- The Washington Times - Friday, December 14, 2001

Pessimism about the national economy and the sad events of September 11 might have sobered Washington area residents and real estate industry experts, but they have not created any change in the home-building business, industry observers say.

Despite the fact that the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research declared on Nov. 26 that the United States economy had been in a recession since March 2001, local builders are not modifying their plans for developments in 2002. The area lacks sufficient housing to meet buyers' demands, and the constant stream of newcomers means that many new developments have sold enough properties to keep builders busy into spring.

"I don't think we'll see any loss of value in homes like we did in the early 1990s," says Debbie Rosenstein, president of Rosenstein Research Associates. "I also don't think builders will respond to any downturn as they did then, building sort of value-oriented big boxes instead of more interesting homes. Any downturn this year or next year won't affect what's being developed right now."

Demographics and local population characteristics are having far more impact on the area housing market, particularly the baby-boom generation. Nationally, baby boomers account for almost 78 million people, or nearly one-third of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"Locally, the demographics show that buyers are either empty-nesters looking to downsize a little bit, move-up buyers wanting more space and quality or young professionals looking for the best home they can afford," Miss Rosenstein says.

As a group, those born between 1946 and 1964 always have had a huge impact on the national lifestyle. Residential housing is no exception. In the Washington market, building homes that appeal to this generation means including an open, upscale kitchen and family room, an exercise room and a home office or separate computer room. American Demographics magazine reports that these features are crucial in their appeal to the boomer buyer.

Washington-area homeowners tend to be more traditional than buyers in some other areas, preferring brick exteriors and hardwood flooring rather than stucco exteriors and other flooring materials. At the same time, they are more technologically savvy than buyers in many other parts of the country, demanding that their new homes be wired for future technology as well as today's needs.

In addition to generational and local tendencies, a third issue that affects the local market is the high price of land, which in turn raises the price of housing.

"We're definitely seeing more density in the development of land because of the price," Miss Rosenstein says. "Builders are trying to create better living spaces in smaller spaces, and we'll see more of that in the future, including single-family homes on small lots and larger town homes that are 30 and 28 feet wide and feel more like a single-family home. Builders are looking for alternative ways to develop land, including homes which are a hybrid of single-family homes and town homes.

"On small in-fill lots where builders can only place a handful of homes, the designs tend to take on the character of their surrounding neighborhoods. We'll be seeing more sort of 'jewel-box' homes, with smaller spaces, but well-appointed with luxurious details," she says.

For example, single-family homes that Oak Ridge Builders will begin selling at Haymarket Village in Haymarket, Va., next spring have been designed on small lots averaging 4,500 square feet. These newly designed homes have been placed close together. They have brick-and-beaded-siding exteriors with interesting details, four bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths and optional sunroom additions.

Washington Homes began marketing "courtyard" homes to move-down, empty-nester buyers and discovered that buyers who were looking at luxury town houses also were interested in them. The courtyard homes include two-car garages but are being built on small lots and attached in groups of two to four homes with a shared courtyard in the center of the clusters. Priced from the mid-$200,000s, these homes represent a new type of land use.

Kathy Pritchard, director of sales and marketing for Drees Homes, says, "Buyers are choosing to put nice finishing touches on their homes, and they want to spend money on things that enhance the area where they spend the most time. So they're putting things like entertainment centers around the family-room fireplace or special extra windows in that same area. Granite counters and hardwood flooring are popular in the kitchen, too."

Ryan Homes' director of marketing in Maryland, Jody Pilka, says, "People that buy homes in our sales bracket are choosing to spend extra money on upgrading the surfaces in their kitchens, putting granite and Corian on the countertops, hardwood and ceramic tile on the floors, and upgrading the cabinets. People like nice touches, but they aren't putting money into high-tech appliances much."

As Miss Rosenstein says, "People are spending more money on areas of the house where they spend their time and less money on areas that are less important. One thing that has changed is that even entry-level homes have incorporated better amenities. These big home-expo centers have exposed more people to different finishing features and made them more accessible to people, so now buyers expect to see them in their new homes."

Though brick exteriors are still the most popular choice in traditional Washington, builders of upscale homes are finding buyers open to less-traditional designs, too.

"While the preference is still brick among a lot of buyers, we're introducing stone exteriors on some of our more luxurious homes," Ms. Pritchard says. "We're also using Hardiplank, a siding material which looks more like wood and looks more expensive than vinyl siding and is durable, too."

Centex Homes offers brick facades as standard in most communities, but the firm's latest designs feature English country and French-style detailing, with stone-and-siding and shingle exteriors, according to Brad Hughes, marketing manager for Centex Homes.

"We're offering many of our homes with three choices: a classic facade, a brick front with more detailing or a new design with the English country and French-style details," Mr. Hughes says.

Winchester Homes is offering brick, stone or a combination of the two on its homes at Woodhaven in Anne Arundel County, where the houses are priced from the mid-$500,000s.

"In our region, most people choose a traditional brick front, and nearly everyone wants a full front porch if they can have one, too," Ms. Pritchard says. "In our neo-traditional communities like Fountain Hills and the Villages of Urbana, buyers are choosing homes with front porches, picket fences and rear alleys which provide access to the garages."

In addition to front porches, more and more homeowners are choosing to expand their indoor/outdoor living space with a sunroom or morning-room addition and sometimes a conservatory as well. Two- and three-level sunroom additions often are available as options in every price range from affordable town houses to upscale single-family homes. Most buyers of Drees Homes' popular Walden model choose to add a sunroom or morning room.

Buyers may be expanding casual living space, but one part of today's homes continues to shrink, and that is the formal living room.

"One of our most popular new plans, the Huntley, doesn't even have a living room labeled on the floor plan," Mr. Hughes says. "We include a formal dining room, a library and an open kitchen-and-family-room combination with a 'keeping room' off this space which functions as additional casual living space. If someone wants to convert the library to a small living room, they can still do that."

Most local buyers still prefer a home with a formal living room, even if it is small, industry experts say.

"People still want a living room, but they seem happy to have one that's small so the rest of the home can be available for space they use more," Ms. Pritchard says. "In one of our most popular models, the Walden, the living room is very small, but we've also included a study in the front of the house and a two-story family-room space at the back."

Ms. Pilka says, "I don't think the living rooms will get any smaller; they're just about the right size now. Ours are usually designed to be a small formal area, sometimes with French doors. Some of our buyers convert the living room to a den or home office space, too. Nobody ever asks for a bigger living room."

Besides designing homes with less formal space and more space for casual entertaining to appeal to the baby-boomer generation, builders are including home offices and other computer spaces more often.

"We've noticed a trend toward moving the study away from the front door so it can be used less as a pretty place for decorative purposes and instead for real work," says Janet Howell, vice president of sales and marketing for Brookfield Homes. "We've been relocating the study to the back or side of the house, even offering the option of a private entrance to segment it more from the family part of the house."

Brookfield Homes also has introduced a "family office" that is separate from the study and usually is located near the kitchen and a garage entrance.

"The idea for this came from our boss, who has middle school-age children and wanted to create a space for all their clutter," Mrs. Howell says. "He said he didn't want to see one more schedule or notice tacked to the front of the refrigerator. So the family office is like what people used in plantation days, an office to keep the home organized. There's a space for a computer for the kids and a desk for bill-paying and keeping the soccer schedules and household lists in one place.

"The response to this has been overwhelming. Everywhere it's offered, virtually every buyer has chosen to put this in. We've also added a 'family foyer' to our homes, which is a space near the garage with cubbies for backpacks and sports equipment and even a utility sink for washing off the mud the kids bring into the house."

Both Ms. Pilka and Ms. Pritchard say their buyers want home offices wired for computers that they and their children can use.

"Some buyers use the first-floor study for their computers, but a lot of them will also convert space on the finished lower level for an office," Ms. Pilka says. "Some will take bedroom space from the upper level to do this, too."

According to Miss Rosenstein, "Builders have been putting a desk in the kitchen for a long time, but now they're expanding that desk space into a small room of its own, sometimes labeled a 'brain center,' which acts as a computer center for the whole house."

High-tech wiring packages have become standard features in most new homes, as buyers expect to find an easier system for cable/fax/modem/telephone wiring along with the potential for upgrades.

"At Centex Homes, some of our optional features which are available include surround-sound stereo systems; front-door and other security cameras; whole-house video, which allows you to share video from one television to another; and computer networking," Mr. Hughes says. "At Lansdowne in Loudoun County, the homes have an optional small screen built into the wall with a wiring package which allows for partial automation of most of the systems in the house, like lighting and heat and air conditioning.

Nearly all builders are trying to offer flexibility and versatility in their floor plans, recognizing that one thing baby boomers share is a great deal of independence and a desire to live in their own style rather than one imposed on them by someone else.

"Versatility is something Centex Homes offers in all their communities, whether it's the active-adult communities, town homes or single-family homes," Mr. Hughes says. "In our town homes, we allow people to choose between several layouts for their main level, and we allow buyers a lot of choices in how they arrange the space in our single-family homes, too.

"For example, we're noticing a trend away from two-story spaces, so while the two-story family room is still available in most of our floor plans, we also offer buyers the option of closing it off and putting in a fifth bedroom or a bonus room which they can use for almost anything."

At Brookfield Homes, buyers of homes in their upper-level Keswick Homes division can completely customize their homes, but other buyers have plenty of options, too.

"The Aurora Collection of single-family homes that we're offering in several places can range in size from 2,800 to 5,000 finished square feet," Mrs. Howell says. "One floor plan in this collection could be built in no less than 15 different ways and can be customized with a children's retreat, a first-floor master suite or many other options. Buyers like to fuss with their floor plans and change things to suit their tastes, so we've put a lot of money into having our architects draw up plans for alternative designs which still create a nice flow."

First-floor master suites have been introduced by many builders. Reaction has been mixed, builders say.

"We introduced a first-floor master suite last year in our Hemingway model, which is one of our larger models," Ms. Pritchard says. "But it's definitely not for the move-down buyer because it requires a larger home. In other parts of the country, Drees builds almost all first-floor master suites, such as in Texas and North Carolina, where the land is less expensive. In those places, there's usually no basement, too, so you find media rooms and family rooms on the upper level."

Brookfield Homes and Centex Homes are both building active-adult communities in which all the homes have first-floor master suites, but Mrs. Howell has found that even younger people are choosing first-floor master suites in some of their more expensive homes.

"Even families with young children are choosing these, now that video-camera security systems can allow you to check on your children upstairs while you're downstairs," Mrs. Howell says. "But generally we're seeing this in our high-end market, because the footprint of the house has to be bigger to accommodate a first-floor master suite. Usually the second floor is built over only part of this floor in this type of house, which allows for more volume ceilings on the main level."

Buyers' opinions are fluctuating about those volume spaces, with some choosing to keep them and others wanting to use the upper floor for more living space or an extra bathroom instead of a two-story foyer.

"At Ryan Homes, we've never offered a lot of two-story spaces, except in our Avalon model, which has a dramatic catwalk overlooking a two-story family room and a two-story foyer," Ms. Pilka says. "We've redesigned this model due to customer demands and now offer it with a larger second-floor master suite instead of the two-story family room. We think people are turning away from two-story spaces more now so they can have more sumptuous rooms upstairs."

Versatility seems to be the direction many builders are taking, recognizing the constantly changing needs of local families and the evolving state of technology, too.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide