The show home's double edge

Depending on the model, over-the-top features can attract or repel buyers

February 13, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

ORLANDO, Fla. - There have been more than 20 New American Home show houses since 1984, when the honchos at the National Association of Home Builders decided that this might be the most efficient way to showcase trends and new products at its annual gathering.

But unless you are directly involved in their production, you quickly forget what made each show house special at the time. After all, much of that is inside the walls or is usually too expensive or off-the-wall to find its way into what the typical buyer purchases.

W.T. "Bill" Nolan, co-chairman of the association task force that comes up with the New American Home each year, doesn't find such short-term memory that surprising.

Nolan, who began building houses in Orlando 25 years ago after a similar career in the Philadelphia suburbs, tends to remember the show houses that didn't sell quickly.

"We had one house, the one built for the 1999 show in Dallas, that was way overpriced for its market," he said. "I recall that the builder kept it off the market for two years, using it as a marketing tool, until the prices caught up and he was able to sell it."

Another show house, built about 20 years ago, "had bleachers instead of seating in the living room," Nolan said. "It was designed to be minimalist, but unless you could find an NBA team to use it, features such as this are just too cutesy for the average buyer."

Price isn't a problem with this year's show house. In Orlando's expensive Baldwin Park neighborhood, the house is under contract for $2.55 million, Nolan said.

The buyer is an unidentified Orlando builder. Recently married, he and his wife are bringing five children from previous marriages to the 9,036-square-foot, Mediterranean-style dwelling.

"If they decide they want the furnishings, the price will go up to $3 million," Nolan said.

The first New American Home, built in Houston, sold for $80,000. The increase in sales prices since 1984 has been consistent, and the 2005 house commanded the highest price yet.

What makes this house special or new?

According to the builder, Kim Goehring of Goehring & Morgan Construction Inc. of Orlando, it's the $140,000 infinity-edge pool, which has a disappearing perimeter edge instead of the traditional lip, creating the illusion that the water is flowing onto the surrounding deck. The water that flows over the edge is recirculated in a holding tank for constant reuse.

The show house's elevator, part of the plan to make it handicapped-accessible, is another noteworthy feature.

"It would be something that you would expect in a $2 million home, but not one for $250,000 or under," Nolan said. "But a two-story elevator these days only adds $15,000 to $17,000 to the price of a new home, while 10 years ago it was $25,000 to $40,000."

Including such a feature, Nolan said, highlights the attention being paid to what's known in the real estate industry as "aging in place" - the desire of many homeowners to stay in their homes as they grow older.

Taking note of another emerging trend is the 2005 New American Home's finished garage.

It's been years since garages were used exclusively for cars, and now they're used primarily as storage space.

The idea here, architect Edward Binkley said, is to make the garage living and entertaining space, not just a place to toss what doesn't fit elsewhere.

"Even production builders are offering two-car garages as finished space for a party room," said Binkley, of Bloodgood Sharp Buster Architects & Planners' office in Oviedo, Fla.

"This one has sliding glass doors that lead from the garage to the pool area, but even in colder areas, the garages are being insulated, heated and air-conditioned."

One of the goals of this show house's designers was to make it energy-efficient. They took a "systems approach," combining insulation and construction techniques with technologies to achieve what Nolan and Goehring say will be a 47 percent reduction in heating and cooling costs and a 64 percent drop in water-heating expense compared with typical houses of similar size in the same climate.

The house has solar panels for heating water, four high-efficiency heat pumps, sealed and insulated ductwork, an insulated attic without vents and sprayed insulation in all the cavities on the second floor, as well as energy-efficient windows and doors.

"All of this added $25,000 to the construction costs of the house," Nolan said. "We expect the payback to the homeowner to take four or five years. That should be the rule of thumb on energy-efficient construction - no more than five years, since people tend to live in their houses an average of seven years."

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