Luxurious places in sun light up expensive homes

Showplace: The latest status symbol is the sunroom. Wealthy homeowners pay more than $1 million - in cash - for a sumptuous hideaway.

December 07, 2003|By Susan L. Towers | Susan L. Towers,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It used to be that the homes of the rich and famous were known for their Picassos and Renoirs, their hand-made Persian carpets and their priceless European antiques.

Now, the new artwork of the higher-priced homes might be the glassed-in sunroom. Real estate experts say the elaborate additions have grown more popular in recent years because of the recent growth of the sunroom market.

Homebuilders and contractors report growing interest in such rooms and say prices can range from $12,000 to more than $1 million.

Scott Ulnick, president of the market research firm Ducker Worldwide, says homeowners are turning their houses into retreats, pumping more money into them and making them places they can enjoy, no matter what the weather.

Ducker's study found that sales of factory-built sunrooms grew 40 percent during the past three years, to $2.5 billion, with an additional $500 million being spent each year on sunrooms built by individual contractors.

The average homeowner might spend about $30,000 for a standard sunroom design. Owners of higher-end homes appear willing to spend several hundred thousand dollars on such additions, creating open rooms that resemble the conservatories often found in public gardens.

Experts say it's becoming more commonplace to see spacious sunrooms included in residential construction. Homes priced at $500,000 or more often include sunrooms, builders say.

Companies such as Tanglewood Conservatories in Denton have decided to focus on the higher-end part of the business, targeting homeowners whose discretionary spending is not as easily affected by swings in the economy.

Alan Stein, president and founder of Tanglewood, said his company's additions typically cost between $150,000 to more than $1 million. And many of his customers are willing to pay cash.

"These are people who are looking for something unique," Stein said. "And more often than not, they have been to Europe and have thought about having a room such as this for years."

Six years ago, Tanglewood opened a 10,000-square-foot workshop and design center in Denton with six employees. The workshop has doubled in size and has 25 employees. The company is breaking ground for another expansion.

9 months to build

Tanglewood has built conservatories for customers in Maryland, Michigan, California, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and New York. The rooms take about nine months to build, and the company constructs up to 25 a year.

Tanglewood woodworkers craft Honduran mahogany into the walls and window and door frames of the conservatories. Many of the rooms have Victorian touches, rounded windows, fluted columns, glass roofs, brick knee-walls and cupolas.

As homes continue to appreciate and owners gain ever larger equity stakes, the higher-end market for such additions is flourishing, says Gopal Ahluwalia, vice president of research for the National Association of Home Builders.

He said sunrooms, conservatories and Florida rooms are often finding a place in homes priced at more than $500,000.

"People love to have them," he says. "But not every house has room for them. You have to have the space."

Gemcraft Homes Chief Executive Officer Bill Luther said demand for sunrooms has grown so much in the past few years that most builders offer them as options, designing their homes with more windows and open spaces.

"Most of the time you will see a sunroom in a model," Luther says, noting that up to 80 percent of his buyers pay the extra $12,000 to $25,000 to have a room included. The homes typically cost between $230,000 and the high $300,000s.

"Everybody is looking for extended living. They want that extra space, that cheerful, airy room," he says. "Today, even about 35 percent of upscale garage townhouses are being built with sunrooms."

Michael Sarvi of SFS Appraisal Services, which serves Maryland, Northern Virginia and Washington, says the costlier conservatories are likely to add value to homes, especially if similar designs are found throughout the neighborhood.

"But in many cases," he says, "sunrooms do not necessarily add value to homes in a moderate or modest-price range."

Ducker expects the market for higher-priced conservatories to keep growing. He describes these higher-end sunrooms as a year-round rooms, in contrast to the earlier "three-season" ones.

"This market is definitely in its infancy in the United States, with room to grow," Ducker said. "It is made up of additions that can be used year-round."

Stein of Tanglewood started his career as a carpenter. He studied art and later became an architect. He worked for a building designer during the early '80s and then started his own construction company. That company evolved into what is now Tanglewood.

He and his artist wife and business partner, Nancy Virts, design conservatories that fit specific homes. That was the case with Dr. Allen Oboler and his wife, Lynn, who added a 10-by-30-foot conservatory to their blue-stone, Tudor-style home in Forest Hills near Washington last year.

Windows in roof

The Obolers' conservatory has windows in the roof that open. Sensors close them automatically if rain is likely. The blue stone was incorporated into the lower portion of the wall. The room itself was built on an existing stone patio.

Lynn Oboler said the Tanglewood portion of the room cost about $125,000. Other costs included units to heat and air-condition the room.

"We waited until both our children had finished their educations and then we decided to do this for ourselves," Lynn Oboler says. "We love this room. We're out here all the time."

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