Cover story: New homes getting smaller, feeling bigger

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If you’ve been shopping for a newly built home recently, you may have noticed that while home sizes are shrinking overall, the rooms within the homes don’t necessarily feel smaller. The trick, according to area builders, is that new homes are designed to maximize efficiency and open space.

Consumer tastes change over time, and while decades ago homebuyers wanted separate formal rooms and a closed-off kitchen, today’s buyers place a priority on visual connections between most main-level rooms.

To be successful, builders must build homes that buyers want at a price they can afford. These twin factors mean many builders have opted to build single-family homes between 2,500 and 3,000 square feet rather than the 3,700 to 4,000 square feet of prerecession days. At the same time, builders are developing new floor plans that reflect the way people want to live.

“We’ve introduced a floor plan that is just under 2,000 square feet, which is our smallest single-family home and has been the most popular with buyers these past few months,” said John Halak, vice president of construction operations for the Pulte Group. “Our consumer research shows that buyers, especially entry-level buyers, are willing to accept less square feet as long as it is designed efficiently.”

Pulte’s smaller single-family home does not have a formal living room or a formal dining room. Instead, this model has a great room or family room visible from the kitchen, which has an adjacent breakfast nook or morning room. The main level also has a flexible space that can be closed in or left open for use as a game room or hobby room.

Rhonda Ellisor, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Miller & Smith, said the most dramatic change in her company’s floor plans has been a completely open town-home model.

“It was a bit of a risk to eliminate all the walls, but we did leave buyers the option of walling off one space for a formal dining room or an office if they wanted it,” Ms. Ellisor said. “But most people really don’t need an office as much, they just need a place to keep their stuff.”

Mr. Halak said Pulte also offers a town home with no interior walls on the main level.

“Buyers can add a half-wall if they want more separation of space, and they have the flexibility to add more formal spaces if they prefer,” Mr. Halak said.

Gregg Hughes, general sales manager for Brookfield Homes, said their floor plans have eliminated the formal living room or minimized the space. Buyers can decide if they want to use the smaller space as a study or a parlor.

“Our focus groups show that people still want a formal dining room, even if they don’t use it very often,” Mr. Hughes said. “A lot of people want a dining room just because they are concerned about resale value.”

K. Hovnanian Homes still includes a formal living room in its larger homes, said Dee Minich, senior vice president of sales and marketing for K. Hovnanian Homes, but the smaller floor plans have only a formal dining room and a great room/kitchen/breakfast area combination.

“In the kitchen we are doing more huge islands that can be used for homework and as a breakfast bar,” Ms. Minich said.

Ms. Ellisor said Miller & Smith is building kitchen islands with seating for four to six people, sometimes with multiple levels.

At Symphony Park in Bethesda, Michael Harris Homes has designed four-story brownstones with an open floor plan on the main level.

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