What The Customer Wants . . .

February 06, 1994|By Elizabeth Large

Today's buyers are most interested in value, value, value. That's the consensus of builders of production housing and architects designing custom homes. It's a buyer's market, and people are taking full advantage of the fact to get the features they want for what they want to pay.

Builders and architects say that today's customers are smarter shoppers than those of the past, and less willing to put show before substance. They're thinking more about the future -- whether it's how they will be using the house over the long haul or what the resale value will be.

"Before, if you wanted value, you were willing to trade off design," says Anne Madison, director of marketing and communications for Ryland Homes. "Now people are minimizing trade-offs. They're saying, 'We want more design and more value.' "

The building industry has been forced to become more service-oriented, and builders are giving customers many more choices to customize their houses. Buyers can select from hundreds of interior colors, many different plumbing fixtures, several lighting packages, a variety of counter tops -- much, much more than was available a decade ago.

Consumers want materials that are high fashion and low maintenance, say builders. They want more architectural details that add individuality to a house. And builders are responding.

More space, more value

"Finishing details are more important than they were in the '80s," says John Mack, director of design at H. Chambers Co. and a registered architect. Such details say quality; people are no longer interested just in structural quality.

This is true of people purchasing their first house in a development and those hiring an architect to design a custom home. Cost isn't usually the driving consideration for clients of residential architect Steven Hoffman Shapiro. "But now people are establishing an upper limit," he says, "and holding me to it. They're willing to make sacrifices, and they're more responsible to their long-term goals."

Five or six years ago, his clients wanted more rooms and bigger rooms, even if they had to sacrifice quality by using, for instance, less costly materials. No longer. Now people will insist on hardwood floors, even if they end up with a smaller den than they had originally planned.

You might think that smaller is getting to be the norm, what with the economy of the past few years and declining household size. But that's not so, according to surveys by the National Association of Home Builders. The trend toward larger new single-family homes has continued with only a temporary slowdown in 1991. In 1992 a new home contained an average of almost 2,100 square feet, an all-time high.

"People want more space for different activities -- home offices, hobbies, family rooms that are larger than TV rooms or dens," says Dean Crist, research economist for the home builders' association. "The trend has been unabated for 20 or 25 years."

The association's surveys found that the market is dominated by buyers "trading up" from starter homes to larger ones. They are likely to be raising a family -- with all that implies about the kinds of spaces needed. For example, Georganne Derick, whose firm MS Interiors specializes in model homes, sees a trend to larger children's bedrooms.

"In the late '80s the master bedroom suite sometimes took up 50 percent of the upstairs. Now there's likely to be a children's suite: two bedrooms with a bath between them."

Today's buyers want more bathrooms, larger family rooms and garages for two or more cars. Because there hasn't been an increase in lot size to accommodate extra and bigger rooms, more houses are being built with at least two stories.

Houses for homebodies

Experts speculate that Americans are spending more time at home for a variety of reasons, ranging from fear of crime to love of their media centers. The economy also has something to do with it: The number of Americans working in home offices has almost doubled in the past four years, according to LINK Resources Corp., a New York market research firm.

Susan Martinez, sales and marketing director of Grayson Homes, sees another result of people spending more time at home. Although value is still dominant, she says, "emotion is a big part of the buying process. Home is where the heart is now more than ever." Buyers see a new house not only as a good investment but also a lifestyle decision.

All this is changing what buyers are looking for in a new home . . . and what builders are providing. For example, some builders are putting a room that can serve as an office right inside the front door off the foyer, so clients don't have to walk through the house, points out Susan Bradford, senior design editor of Builder magazine. Some of the home offices even have a separate entrance.

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