- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2005

From “bumped-out” walls to step-down family rooms, stone fireplaces to stainless-steel appliances, built-in entertainment niches to well-planned closet organizers, new home builders offer more optional features than ever for buyers.

Although many home options and upgrades seem like must-haves for an excited buyer, real estate professionals say not all home amenities are created equal. They advise buyers to choose wisely to ensure lasting appeal and long term value.

Gopal Ahluwalia of the District-based National Association of Home Builders says buyers spend an average of $7,000 for options on new homes, with some buyers spending 10 percent or more in addition to the base price on upgrades.

Upgrades give the new home personality. Experts say buyers must consider their budget, lifestyle and length of time they’ll occupy the home when selecting features.

So how do you choose between, for example, the fireplace and the sleek upgraded light fixtures throughout the home?

There’s no set formula, but some experts say it’s safer to stick with the traditional upgrades that would be costly or extremely difficult to add to the home later.

“Features such as fireplaces and two- or three-car garages are always good to select because it’s pretty hard to add a fireplace or garage space down the line,” Mr. Ahluwalia says.

Elizabeth Hays of the W.C. & A.N. Miller Cos. in Gaithersburg agrees.

For cost-effectiveness, she says, “Choose the fireplace because they are almost impossible to add to an existing home.”

Fireplaces are among the traditional upgrades that many builders are now offering as standard features. However, if a fireplace is an option, experts say, people like to choose it, whether it’s used or not, because it adds to the home’s visual appeal.

The same holds for 9-foot ceilings, which are also now standard in many new homes. But if 9-foot ceilings are an option, real estate professionals say, they give the illusion of more open space than a home with an equal amount of square footage and 8-foot ceilings.

“Bump-outs,” which extend a room’s length or width by 2 to 6 feet, are popular upgrades. This increases the overall space in the room, adding to the home’s square footage. Realtors say bump-outs are a good deal because when it comes time to sell the home, square footage will be an important factor in determining value.

“There’s something to say about square footage, because people will always ask about it,” says ZipRealty agent Ken Fradkin in McLean.

So, if it fits the budget, Mr. Fradkin says, new home buyers can’t go wrong by adding additional rooms, such as sunrooms or morning rooms, to increase the living space.

Celeste Parker, a consultant with Van Metre Home’s Design Center in Ashburn, says, “Our town-home bump-outs, which give you extensions on all three levels, are extremely popular and help increase your square footage.”

Many of Van Metre’s single-family homes have rear sunroom options, and they are equally popular choices, Ms. Parker says.

“Sunrooms give a much larger eating space for the family to set up their table and have lots of space to gather large crowds for holidays and social gatherings,” she says.

A recent NAHB report shows new-construction buyers especially want a sunroom, along with a laundry room, dining room, home office, and den or library.

Media rooms and exercise rooms were not as high on the list.

Survey respondents were almost evenly divided over whether they would prefer a larger home with fewer amenities and upgrades or a smaller home with high-quality products and upgrades.

Some 51 percent opted for a larger home, and 49 percent preferred a smaller house with all of the bells and whistles.

Some buyers place as many of these amenities as they can on their list of upgrades, while others decide to move in with the standard options, then change later on.

“Many buyers choose upgraded carpeting and hardwood flooring for their new home,” Mr. Ahluwalia says. Realtors say that a better carpet is high on the list of upgrades because it usually looks better and will last a lot longer than the standard offering.

Although Ms. Parker admits that flooring items and counters easily can be changed later, it’s not always a good idea to wait, she says.

“Speaking from experience ” having recently purchased a home and having done all those things after I moved in ” it’s not the best way to do things,” Ms. Parker says.

She says it was almost like living in a home during construction.

“The amount of dust that was created when my granite countertops were installed was amazing,” she says. “As for my carpeting, I had to pay to have the carpet installers move the furniture.

“So although many items might be slightly more expensive through a builder, the convenience of having them done from the beginning ” not to mention the benefit of having the cost rolled into your mortgage ” is well worth it,” Ms. Parker says.

Granite counters, 42-inch cabinets, hardwood floors, double sinks and large tubs ” with or without jets ” are among the most popular upgrades Mr. Fradkin sees clients in their 20s, 30s and 40s selecting.

“Jacuzzi tubs won’t make or break a sale, but they can be a big attraction,” he says.

Ms. Hays suggests that buyers invest in upgraded wiring to handle all of the electronics because they will want their homes wired for the future.

“Look at choosing options that are going to last,” she says.

The floor plan is also an important choice, as it is hard to alter later on.

According to the NAHB report, buyers of new homes especially prefer large kitchens adjacent to family rooms and want the two rooms to be visually open or divided by a half-wall.

“In new construction, the flow of a floor plan is very important, and I would imagine the same would be true in the resale market,” Ms. Parker says.

Realtors agree.

“A lot of families like to have an open floor plan from the kitchen to the breakfast room so that mom can keep an eye on all,” Mr. Fradkin says.

He says a lot of buyers are concerned about the arrangement of rooms and how they flow from one to the other.

New-home buyers also choose floor plans where the master bedroom is on a different wing, separate from the children’s rooms, according to Mr. Fradkin, which is an arrangement some parents of young children might find objectionable and which could sway resale opportunities.

“Certain defects are incurable, such as a poor floor plan,” Mr. Fradkin says. “It can make a house less desirable and bring in less money.”

Luxury upgrades with a timeless appeal are value-added options. Realtors and builders say they see more new buyers focusing on upgrades that soothe and relax.

Dan Maclin with Realty Executives in Upper Marlboro suggests that the most popular amenities among Washington-area buyers are “pampering items, such as master bedroom fireplaces, whirlpool luxury master baths and gourmet kitchens.”

Decks and patios are attractive additions, but Realtors say they shouldn’t take precedence over selecting the kitchen upgrade, for example, because they can be more easily added later and contribute only a small amount to the home’s value.

“My customers generally add decks and finish their basements after the home purchase,” Mr. Maclin says, “because they are then able to personalize the space.”

When budget constraints mean narrowing that long list of upgrades for the new home, professionals say, buyers are wise to think about the long-term resale values of their selections. They will reap the rewards when it’s time to sell.

“Although you may love that baby blue carpet you chose, a potential home buyer may not, and may not have the cash flow to have it changed and would, therefore, be turned off,” Ms. Parker says.

Builders and Realtors also caution buyers not to build what is called “functional obsolescence” into the home. This means avoiding choices that will date the interior of the home quickly.

For example, “Things that will have functional obsolescence in resale homes include dark paneling in the basement area,” Mr. Fradkin says, “and some built-in shelving and cabinetry that were made for televisions and stereos from 15 years ago.”

Says Ms. Parker, “When selecting the more permanent features of your home, you should try to be more neutral, while still letting your personality and flair shine through.”

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