- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2007

That Washington-area new-home buyers prefer the suburbs to rural and urban areas might not be a surprise, but some other results of a recent survey by Fulton Research and Consulting and the New Homes Guide are more enlightening.

Commuting issues dominate many discussions over where buyers are willing to look for a home. The survey found that 90 minutes is the maximum commute time most buyers would accept in the Washington area.

More than 1,000 people took the survey. Roughly half of them have young children. Many of the questions allowed more than one answer. Many of the questions also asked respondents to rank their responses in order of preference.

The vast majority of respondents — 82 percent — ranked the suburbs first in preference over rural or urban areas. Respondents said the two main factors that would motivate them to seek a home requiring a commute of an hour or more were a lower home price and a better quality of life for their families.

The Baltimore-Washington Regional New Home Buyer Survey of March 2007 summarizes: “The wide variance between the anticipated and maximum commute times suggests that many local home shoppers are conditioned to accept a longer commute to get the house they want.”

Rising gas prices may have an impact on home-buyer acceptance of a long commute. Thirty percent of the buyers considering long commutes said they would be less likely or even unlikely to purchase a home requiring an hour or more travel time to work if gas prices were as high as they were last year. At the same time, 58 percent of buyers said gas prices have not been a major factor in their determination of where to purchase a home.

Commuting issues affect not just where Washington-area new-home buyers will live, but in what type of home.

The survey found that 89 percent of buyers overall are most likely to purchase a single-family home or a town home. However, if that choice would require a commute of 60 minutes versus a commute or 30 minutes or less, 27 percent of buyers overall said they would choose the shorter commute even if it meant living in a condominium.

Though condominiums continue to be built and sold in the Washington area, slightly fewer than 6 percent of the buyers surveyed said they were interested in purchasing a condominium as their first choice. High-rise condos were the least popular, with just 1.7 percent of buyers saying they would be likely to purchase this type of home.

Dan Fulton, president of Fulton Research and Consulting, pointed out at a seminar explaining the survey results that “midrise condominiums with an elevator and a garage are the most popular type of condominium over a low-rise or high-rise building.”

Mr. Fulton said midrise condominiums have the most appeal to first-time home buyers, empty-nester buyers and active-adult buyers age 55 or older.

In addition to looking at the impact of commuting on home preferences, the survey reviewed the tastes of new-home buyers in the type of community in which they want to live, including the amenities in the development.

Developers in recent years have created “neotraditional” or “traditional neighborhood developments” (TNDs), described in the survey as communities meant to evoke historic villages and to be pedestrian-friendly.

These communities, such as Kentlands in Montgomery County, Maple Lawn in Howard County and the Parks at Piedmont in Prince William County, feature rear-entry garages, a village green and smaller lot sizes arranged in a grid pattern.

However, despite efforts to market these neotraditional neighborhoods, they are less appealing than conventional developments to new-home buyers surveyed. Eighty-three percent of new-home buyers said they prefer a conventional land plan for their community, defined in the survey as one with larger lots, front-entry garages, curved streets and cul-de-sacs.

Bill Sutton, an architect and principal with Sutton Yantis Associates Architects, analyzed some of the Fulton Survey data at the seminar and said he was surprised by the response to neotraditional communities among those surveyed.

“From a marketing point of view, it may be that developers need to focus on the amenities and benefits that come with this type of community,” Mr. Sutton said.

Neotraditional communities include a retail center within walking distance of the homes.

Mr. Sutton pointed out that although just 17 percent of those surveyed said they preferred a neotraditional community, the number rose to 30 percent among empty nesters and 25 percent among active-adult-age buyers. First-time buyers and those selling their first home to move to a new home were least interested in purchasing a home in a neotraditional neighborhood.

Mr. Sutton pointed out that one problem some buyers may have with neotraditional communities is the positioning of the garage behind the house. Among those surveyed, 61 percent said they prefer a garage placed in the front of the home. Thirty-nine percent of the new-home buyers wanted a garage placed in the back of the home.

The majority of buyers interested in a rear-entry garage said they prefer an angled or straight entry into the garage rather than an alley access.

In addition to the overall land plan of a development, community amenities influence buyers’ choices of where to purchase a home. While home shoppers are looking for recreational amenities such as parks, walking trails, pools, tennis courts, lakes, a clubhouse and playgrounds, an on-site retail center and a restaurant also rank in the top amenities that influence people to move to a new community.

Security concerns also are important. Thirty-two percent of new-home buyers said they would be seriously influenced to purchase a home in a new community if it had a guardhouse, and 27 percent said they would be influenced by a community with a card-operated security gate.

Obviously, preferences for particular amenities vary widely among buyers, so though just 17 percent said they would be seriously influenced by an on-site day care center, 22 percent of first-time buyers said they would be influenced by the presence of a day care center.

Golf-course communities continue to be a popular style of development in the Washington area, yet just 11 percent of the buyers surveyed said they would be seriously influenced to purchase a home in a community with an 18-hole golf course.

In addition to reviewing desirable community amenities, the Fulton survey asked new-home buyers to rank essential design features for their homes. Homeowners interested in improving their home for eventual sale may want to consider the survey results because they reveal buyer preferences for individual items such as kitchen counter materials, a security system and a finished basement.

“It was interesting to see that when buyers ranked design features in order of importance, the type of flooring was more important than the exterior elevation or the existence of a home office or study,” Mr. Fulton said. “The most important design features are the overall floor plan, the kitchen layout, the master bedroom and master bath, and kitchen appliances and features. The existence of a finished basement also ranked high.”

The top 10 essential features listed by the new-home buyers include: a laundry room, a kitchen island work area, a walk-in pantry, a place for a kitchen table, a bathroom with a separate shower and tub, more storage space, separate “his-and-hers” walk-in closets, a rear deck, granite counters and French doors.

Interestingly, all those features were ranked higher than crown moldings, a brick front and 9-foot-high ceilings, which often are standard features in new homes.

Granite counters ranked ninth as an essential feature, Corian counters 34th and laminate counters 45th out of 46 design features. Ranked last at 46 were home elevators, possibly the most expensive of the options and the one that impacts most on living space.

The survey asked new-home buyers to choose between certain trade-offs that sometimes are necessary when determining which options are most desirable. For example, 75 percent of buyers would choose a finished basement over a full front porch if they could not have both features.

Though master bathrooms have become larger and more luxurious in the past decade or so, 62 percent of buyers said they would choose a smaller master bath so they could have more space in the bedroom rather than a larger master bath and smaller master bedroom.

As Mr. Fulton pointed out, the master bedroom clearly is an important space for buyers. The survey found that 75 percent of buyers would choose a larger master bedroom over having a smaller master bedroom to allow for larger secondary bedrooms, and 66 percent of those surveyed would choose a larger master bedroom over a smaller master bedroom with a walk-in storage closet off the upstairs hallway.

Though some home builders are phasing out two-story living areas in favor of more finished space upstairs, buyers are almost evenly divided on this topic. Fifty-two percent would choose a fifth bedroom rather than a two-story living room, but 48 percent would choose the two-story living room.

Despite the prevalence of two-story foyers in new homes, 61 percent of the buyers surveyed would choose a finished bonus space upstairs rather than an open two-story foyer.

Home builders will be analyzing this data when making decisions about future communities and designing homes to meet buyers’ desires.

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