Homebuyers continue to need their space

Demand for more room has been constant among shoppers in recent years


During the past 20 years, home-building fashions have changed as buyers embrace the latest decorating fads.

But one trend has remained constant since the days of shag carpet and avocado green refrigerators: Americans want more room.

"In every age group and every price range, the consumer wants a larger home than he has now," said Gopal Ahluwalia, who has been tracking the housing industry for more than 20 years for the National Association of Home Builders. "The demand for more space goes on increasing right up to 65-plus. Nobody wants a smaller house."

No wonder builders have been adding to the size of their products.

The average home built in the United States has grown by more than 50 percent in size since the 1970s, according to statistics released at the just-completed International Builders Show in Atlanta.

Last year, the average topped 2,300 square feet for the first time, and builders say there is no sign of a slowdown.

Houses are getting taller as well. More than half the homes built across the country last year were two or more stories, compared with just 17 percent of the market in 1971.

More than 40 percent of new houses have ceilings 9 feet or taller.

"Our ceiling heights have gotten higher and higher," said Ted Visnic, who builds custom homes in Maryland. "Our average on the first floor has increased to 10 or 12 feet," compared with a standard 8-foot ceiling.

The types of rooms built in a new home remain in flux.

"I can't recall when we last built a living room," said Scott Sevon, a custom builder from the Chicago area. "About eight or 10 years ago, we began to delete living rooms."

Builders also have stopped building separate dining rooms in many houses, but there are signs of a comeback. Almost 80 percent of potential buyers polled in a recent survey said they want a dining room.

"We're actually going to build our first dining room in a house in about four years," said Bruce Giffin, who works for a residential contractor in Santa Barbara, Calif. Giffin said buyers want that space for holidays and special occasions.

The same goes for fireplaces.

"You may not use a fireplace but three days a year, but you can't sell a house without a fireplace in most areas of the country," Ahluwalia said.

Frills such as home theaters, centralized music systems, recycling centers and computerized lighting control are also starting to show up on buyers' wish lists.

Walking around the 23 acres of exhibit space at the Atlanta builders' exposition, it's easy to see how homebuyers have become spoiled.

The latest bathroom designs included a $7,000 Kohler "chromotherapy" soaking tub that glows in the dark and changes colors.

Kitchen displays were dominated by a sea of European-style wood cabinetry and stainless-steel-clad appliances.

"It's not unusual for one of our clients to spend a quarter-million dollars on cabinetry today," Sevon said.

"We are seeing more and more money spent on plumbing and lighting fixtures," Giffin said. "Granite is now the standard for countertops."

Hot trends "start out at the high end of the market and then filter down to Main Street America as the price is reduced," said Joan McCloskey, editor of Better Homes & Gardens magazine.

"The choices in today's home options are incredible," she said. "Everything has a high-quality look."

After years of tailoring their designs to couples with children, homebuilders are being forced to include different types of buyers in their plans.

"Builders have been targeting married couples with kids, but the number of those families is declining and shrinking in size," said Belinda Sward, who works for Atlanta-based researcher Robert Charles Lesser & Co.

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