all the bulk. She was to meet her husband on the third floor to let him out, but she forgot. He could not reach the button or the phone, and he tried calling his wife's name through the wall but she did not hear him. Several claustrophobic minutes later, however, she remembered her husband of 41 years.

Elevators are becoming more common in beach and mountain communities where lots are small and costly and building up two, three, four and even five stories is the best use of the land. And the view's better up there.

Mansion-rich areas are also elevator hotbeds. Ron Clark, director of Beverly Hills' Building and Safety Department, said two-story houses in his city that are larger than 6,000 square feet typically have elevators. "If you have a lot of money, you don't have to walk up stairs," he said.

Although more houses and townhomes have elevators than in the past, they are still a novelty.

Gary Drake, whose construction company is based in Beverly Hills, said he has been seeing "strictly status" elevators. He worked on a $40,000 model that was hidden in a bookshelf, straight out of a "Scooby-Doo" episode.

"It's all for show," Drake said. "I don't think the owner has used it for anything more than to say, 'Hey, look, I have an elevator.' "

Adding to elevators' "wow" power is the way they are decorated. Stone floors, cherry paneling, trompe l'oeil cloud ceilings and soft-watt chandeliers convert drab cabs into personal statements. Those with radius, beveled or stained glass that can be seen from outside the cab add architectural pizzazz as well.

Tony Ciabattoni, 58, whose Italian villa overlooks the bluffs in Laguna Beach, Calif., is putting a miniature replica of Frank Lloyd Wright's Mile High Building into a niche in one of the cab walls. And he is having it backlighted. "It's a beautiful piece of art that doesn't fit in the rest of the house, but it's in its own little world in the elevator," he said.

A Huntington Harbour couple commissioned an artist to paint cartoonish figures from the waist down on the bottom half of their cab's walls. Mirrors take up the top half, so when people enter, they see their reflection above the waist. And below? Painted skirts, jodhpurs or board shorts with legs. The experience is a 3-minute fun-house ride.

The cost for all this gee-whiz? It depends. A standard 3-by-4-foot elevator for a two-story house starts at $15,000. If space has been created for it at the planning stage, material and labor costs are just a few thousand dollars. But adding one to an existing house can at least double the cost, and it can take three months to dig a pit in the ground, cut holes in walls, add framing and metal tracks that the cab traverses, and install the elevator, interior doors and call boxes.

Because of their expense, they are used mostly in trophy houses. Fewer than 10,000 residential elevators were bought last year in the United States, but CemcoLift, one of the largest elevator manufacturers, said its sales have jumped 20 percent in the past few years, and it expects the growth to continue.

The company is basing its predictions on these stats: In the next 30 years, the number of people in the United States 65 or older will double to 70 million, the Administration on Aging said. And more multi-story houses are being built, especially as dream homes, the National Association of Home Builders said.

Six-year-old Emily Murphy uses the elevator at her grandparents' three-level home in the beach community of Balboa Island, Calif.