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Cover story: New homes getting smaller, feeling bigger
Question of the Day
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.”
“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.
“We have an open living room that buyers can close off if they want to make it into a study or a more formal living room,” said Leslie Fitzpatrick, vice president of sales and marketing for Michael Harris Homes. “The major trend in all of our homes is to have a very large center island that functions as a gathering space.
“In our single-family homes, we don’t have any sink or cooktop on the center island so that it becomes a clear surface for the kids’ homework and craft projects.”
Ms. Minich said 75 percent of the homes K. Hovnanian sells include a morning room either as a standard or optional feature that expands the open kitchen, breakfast area and family room with more space for seating or dining.
Mr. Hughes said many buyers are requesting a first-floor bedroom and bath, often with a master suite on the main level and a second one upstairs.
“Some people are doing this for extended family members such as their parents or their adult kids who are moving back in,” Mr. Hughes said. “In single-family homes, most people want four bedrooms and the option of a fifth bedroom in the lower level to add some flexibility for the future. People think they will be in their homes a lot longer, so they want more flexibility and the ability to customize.”
Ms. Minich said her buyers also are requesting first-floor master suites, sometimes for their future needs and sometimes for a multigenerational household.
Whether the master suite is upstairs or downstairs, the emphasis in the master bath has shifted from an oversized soaking tub to an oversized shower.
“Seventy-five percent of our buyers say they would get rid of the soaking tub completely, but they are concerned about resale value,” Ms. Fitzpatrick said. “About 15 percent of buyers do choose a master bath with just a shower.”
Ms. Ellisor said that more than 50 percent of their buyers choose the larger shower without a soaking tub.
“We’ve also been building vanities with open shelving for a more contemporary look, with the option of adding doors,” Ms. Ellisor said. “So far, no one has added doors.”
Ms. Ellisor said Miller & Smith’s smaller single-family homes typically don’t have a master sitting room, although master baths are still large.
“Some of our buyers opt for an open loft on the upper level instead of a fourth bedroom, a space that can be used as an upstairs family room for the kids,” Ms. Ellisor said.
Homebuyers today tend to opt for more usable living space rather than the two-story family rooms and foyers that were popular years ago.
“Two-story spaces cost too much to heat,” Mr. Halak said. “People want to maximize their space, so they will have a loft or an extra bedroom instead of a two-story space.”
Mr. Hughes agreed that two-story spaces are a thing of the past both because of energy efficiency and a trend away from grandeur and formality.
In a nod to the desire for both casual entertaining and extra living space, builders say most buyers today want a finished lower level with a recreation room, an exercise room and a bedroom or a den that can be used for guests.
Ms. Minich said outdoor spaces are becoming more important, including decks, outdoor fireplaces and gazebos. At Miller & Smith, many homes are designed with an enclosed rear courtyard that becomes extended living space.
With so much competition for buyers, Mr. Halak said builders are trying to offer as many choices as possible, allowing buyers to configure their own floor plans and finishes.
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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