- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

Consumer confidence might not be at its highest point these days, but consumer expectations are skyrocketing. Where once only the wealthy could design a home or make changes to a floor plan to accommodate family interests, builders today build flexibility into homes in every price range.

Consumers can start making changes before the foundation is laid for their new homes by working with computer programs to move walls and change a home's footprint, and then make more changes by working with design centers now offered by many companies to choose finishes for cabinets, flooring and bathroom fixtures.

New-home designs also offer such optional additions as sunrooms and morning rooms that can be placed near the kitchen for expanded informal living space or near the living room for a sun-filled place for entertaining.

Flexible spaces such as upper-level landings are being designed so families can use the area for computers or play areas, and bonus rooms are offered as standard or optional features that can be used as bedroom space for a family member or guest, a home office, a play room or a even an upstairs media room for the family.

"Buyers can customize more than ever before in all price ranges, and, within the confines of their budgets, make some dramatic changes to their homes," says Debbie Rosenstein, president of Rosenstein Research Associates.

Mid-Atlantic Builders offers customers the ability to design their own home via the company's Web site.

"Lots of our buyers are using the Web site to get ideas about how they would like their home to look," says Danielle Rene, marketing administrator for Mid-Atlantic Builders. "They can go online, select the model home they like, and then build their home by adding options and seeing what those options will do to the rest of the floor plan.

"Once they've decided what they want, whether it's a sunroom addition or bay windows, or an expanded master suite or a first-floor guest room, they print out the new floor plan and bring it to the sales center. We'll give them a free estimate on what it will cost to make the modifications they've chosen," she says.

Winchester Homes offers similar freedom to build a home suited to an individual family's needs through its "Your Home, Your Way" program, where buyers can work with a computer and Winchester employees to add an in-law suite, expand a family room or modify floor plans in other ways.

At the Brownstones at Wheaton Metro, a new town-home community being built by Eakin/Youngentob Associates that is expected to open at the end of April, buyers can choose between traditional or open floor plans.

"One of the many neat things about the Brownstones' floor plans is that we are now offering people the flexibility of choosing between a traditional floor plan with a closed kitchen and an open floor plan," says Preston Innerst, marketing strategist with Eakin/Youngentob. The open floor plan has the living room, kitchen and dining room as basically one huge room, Mr. Innerst explains.

"This way, within the same town home, we can offer two distinct looks, appealing to whichever the buyer prefers," he says.

Many builders offer optional bonus rooms on the upper level that are flexible spaces, often larger than a standard bedroom. These bonus rooms can function as bedroom space, if desired, or as a computer room, media room or a hang-out area for families with teenagers.

"Our Falconcrest model has a dramatic two-level family room plus a first-floor master suite, and the standard design has three more bedrooms on the second level," says Todd Hickman, a marketing specialist for NVHomes in Maryland. "But buyers can choose to build a bonus room over the garage, which is literally as big as a bowling alley."

The Falconcrest, designed primarily for golf-course and country-club-style communities, is available at Leisure World in Silver Spring and at Glenbrook in Middletown, priced from the mid-$400,000s to the mid-$500,000s.

Miller and Smith offers a fifth bedroom option over the garage in its Country Manor Collection that will be available soon at Wild Meadow in Ashburn. These single-family homes on three-quarter-acre lots are expected to be priced in the $500,000s.

"This optional bedroom is a truly old-fashioned space, not a traditional boxy bedroom," says Rhonda Ellisor, vice president of sales and marketing at Miller and Smith. "It's got a great nook, which works as a sitting area, plus another area for a bed. We also offer the option of converting what's normally the fourth bedroom into an open study or kid's loft area, or closed off into a kids' family room."

At Centex Homes' new single-family home community of Laurel Hill in Lorton, the Craftsman-style homes will be priced in the $400,000 and $500,000 range. Buyers there will have the option of expanding the bedroom level rooms by closing off the two-story family room.

"One model offers an expanded master bath with a dormer window over the garage, with the soaking tub recessed into the dormer window," says Brad Hughes, marketing manager for Centex Homes.

"Another model has an even more amazing master bath, with a bayed-out window surrounding the soaking tub. You can add an optional fireplace to this bath, which fits on the platform surrounding the soaking tub so it's just used in the bathroom, instead of a two-sided fireplace, which they sometimes put in the bathroom and bedroom area," he says.

Craftmark Homes' Clifton III model, a new design priced in the upper $400,000s being introduced at River Falls in Prince William County, allows purchasers to close off the two-story family room and replace it with either a fifth bedroom with a full bath, or with an expanded master bath with a wall of windows over the whirlpool tub, a second walk-in closet and an optional wet bar.

To attract customers in the upscale home market, many builders are designing uniquely shaped rooms that allow for more windows as well as a dramatic floor plan.

"In our new Carlton model, we've designed a circular-shaped family room with a tray ceiling and a step-down, so it's slightly sunken with a higher ceiling," Ms. Rene says. "The majority of the room is surrounded by windows. The family room has a fireplace and a television niche as standard features, too. Upstairs on the second floor, the master suite sitting room echoes the circular shape and is also surrounded by windows."

At Victoria View in Centreville, Brookfield Homes' upscale homes division, Keswick Homes, has designed the Chesterfield model, priced at about $1 million. This home features an octagonal, two-story family room open to the breakfast area.

Besides unusual room shapes, architects are changing the main-level floor plans by offering more homes with a first-floor master suite even in town homes.

At Stone Lake in Howard County, Miller and Smith has designed each end-unit town home with a first-floor master suite, while the interior units feature a wide master suite across the back of the second level with a view of the lake.

NVHomes' Falconcrest model features a first-floor master suite placed in one corner between the kitchen and garage for maximum privacy.

In Virginia, Beazer Homes is introducing three new ranch-style homes at Somerset Farm in Orange County. Each will have three bedrooms, two full baths and a bonus space over the garage.

"The largest of these designs, which range from 1,400 to 2,000 finished square feet, will include a study, too," says David Cogley, vice president of marketing for Beazer Homes in Virginia. "They'll be built near the Rapidan River, and they'll be affordably priced from the mid- to upper $100,000s."

Whether the homes feature a first-floor or an upper-level master suite, certain rooms are consistently expected by consumers.

"Everyone wants a family room, an eat-in kitchen, a dining room and a living room, no matter what size the home is," Mr. Cogley says. "If there's space, they also want a study. The living room can function as a kind of swing space. For a lot of people, it can be just a tiny parlor-type arrangement, and that's enough."

The center-island kitchen, another expected feature in almost any price range, has been transformed again by consumer preferences for more natural woods rather than white cabinets.

"In the more upscale homes, stainless steel appliances and granite counters are the most popular choice," Miss Rosenstein says. "People are also choosing innovative lighting such as cove lighting over the cabinets and pendant lighting rather than recessed lighting."

According to Mr. Cogley, "While that magic triangle of cooking space in the kitchen still stays the same, people are upgrading their kitchens with more fit-and-finish, with granite and stainless, and glass-front or raised-panel cabinets to make the kitchen look like a showcase."

Consumers with the means to customize their homes are creating showcases out of their lower levels, too. Builders have always offered an optional finished lower level, but the choices for this space have become more elaborate in recent years.

"Buyers have a lot of flexibility now on what they do with the lower level," Mr. Hughes says. "Instead of just an open recreation room, people are making mega-entertainment areas out of this level. Media rooms and home theaters are popular, but we're also seeing these club-worthy wet bars.

"Some buyers choose to just do a rough-in for a wet bar in case they want one later. Then the smaller rooms on the lower level can be used for a den, an exercise room or even a bedroom," he says.

More and more builders are adding a rough-in for a bath on the lower level as a standard feature, making it less expensive to add a bath later. While the glamorous master bath has become an expected feature in more expensive homes in the past several years, a greater emphasis is now placed on upgrading the shower.

"Oversized showers, often with a seat, are often standard features now, and a lot of them have dual shower heads as standard features, too," Mr. Hughes says.

According to Miss Rosenstein, "Builders are using glass blocks in bathrooms more and more, and some of them are using them for dramatic showers in the master bath. People use their showers so much more often than the soaking tub that it makes more sense to upgrade the shower with multiple shower heads and seats."

While even the least expensive new homes usually include a private master bath and a second full bath, a third full bath is becoming more common in single-family homes.

"In our new models, we usually place a private bath with the second bedroom and then create a buddy bath between the third and fourth bedrooms," Ms. Rene says. "That way, every bedroom has access to a bath."

On the main level, some luxury home builders are adding an informal powder room as a standard or optional feature. The "formal" powder room, usually off the foyer, is meant for guests. The "informal" powder room can be placed near the kitchen or near a family foyer or computer area used by family members.

High ceilings on the main level are common in most price ranges, but some offer 9-foot ceilings only as an optional feature.

"We're one of the first builders to expand the use of high ceilings to other levels," Mr. Hughes says. "Depending on the neighborhood, we offer 9-foot-high ceilings on all three levels, or we build the homes with 9-foot ceilings on the lower and upper levels, with 10-foot high ceilings on the main level. We've stopped doing vaulted ceilings as often, and instead we do more tray ceilings in the master bedrooms."

According to Mrs. Ellisor, "There's definitely a move away from doing two-story spaces toward using tall ceilings in all the rooms, especially 10-foot-high ceilings."

At Beazer Homes' Arora Hills Community in Maryland, coffered ceilings are standard features that add interest in the dining room, the master bedroom and the master bath.

"In most of our models at Arora Hills, we aren't doing two-story family rooms because the homes are built on narrower lots, and we want to maximize the use of space on every level," says Diana Van Stone, marketing manager for Beazer Homes in Maryland. "We use 9-foot-high ceilings on the first and second levels, which keeps the openness and feeling of space."

At Huntley Meadows in Alexandria, Beazer Homes designed a step-down foyer to add height to the entrance space without sacrificing the floor space above.

"We used angled walls to avoid the tunnel-like effect, which can occur with homes built on a narrow lot," Mr. Cogley says. "The step-down foyer has a 10-foot high ceiling, and we use 9- and 10-foot high ceilings on the main level to make the rooms feel open. We didn't put in any two-story spaces because we wanted the functional space available upstairs. You can get an extra 200 feet over the foyer and even more over the family room."

Builders looking for more functional living space are also designing outdoor spaces into their floor plans.

"We're building rooftop terraces on our town homes, including the Amherst model at the Brownstones at Wheaton Metro," Mr. Innerst says. "We have most recently done rooftop terraces at our Bryan Square community, located on Capitol Hill in Washington. .. .

"We have included rooftop terraces in a lot of our communities in the past three years, such as Braddock Lofts, Clarendon Park, Carlyle City Residences and Monument Place," he says.

Miller and Smith uses porches and two-level decks in its new designs to increase the living space during warm weather months.

"In our Country Manor collection at Wild Meadow, we've built a two-level deck off the back of the house, which creates a balcony off the master bedroom and a partially covered deck off the family room," Mrs. Ellisor says. "The covered section feels more like a room, and it can be used even when the weather's not perfect. People are looking for romance and intimacy in their homes, and these spaces create that feeling."

At Stone Lake in Howard County, a new community scheduled to open in July, Miller and Smith has designed one- and two-level decks off the back of each town home to maximize the views of the lake.

When Beazer Homes began designing the homes to be built at Arora Hills, it began by incorporating more porches to accommodate buyers' desires and to add architectural interest.

"We're designing homes with a combination of stone and siding or brick and siding, along with lots of interesting architectural details, including unusual window shapes," Ms. Van Stone says. "Porches not only add outdoor living space, but they also add variety to the streetscape."

Centex Homes' Craftsman-style single-family homes at Laurel Hill in Lorton have been designed with window mullions, roof gables and overhangs, roof brackets and lots of stone work accented with shingles.

"One model has an inglenook off the foyer, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright designs, which is a small sitting area," Mr. Hughes says. "A couple of the models have a swing-in style garage that creates a front courtyard, which works well on a smaller lot. Side-entry garages are popular, but they require a little bit more space."

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