Think of a tract house and you might think of stark, predictable boxes, a home without personality, design detail without purpose -- a real yawner. Often, tract homes are exactly that.
But home buyers can significantly customize well-built, non-custom homes. Depending on how much money they want to spend, buyers can transform a mid-priced, partially pre-fabricated tract house into a home of distinction.
Ryland Homes, for instance, makes a big effort to help customers bypass the sameness of tract homes. Although the wall panels, roof trusses and other parts of each home are pre-built at the company's factory in New Windsor, buyers have plenty of chances to customize it.
"We prefer the term personalization to customization," says Larry Bruggeman, a sales representative with Ryland Group's Harford County division. Personalization, he says, suggests to buyers that they can't necessarily change the basic house design. What they often can do, though, is opt for additional doorways, extra windows, sky lights, masonry fireplaces or brick fronts.
If buyers don't want plain windows and doors, they can choose recessed bay windows and French doors. If the bathroom seems boring, they can add a pedestal sink. They may choose hardwood over vinyl floors, hickory over oak cabinets. And the shades of paint, masonry, siding and wood stains go on and on.
Buyers may choose to have extra outdoor lighting, accent lighting, ceiling fans, extra telephone jacks and security systems pre-wired into their non-custom home. They don't have to hook up the systems immediately.
With choices like these, personalizing what could otherwise be a cookie-cutter home seems easy. But David Gleason, president of the Baltimore architectural firm David H. Gleason & Associates, cautions buyers to be realistic.
"If you are going to a major home-building corporation that has a production plant, it's difficult to upgrade the homes too much," Mr. Gleason says. "You may be able to upgrade the flooring materials, the plumbing and kitchen cabinets. But you can't do too much more than that."
Second owners of a tract home may have more leeway, he says. They can knock out a wall or make other changes in the design of the home, provided the changes don't affect its structural stability. But for a home under construction by a major builder, changing the overall design is not negotiable.
Building and community codes also restrict changes in a tract home. Owners could decide to add five fireplaces to their four-bedroom house -- a possibility with some Ryland models, says Mr. Bruggeman. But if a masonry fireplace is added to the master bedroom, a masonry fireplace must be added on the floor below.
Another limitation: most factory-built homes are in planned communities that restrict which direction certain models may sit, specify whether the garage may be on the left or right of the home or whether a front porch can be added.
"The way the home is engineered, it has to be 30 feet back from the road," explains Mr. Bruggeman. "The garage can't be near an intersection of two roads. That's based on county codes. It all has to do with the topography of the site."
Still, says Fred Lampel, assistant manager of Ryland's Harford division, few Ryland homes in one community look the same, inside or out.
"We force a mix now where you can't have two houses of the same style next to each other," he says. "We offer different elevations, and one house will be Victorian, one has a country front, and they look distinctively different."
Most builders of non-custom homes feel they have to offer custom options to attract buyers, Mr. Lampel says. Ryland pre-prices its options, making customization "something of a bargain."
Consider the cost of options that might personalize a 4-bedroom, 2 1/2 -bath tract home in Ryland Homes' Amyclae Estates in Bel Air:
Base price of the standard model: $178,900
* French doors replacing sliding door: $500
* Bay windows replacing double windows in family, dining rooms: $3,400
* Masonry fireplace: $5,150
* Upgraded kitchen layout: $1,725
* Pedestal sink replacing standard bathroom sink: $325
* Whirlpool bath: $1,450
* Two side windows installed in living room: $775
*Service doors added to utility room and deck: $3,500
* Two skylights: $1,000
* Brick replacing aluminum siding on the front: $6,500
* Additional upgrades, rough-ins and lighting: $5,050
xTC Total sales price: $208,275.
The cost of customizing may be added to the mortgage contract. But sometimes buyers are better off to pay for the extras in cash, up-front. A $1,000 option added to the mortgage -- even to a mortgage with 8 percent interest -- would ultimately cost the buyer $2,642.
For someone building a pre-fab dream home, the cost of elaborate upgrades is probably worth the pleasure they'll get from them. But if they might be selling their home in the future, buyers need to consider whether they could get back the investment in luxury options.
Don't go overboard, advises Kathy Wheatley, president of Wheatley Associates Inc., a remodeling firm in Monkton.
"If all the homes in your community are tract homes, you don't want to put a lot of dollars into [customizing] because you may never recoup them," says Ms. Wheatley, who also serves as president of the Remodelors Council of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.
"If you have a $150,000 tract home you shouldn't turn it into a $300,000 or $400,000 custom home," she says. "I'm not sure you'd ever get the investment back. Why not move into a neighborhood where those things are already there?
"What we normally tell our remodeling clients, is if you like the area, if you plan on staying, fine, put on the $100,000 addition, knowing you're going to be over most of the homes in your neighborhood," Ms. Wheatley says. "But there's also value in living with upgrades, and you can't put a dollar figure on that."
And some features, such as a nicer kitchen, may hold their value better than others.