- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2001

When buyers make decisions about where to place their master bedroom suite or what type of flooring to install in their new home, they may not realize that these choices often reflect a regional preference.

Consumers in the Washington-metropolitan area are frequently considered more traditional than homeowners in other parts of the country, and yet they are also among the most technically savvy, expecting wiring packages that will accommodate today's communication and entertainment needs and carry them into further innovations, as well.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) recently published "What 21st Century Home Buyers Want," the results of a survey that began in September 2000 by identifying consumers who had recently bought a new home or planned to buy one within two years. The survey covers a broad swath of topics from the general (finding that the average home size desired is increasing) to specific questions (where should the laundry room be placed?).

Local builders and new-home experts compared some of these results with their knowledge of our local residential real estate market, finding that while many tastes are nationally based, a few are not.

"I'm working with relatives in three different parts of the country right now who are building new homes, and the differences between them are really significant," says Rhonda Ellisor, vice president of sales and marketing for Miller and Smith. "In Oregon, I have a relative who just bought a 1-acre parcel of land with a beautiful view, which, by the way, only cost $10,000. She's building a one-level home because she has the space and that style of housing is more common in the Northwest.

"Another relative in Alabama is building a two-level house, but with no basement and with a first-floor master suite," she says. "You almost always see the home plans in Southern Living designed without basements. For some reason they are not that popular in the South.

"Another relative is building a unique home in Stowe, Vermont, with three buildings attached by elevated covered walkways, including two separate buildings for their home offices. A key element to this home is that they are putting radiant heat in all the floors, which is practically a necessity in Vermont," she says.

While the NAHB survey shows that only 38 percent of consumers nationwide want a basement, locally that number would be far higher.

"More like 90 [percent] to 95 percent of people in our area want a basement, and they want it for finishable living space as much as storage space," says Jim Pohlhaus, design manager for the "Your Home Your Way" custom design program of Winchester Homes.

A related issue to the basement is laundry room placement, which, according to the NAHB survey, 23 percent of home buyers would place in the basement and 10 percent would place within the garage structure. Another 26 percent would place the laundry room in the kitchen area, while yet another 26 percent prefer a bedroom-level location.

"Over 90 percent of buyers in our area want the laundry room out of the basement," says Debbie Rosenstein, president of Rosenstein Research Associates. "Everyone wants a first- or second-floor laundry room, with probably a few more leaning toward the second level."

According to Ms. Ellisor, "We've found that no one wants a laundry room on the lower level, and the split between a first- or second-floor location depends a little bit on the age and lifestyle of the family. Families with young children and a stay-at-home mother usually choose a first-floor laundry room because that's where they spend more of their time. Older families or working families often choose the upstairs location because that's where the laundry is generated."

Moving out of the basement and onto the main level, the NAHB survey questions consumers on their kitchen/family room layout. Most people prefer a visually open kitchen and family room but with a half-wall used to define the spaces. Most Washington-area buyers also choose this layout, especially families who use the kitchen area for socializing.

"People are used to the open kitchen and family room floor plan, but now a lot of buyers are looking for creative suggestions to define the spaces. In Winchester Homes' Langley model out at Ashton, Maryland, for instance, we kicked back the family room a bit so it's not entirely visible from the kitchen, and added a thick low wall, about 18 inches high, with heavy trim and columns. It's even a tempting place for people to sit during a party," Mr. Pohlhaus says.

Miller and Smith's new floor plans separate the kitchen and family room and are becoming more popular.

"Within the same product line, we're offering homes with open kitchens and family rooms and with more separation between these rooms," Ms. Ellisor says. "We're finding that as long as the kitchen is big enough, with a high ceiling and big windows, people like this change."

As larger family room and kitchen spaces have grown more popular, living rooms are used less and less. The NAHB survey asks respondents to choose between a living room and family room of equal size or a much larger family room with no living room at all, and 50 percent said they would choose to buy a home without a living room. The more traditional Washington market is less likely to make that choice.

"People are afraid to give up the living room entirely, although we are seeing a lot of floor plans with a larger family room and a small living room which is sometimes labeled as a parlor," Miss Rosenstein says. "So much of the resale value is done based on a room count, that people would be afraid to buy a house without a living room at all."

Mr. Pohlhaus agrees that the traditionalists in our area don't want a big living room but want to keep a small space like a parlor in their floor plan.

"A few of our buyers actually expand the living room to make room for things like a grand piano or their heirloom furniture," Mr. Pohlhaus says. "I'd guess that only about 15 percent of people would be willing to give up the living room entirely in this area."

At Miller and Smith, most buyers express a desire for a living room even if they only use it a few times each year. In some of this company's smaller floor plans, buyers can replace the living room with an optional first-floor study.

The NAHB survey expresses a nearly even split between buyers desiring an open living room and dining room or two separate formal rooms, a split decision that Washington-area buyers echo.

"We're probably seeing a slight shift towards a separate living and dining room, with maybe 60 percent of our buyers choosing that type of layout," Mr. Pohlhaus says. "We see more buyers choose the dining room and living room split over the foyer, and even when the rooms are right next to each other there's either a solid wall or more of a transition with half-walls and columns between the two spaces."

Washington's traditional buyers are choosing hardwood flooring in greater numbers than the national trend. The NAHB survey shows that only 30 percent of buyers would choose hardwood flooring for their foyer, and only 27 percent would place it in the living room.

"More than 90 percent of people in the Washington area would choose hardwood flooring, especially for the foyer; and in lots of the more expensive homes, hardwood flooring is a standard feature in the foyer and powder room," Mr. Pohlhaus says. "We're seeing lots of it in kitchens, and most people will do the entire first floor in hardwood if they can afford it. Now buyers are putting in on the second level, too, in the hallway and sometimes in the master suite."

Ms. Ellisor points out that while hardwood flooring is desirable in this part of the country, tile is more popular in California and Florida, and carpet is valued more in other areas.

One area in which Washingtonians are not traditional is in their desire for new technology. Most builders in this area now include some type of high-tech wiring package, even in less expensive new homes, and offer optional upgrades that can include state-of-the-art surround-sound stereo systems, cable, phone and Internet connections in every room, and home theater connections.

"Pretty much all buyers are coming to expect a basic package of standard features to include the ability to have high-speed Internet access and to add other more sophisticated technology," Miss Rosenstein says.

"We're in a very tech-savvy market and all the local builders know they need to respond to that," Ms. Ellisor says.

The NAHB survey shows that only 11 percent of the respondents nationally view whole-house wiring and easy Internet access as desirable. That number goes up to 23 percent among buyers of homes in the $250,000 and higher price range.

The majority of NAHB survey respondents share with Washingtonians a fondness for a home office, with 58 percent listing this as a desirable feature.

"Probably 70 [percent] to 75 percent of people want a home office, and we've actually done some floor plans with his-and-hers offices," Mr. Pohlhaus says. "We're seeing more buyers want a separate children's study, too, either in a hallway area upstairs or near the kitchen on the main level."

Washington-area buyers differ from the national survey results on the optimal master suite location. Some 52 percent of the NAHB respondents prefer a first-floor master suite in a two-story home, while few buyers in this area choose this floor plan.

"The much more popular second-floor master-suite location is almost always a lifestyle choice, with families wanting the parents' room to be near to the children yet separated by a hallway or gallery," Miss Rosenstein says. "Older buyers and empty nesters often choose the upstairs location, too, though, because there's less security on the first-floor and sometimes less privacy in an area where homes are built closer together. Each builder usually offers at least one model with a first-floor master suite, but these floor plans only represent about 5 [percent] to 10 percent of actual sales. Maybe this will change as the demographics change and our population ages more."

According to Mr. Pohlhaus, only about 5 percent of Winchester Homes' buyers choose a first-floor master suite, but about 15 percent choose to convert the first-floor study to a guest or in-law suite.

One issue with first-floor master suites, Ms. Ellisor points out, is that buyers have to compromise and lose some living space on that level to accommodate the bedroom since lot sizes are not endlessly expandable. Lot sizes and land prices also drive our region's preference for two-story homes. The NAHB survey reveals that 52 percent of buyers prefer a one-story home, a number that rises higher with the age of the respondents, a house type that few Washington-area buyers choose.

"The problem with a one-story home is that the land here is so dear, and to get the amount of living space people want at a reasonable value just doesn't work," Ms. Ellisor says.

"Probably the buyers from the West and Midwest responded overwhelmingly that they wanted a one-story home," Miss Rosenstein says. "But in the Northeast, the land is too expensive, so everyone wants a two-story home."

Despite the high price of land, Washingtonians, particularly those in the $400,000-and-up home price range, still want to expand into a three-car garage at a higher rate than buyers in the national survey, about one-fourth of whom express an interest in a three-car garage.

"I'd guess about 70 percent of people in this area want a three-car garage," Mr. Pohlhaus says. "We're even seeing a trend towards a four-car garage, with about 5 percent of our buyers asking for this. No one seems to want a standard two-car garage, anymore, and if they can't get a three-car garage they at least want an expanded two-car version."

For the exterior of their homes, Washington-area buyers choose brick most often, as do 62 percent of the buyers in the NAHB survey.

"Brick is by far still the most popular choice, but we're seeing a huge trend to brick and stone or stone-and-siding exteriors," Mr. Pohlhaus says.

Traditional Washington buyers are also in line with most 83 percent of the NAHB buyers in their desire for a front porch regardless of price range.

Fireplaces, master baths with soaking tubs and separate showers, paneled interior doors, and Corian or granite kitchen counters are all home features popular throughout the country, according to the NAHB survey results.

"For the most part, this area follows national trends," Miss Rosenstein says. "The exceptions really are based on the fact that this is a very conservative area that likes brick houses and hardwood flooring, and, second, that land prices are so high that we have a much heavier town-home component than most other places."

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