It used to be fun to check out all the fancy models.
Back in the heyday of housing, prospective buyers could jump in the car and drive to the many new subdivisions throughout the Chicago area to walk through hundreds of models, decorated with all the latest glitz and cutting-edge features.
That activity took a big hit because of the economic collapse, as some home builders closed subdivisions and went out of business, while others stopped building new models.
But now, as a possible sign of a modest housing recovery, new models have started to pop up again.
"Builders are redesigning their models," said real estate analyst Steve Hovany. "It's happening nationally as well as locally. Houses got too big and expensive. That era is over. We're slowly starting a new cycle, and new models are part of it."
These new models have slimmed down, shrinking in size and price from five years ago.
"Builders are facing reality. Prices are down 25 percent (from their peak). They're rethinking the market. Now it's back to basics. People are buying what they actually need, not what they want," said Hovany, president of Strategy Planning Associates in Schaumburg.
He noted that the bulk of consumers in the market today are first-time buyers, "but they have less money than first-time buyers in previous generations." So prices have to be adjusted to fit their wallets. Gone in today's new models are the over-the-top frills so common during the building boom such as four-car garages, balconies overlooking two-story family rooms, master suites with separate sitting areas, glitzy bathrooms, kitchens with industrial-strength appliances and, of course, McMansion-size models. Even such popular upgrades as fireplaces and basements are not selling as buyers try to save.
New model homes are being built in the Chicago area for three main reasons, according to real estate analyst Tracy Cross.
"Some builders are changing their product to conform to realities in the market," said Cross, president of Tracy Cross and Associates in Schaumburg. "Other models are being built after a project has been taken over by the bank and another builder steps in to complete the job. Sometimes a closed development will fire up again. That has happened at Talamore in Huntley, where Lennar shut down 24 months ago, but is now offering new town houses."
He pointed out that builders are more cautious in today's economic climate. "Instead of modeling all the homes in a product line, they build only one or two models."
When will housing rebound? "There's a little rumbling of recovery, but we're not in the starting blocks yet," Cross said.
An expert with the National Association of Home Builders is more optimistic. "When builders do models, it means they have confidence," said Steve Melman, director of economic services at the NAHB.
Melman said a projected increase in housing starts is a positive sign: "We're starting to see momentum. There were 442,000 housing starts nationwide in 2009. We estimate there will be 571,000 starts this year and over 800,000 in 2011."
Meanwhile, one builder in the Chicago area explained why today's new models are changing.
"New designs are market-driven," said Ray Blankenship, area vice president of Town & Country Homes. "Even fireplaces have dropped off people's wish list. Our new value plans use an efficient box-over-box design. We've reduced square footage by eliminating excess space in hallways. Also, buyers are no longer looking for two-story foyers."
While the purpose of models is to sell houses, they also are having another impact: "New models help to increase the confidence of buyers. They see new models and they figure the builder is not broke," Blankenship said.
Town & Country has opened its new value-designed models at Hunt Club and Churchill Club in Oswego and Liberty Lakes in Wauconda. Prices start at $195,995 for 2,052 square feet at Hunt Club and $199,995 at Churchill Club and Liberty Lakes.
"Single-family home sizes are down dramatically. There's been a return to the three-bedroom plan with 1,650 to 1,700 square feet," said Chris Naatz, Midwest director of marketing for Pulte Homes, the owner of Del Webb, which builds developments for those 55 and older.
"But builders can't always get approval for that small a house. Village boards think that smaller homes may reduce property values," Blankenship said.
Naatz said Pulte will unveil "unique and very innovative" designs within six months. Already, the Del Webb division is offering two new plans, the first new ones in five years.
Deborah Beaver, vice president of William Ryan Homes, noted that potential buyers who are currently renting can afford to wait for exactly what they want. However, a couple that bought at William Ryan's Highland Woods development in Elgin were under more time pressure.
With 9-month-old twins and another child on the way, Michael and Tracey Amato decided they needed more room than their two-bedroom town house in Algonquin.
After considerable shopping, they bought the four-bedroom Jackson floor plan at William Ryan's Highland Woods development in Elgin. Now under construction, their two-story, 3,300-square-foot residence will be completed late this summer.
One of William Ryan Homes' new designs, the Jackson has three features that sold the couple: A mud room between the garage and kitchen, a walk-in pantry and a sunroom option off the kitchen. The plan is base-priced from $299,990.
Michael Amato noted the importance of models in selecting a home: "Before we bought, we walked through the Jackson model when it was being built. Even though it wasn't finished, we could see the dimensions of the rooms. I couldn't imagine buying without seeing a model. It makes sense."
"Models are more important than ever in these challenging economic times," said Chicago interior designer John Robert Wiltgen. "Models must be packaged to make them memorable."
Wiltgen noted that one new trend is the showcasing of technology in models. "Those features include small TVs in the master bath, iPod docking stations throughout the house and computers on refrigerator doors for jotting down grocery lists. It's all about how people live today."
M/I Homes has three new town house models at Shelburne Crossing in Winfield, the site of a former Kimball Hill Homes subdivision. Prices start at $191,990 for a 1,579-square-foot two-bedroom unit. New models also are scheduled to open in August at Church Street Station in Hanover Park.
Some builders are appealing to first-time buyers who want to go green.
A new model at the Heritage of Palatine, a 48-unit condo building in downtown Palatine, was designed to appeal to young first-time buyers. Called "eco-chic" by the builder, R. Franczak & Associates, the Colfax model is loaded with green features, including bamboo floors, recyclable wall paper, shelves made of reclaimed railroad ties, draperies made from organic cotton and hemp fabrics, sand cast recyclable aluminum chairs and a chair made from reclaimed auto and bicycle tires.
The two-bedroom, 1,515-square-foot unit is priced from $299,900.
Opening new models is one way to compete against foreclosed homes and short sales, according to Kim Meier, owner of KLM Builders.
His firm has opened four new models at Sunset Ridge at Spring Grove in McHenry County. "We do all designs in-house on the computer."
He noted that KLM has cut prices about $100,000 per house by "negotiating with the trades, charging less for the land and using value engineering." Starting prices for a three-bedroom, 1,500-square-foot ranch and a three-bedroom, 1,820-square-foot two-story are both $189,900.
"There's no substitute for models," said Meier.
Among other new models in the Chicago area are these:
J. Lawrence Homes has opened two new single-family models at Ambry Estates in Lynwood. John Wozniak, president, said the designs incorporate improved insulation that anticipates expected changes in the Illinois building code. The four-bedroom models start at $239,000 for 2,297 square feet.
Two new models have opened at Reston Ponds in Sycamore, where Shodeen Residential is completing the 184-lot development started by Wiseman-Hughes Homes. Prices start at $269,950 for two-story and ranch plans.
Lexington Homes has redesigned two new town houses at its Lexington Park development in Des Plaines. Prices start at $249,990 for 1,605 square feet. Lexington also plans to open new models at its Lexington Square town house project in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood.
Also in Chicago, a new contemporary-style model has opened at the Park Monroe condominium in Chicago. "It was meant to capture new traffic with a fresh look," said interior designer Helen Velas, president of Eleni Interiors in Naperville. "It was designed to appeal to young professionals and older couples moving into the city." The condos are on the top 15 floors of the 49-story office building at 65 E. Monroe St. Prices range from $329,500 to $1.6 million for 928 to 2,589 square feet.
C.A. Development has opened a new series of energy-efficient single-family homes at Edgebrook Glen and Mayfair Crossing on Chicago's Northwest Side. Priced from $399,000, the three-bedroom plans feature increased wall and ceiling insulation, low-E windows, fiberglass-faced exterior sheathing and Energy Star appliances. The new model at Mayfair Crossing is at 4225 N. Kilpatrick.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun