Imagine being in your new house looking for your favorite pink sweater in a closet the size of a city garden. Your closet is so big you could do cartwheels in it.
But you can't find the sweater because, well, the closet's so big, you're not sure where it ended up. So even though you just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new house, you follow that by spending tens of thousands of dollars to have a closet company organize your closet.
Fantasy? Not really.
"People are customizing their closets like crazy," said Jim Gibson, principal at Gibson Builders LLC, a custom builder in the District. "I've seen people spend $100,000 on a closet."
Gone are the days when the humble 2-by-6-foot closet with its single shelf and metal pole satisfied the American homeowner. Even though closets still take up only a small portion of any home, they have an outsized grip on the psyche of the American homeowner. And home builders are starting to wake up to that reality.
"Everyone wants more and more closets," said Gopal Ahluwalia, director of research at the National Association of Home Builders. "And then after they get them, they're spending more and more money getting them organized."
It all comes down to the fact that Americans have huge amounts of stuff, said Helen Kuhl, editor in chief of Closets magazine, a publication launched last year devoted to home organization. "We get overwhelmed by it all."
And American homeowners have been happy to plow lots of money back into their homes over the past few years of steadily rising home values.
"They've already re-done their kitchens, and they've already bought nice entertainment centers," Kuhl said. "All of a sudden, they look into their closets, and they're a mess. So now, it's closet time."
Companies catering to this national domestic obsession have sprung up around the country, ready to help owners of both new and existing homes organize themselves. Kitchen-cabinet manufacturers are also starting to branch out into closet-organization systems, Kuhl said.
Mike Carson, president of the National Closet Group, a trade association of independent closet companies, says there are more than 2,000 closet-organization companies in the country. And that's not counting such big retailers as the Container Store and Home Depot, which also sell closet-shelving systems.
Carson said the 50 companies in his association are enjoying record growth this year, anywhere from 10 to 35 percent.
It's not hard to see why. Kuhl said Americans spent $2 billion remodeling their closets last year. And that's not just buying white particleboard shelves.
"People want their closet systems to be not just functional, but very, very aesthetic," said Ginny Snook Scott, director of sales development at California Closets, the biggest closet company in the country with more than 100 franchises nationwide. "They want their closets to look more like the furniture in their rooms -- so, darker woods, cabinets with crown molding, accessories in brushed aluminum, beautiful lighting." Scott said revenue growth for the company in 2004 has already doubled that of 2003.
The closet companies are offering more than pretty cabinetry. They are luring homeowners with nifty organizational features, such as pull-out tie and belt cubbies, vertical dividers, shirt shelves, shoe drawers and mirrors; pull-down ironing boards, hanging rods and slacks dividers; velvet-lined jewelry drawers, shoe drawers and drawers for business cards; hidden safes, hampers and baskets.
Bob and Lucy Harwood of Alexandria are new-home buyers who have done their part to keep national closet expenditure up.
The Harwoods, who recently had a 10,000-square-foot custom house built, spent $28,000 fitting out his-and-hers master closets in their bedroom suite. Lucy Harwood's walk-in closet is about 300 square feet, or the size of a decent bedroom; Bob's closet is a more modest 120 square feet.
The Harwoods used furniture-grade cherry cabinets for their closets. The cabinets come with crown molding and glass fronts. Lucy Harwood's closet has a 6-by-3-foot island seat, upholstered in the kind of fabric usually reserved for living room chairs.
"If you're going to spend all that money for a house, why should you have a junky closet?" asked Bob Harwood. "I've worked hard in my life. I drive a Mercedes. I want a nice closet."
Harwood said the couple bought 400 wood hangers that match the wood of the cabinets. "Our closets are works of art," he said.
Larry Nordseth, president of Capitol Closet Design Inc. of Sterling, the company that fitted out the Harwoods' closets, said closet-organization systems are not just for the wealthy, however.
"It crosses all income levels," Nordseth said. "We do everything from standard closet systems with white melamine shelves to the Taj Mahal." Nordseth said his company's clients range from one-bedroom condo owners looking to maximize a small space to buyers of big, luxurious custom homes with closets the size of condos.
Nordseth said his average walk-in closet project runs about $3,300, though two current projects are approaching "six figures."
"Half of our business is space planning," Nordseth said. "The other half are people who want their closets at the level of the rest of their house."
Builders are finding it's good business to respond to customers' desire for super-sized closets.
"A closet can definitely sell a home," said Shawn Evans of Pulte Homes Inc., the country's largest builder. "We have one floor plan that comes with a closet that's the length of a three-car garage plus an additional walk-in closet. That is an extremely popular house, and a large part of that is the master closet."
Cory DeSpain, regional vice president for home builder Toll Brothers Inc., said his company's closets have "doubled, if not tripled, in size in the last 15 years. And they continue to grow. We can't seem to make them big enough."
Most closet growth has come in master bedrooms, where many builders offer either his-and-hers walk-in closets or one huge walk-in. (When it's one big closet, it usually comes with a center island, a half-wall or some other kind of divider). Some master suites even come with three walk-in closets, builders say.
Kitchen pantries have also mushroomed. Walk-in pantries are a must in a new home these days, said Ahluwalia of NAHB.
If they have the room, homeowners also like a seasonal or cedar closet, in the basement or elsewhere, for the clothes they're not regularly wearing. And where there was one linen closet before, now there are often two -- in the master suite and in the hall.
Mudrooms and garages have also become havens of organized storage space, with cubbies, shelves and cabinets the new norm.
Closets in secondary bedrooms are the storage spaces that have grown the least, builders say, although they too are somewhat larger.
"We try to do all walk-in closets in our homes," said Phil Leibovitz of Sandy Spring Builders, a luxury custom home builder in Bethesda. "Walk-in linen closets, walk-in closets for the secondary bedrooms, walk-in pantries. If you can fit them in, why not? The clients love them."
In new houses marketed to empty-nesters, closets are even more important, builders say.
"The active-adult buyer is often moving from a large, single-family home," said Dave Griffiths, director of architectural services at Pulte, "and they're not ready to give things away to their children. So when they move in, they generally have a lot of stuff."
Griffiths said Pulte creates closet space in the garages of these homes by making them either deeper or wider than normal. They also create extra closets in the attic. Most such houses do not have basements.
Although builders are making their closets larger, only a few have jumped onto the closet-organization system bandwagon. To the disappointment of their buyers, most production builders still offer only basic wire shelving, which is still a step up from the shelf-and-pole of older homes.
"My builder offered nothing for my closets except some horrible-looking wire shelves," said Margo Briggs, who recently downsized to a home in Leisure World in Silver Spring. "And as soon as I walked through the door, I knew they weren't functional. I have a lot of stuff."
So Briggs hired a closet company to fit out all the closets in her home and garage.
Carson of the National Closet Group said builders have been slow to get excited about closet systems because "the margins are so much higher with other upgrade products." He predicted, though, that if the housing market starts to slow down, more builders will start offering closet systems as a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors.
Winchester Homes, a local production builder that allows customers to make some custom changes to their designs, started offering closet-organization systems through Capitol Closet Design as an upgrade option beginning this year. If sold as an upgrade through the builder, home buyers can roll the cost of the closet into their mortgage.
"Ninety percent of our customers are making some level of customization," said Jim Pohlhaus, director of product development at Winchester Homes. "And one of the most popular customizations is closets."
Pohlhaus said that even though home buyers seem happy with the amount of closet space in their homes, they still come to them with "extreme specifics" about what they want in their closets.
And it seems that once a homeowner has lived with a big, comfy, organized closet, there's no turning back.
Lyn Knowles and her husband had two super-duper closets -- one in their master bedroom and another in their attic -- in their old remodeled house in Arlington.
One of them was a lockable cedar closet for out-of-season clothes that also had a little hidden compartment for a phone and emergency phone numbers in case of an intruder.
Three years ago, the couple sold the house to get a larger home nearby. They haven't remodeled their new home.
"The closets are awful," Knowles said. "It's like the before picture in a before-and-after shot. Those closets are what I miss the most from my old house."