Howard Weinstein came home from work one day and announced that he was dead tired. He was tired, specifically, of mowing the lawn, raking the leaves, pulling the weeds and transforming himself into a handyman every time something went wrong with his single-family house in Potomac.
So he and his wife, Iris, decided to move to a smaller residence that didn't require so much maintenance. But even though the couple wanted to downsize -- and accomplished this by working with contractors to build a condominium in a new complex in Rockville -- they didn't want to skimp on quality.
This explains why the Weinsteins ordered granite countertops for their kitchen, why they drew in plans for a luxurious sunken tub in their large master bathroom and why Iris wished for, and received, a gleaming stainless steel range. Now that they have lived in their new home for nearly two years, the Weinsteins can barely imagine life without these little luxuries.
"I am thrilled that we were able to design our condominium to fit our lifestyle," Iris Weinstein said. "This has been a terrific experience for us. We were able to work back and forth with the builders to develop a home where everything was suited to me. And the extra touches have certainly added to the whole experience."
The Weinsteins are far from unusual. There is a whole crowd of new-home buyers today who are requesting little extras from their builders. Because of this, builders are being routinely asked to provide loads of features that buyers once considered luxury items available only to the wealthy few. For example, a decade or two ago, buyers thought of real hardwood flooring in their living rooms and extra-large bedroom suites as luxury items. They considered granite countertops in kitchens and two-sink vanities in master bathrooms to be beyond middle-class wallets.
Today's buyers, though, are different. They have found that many builders include that hardwood flooring and those large bedroom suites as standard in new homes. This taste of luxury has only fueled a desire for more, and buyers today have transformed other, more extravagant extras -- double-sink vanities, for example, or granite countertops -- into rather routine upgrades. Builders may not include all these other amenities in their base models, but they are certainly not surprised when their clients request them as basic upgrades.
And in the high-priced Washington area, pity those builders that don't offer affluent buyers some touch of luxury as part of their standard package; they might suffer a noticeable dip in business. So just try to find a new high-end condo these days where granite countertops don't come standard.
"You have to compete for that educated consumer. These people are not first-time buyers. They are starting to want things that were once equated with million-dollar homes," said Steve Gerber, project manager with Bogdan Builders in Bethesda. "It's all about the demands of this market. If you are going to sell a 1,200-square-foot condo for $450,000, you need to include the attributes that would dictate that price range."
Some of these attributes include 42-inch kitchen cabinets, hardwood floors and high ceilings, all items that more of Bogdan's clients expect.
As a busy real estate agent, and owner of Annapolis's Bernie Schultz Realty, Bernie Schultz has seen this trend firsthand. Her clients, especially those looking to spend somewhere in the range of $600,000 to $800,000 to build a house, expect to see hardwood floors throughout the entire main floor of their residences, not just in the foyer. They want higher ceilings, demanding nine-foot clearance even in their basements. Those who are Internet junkies expect high-tech wiring to come standard.
Even those clients looking to build less expensive homes are insisting that their builders include amenities such as granite countertops and large master bathrooms and bedrooms as standard features, Schultz said.
Like area builders, Schultz points to higher home prices as a reason for these increased expectations. But prices, she said, are not the only factor. Today's consumers know more about the home-building process than did those in the past, and expect more from their builders because of it, she said.
"You have all these home expos, elaborate interior living shows and home shows on cable television," Schultz said. "Consumers can go out and see what all these designer upgrades look like. This raises the expectations they have of their builders. They have come to consider these designer upgrades as standard fare. Middle-of-the-line home buyers now know more of what they want and expect in their homes."
Because upgrades have gradually become more standard, there are now fewer differences than ever nationally between a million-dollar-plus luxury home and a more mid-priced new home, say officials with the National Association of Home Builders. Researchers with the Washington-based trade group wrote in their data-filled report, "Housing Facts, Figures & Trends 2004," that the main difference today between a luxury home and a standard one isn't these residences' amenities, but instead their size and the quality of these amenities.
As an example, a newly built standard home today, one designed for a typical move-up buyer rather than a cash-strapped first-timer, will include hardwood floors, as will a new-construction luxury residence that costs $1 million or more. The floors in the luxury property, though, will feature a higher quality and harder surface wood.
Gopal Ahluwalia, staff vice president for research with the builders association, says this trend is hardly new. Builders have been noticing it, he said, since the 1970s. The trend mirrors the general wishes of buyers to live in homes that are bigger and better than the ones in which they currently reside.
As evidence of this, Ahluwalia compares the new single-family house of the 1970s with the standard house of 2003. The association reports that the median-size residence in 1970 boasted 1,385 square feet of living space, while 24 percent featured four or more bedrooms. Just 16 percent included 2 1/2 bathrooms or more.
Now look at today's standard new single-family house. It boasts 2,123 square feet of living space. A total of 37 percent come with four bedrooms or more, while 56 percent feature 2 1/2 bathrooms or more.
This difference has inspired buyers to look at perks such as center kitchen islands, three-car garages and fireplaces as things that every new home should include. The builders association, for example, has found that 54 percent of newly built homes now come with at least one fireplace. In 1970, only 35 percent of new homes could make such a claim.
Ahluwalia says the reason for this change is simple: Today's buyers are purchasing homes for far different reasons than did their parents and grandparents.
"People used to buy homes in the 1960s and 1970s to meet their functional space needs," Ahluwalia said. "Now they are buying them to meet the needs of their lifestyles. It's like when someone buys a $75,000 Mercedes when they can get the same function from buying a $20,000 car. They figure, 'I have the money. I can afford it. Why not?' That's what is going on today with people and their homes."
Chuck Covell, president of Bozzuto Homes, a builder in Greenbelt, said home buyers are merely mimicking society as a whole.
"There are 19,000 ways to order a Starbucks coffee," he said. "There are so many options out there for everything now. People like individuality. They don't like the cookie-cutter look and feel any longer. Because of this, there has been a trend toward smaller places with higher finishes. This is particularly true with the empty-nester market, with the aging baby boomers. They are moving down in size but up in quality. They feel that they have earned the right to the high-end finishes."
Covell's clients, for instance, often want ceramic tile finishes in their bathrooms instead of vinyl floors as upgrades. They have also made stainless steel kitchen appliances into a popular upgrade.
The variety of options for buyers of even what passes for moderately priced homes in the Washington market is a plus for buyers. Covell warns, though, that there may also be a danger. Some buyers, for instance, may find themselves overwhelmed by fast-talking salespeople. Such buyers might purchase extra features at increased prices even though they don't really need or want these non-standard amenities, Covell said.
"Buyers need to be very careful to understand the true costs of adding options to their homes," he said.
Glen Raymond, vice president of Potter Homes in Fredericksburg, pointed to advances in technology as another reason for home buyers' increased expectations. Many of his clients, for example, want their new homes pre-wired for home-entertainment systems and high-speed Internet connections.
"A lot of this has been spurred by convenience," Raymond said. "People want the computers in their homes networked. In my household, for instance, all the children have computers in their rooms. Homeowners now want a main computer to run everything through. Maybe it's a matter of parents being able to monitor what their children are doing on the Internet. But it certainly is changing what buyers are looking for in their new homes."
Heather Wilson moved into her new condominium in Clarksburg late last year. Like other buyers, she asked her builder to include several amenities that formerly would have been considered luxury items. In the past, Wilson said, she might not have considered requesting the vaulted ceilings in her condo or the 12-by-12 ceramic tiles in her kitchen and bathroom. But the upgrades, she said, add to the coziness of her new residence. For this reason, Wilson said, she never seriously considered skimping on them. She also knew how important it was to request these extras during construction.
"A lot of people try to add those extras on their own after construction thinking they can get it done cheaper," Wilson said. "But having it done during construction is so much easier. You don't have to worry about contractors coming into the house and ripping it apart and redoing it. It truly pays off. The amenities make the house look much nicer. I think they will help the house sell quicker later on."