Houses changing to fit ailing market Builders more sensitive to consumer preferences


Redefining. Modifying. Fine-tuning.

That's what builders and developers do when their homes aren't selling as well as expected. And these days, they're doing it more than ever.

"We've seen a lot more fine-tuning throughout the last . . . year and a half than previously," said Bob Lefenfeld, vice president of the Legg Mason Realty Group Inc., which tracks the regional housing market for builders, developers and financial institutions. "It's a lot more important in a slow market that if you see something that's not working, [you] change it."

Today builders are offering more home designs. Alterations can be made either before or after houses have been put up for sale, and they vary depending on the demographic makeup of the community.

One common change: Introducing models suited to empty nesters, particularly in areas with older populations.

Such homes usually place the master bedroom, kitchen, living room and dining room on the first floor, and guest rooms on the second floor. In this design, the parents can live comfortably on the first floor. When children or guests visit, they stay upstairs.

"In the mid-1980s, when builders were selling at a much faster clip, it might not have mattered if they didn't offer a model for empty nesters, because the overall volume of traffic was so much higher," Mr. Lefenfeld said.

But today, builders have to be more sensitive to consumer preferences.

Although remodeling for empty nesters isn't unusual, fine-tuning these days often means reducing the size of houses and eliminating some amenities. For example, town houses in Woodholme Green, a new Ryan Homes community in Pikesville, were originally designed to be large and luxurious.

But last February, before putting the homes on the market, Ryan Homes decided to scale back their size to 2,100 square feet -- still roomy but smaller than planned. It also chose to remove "a lot of the additional frills that didn't address the value issue," according to Bob Coursey, director of marketing for the Baltimore region of Ryan Homes. For example, most of the homes' exteriors are now being built in wood siding rather than brick, and fireplaces are now optional, rather than standard.

The current town house is priced at about $120,000; the original house was to have cost closer to $200,000.

"The objective was to offer a product that more of the people making a median income in Baltimore County could afford to look at and potentially purchase," Mr. Coursey said.

About 40 of the 132 houses have sold so far, said Sharon McKeown, sales manager for Ryan Homes' Baltimore West division.

Many single-family homes built by Ryan Homes also have shrunk in size and cost. In communities where it used to build single-family homes that measured between 1,800 and 3,500 square feet, it's now introducing homes that are between 1,500 and 1,900 square feet -- and priced accordingly, Mr. Coursey said.

"We listened to what the consumers were telling us, and they said they want something that screams value," Mr. Coursey said. "They don't necessarily need to have a master bath that's as big as their current master bedroom. These things were in great demand in the mid- to late-1980s, but now people have become a little more practical and a little more conservative."

Landmark Homes is taking similar action.

After watching demand falter for what had been its most successful line of homes, the 3,000-square-foot Executive series, the Towson-based builder redesigned those homes last year, creating a new line called the Provident series. These houses resemble the Executive homes in every way except in size and price: they measure about 2,000 square feet and cost between $170,000 to $240,000. Executives are priced from $250,000 to $300,000.

"We found that a large part of the market loved the design and features of the Executive series, but didn't need that much square footage," said Michael Barrett, vice president of operations for Landmark Homes, which has communities in Anne Arundel, Howard, Cecil and Baltimore counties. He said Provident homes accounted for about 48 percent of the company's single-family home sales last year.

Recently, Landmark Homes began to offer houses that are even smaller than the Provident homes, said Mr. Barrett. The Prestige series offers about 1,700 square feet and is priced at about $140,000. To further cut costs, Landmark put in fewer windows, fewer angles and smaller hallways.

"We've done some subtle things to reduce the cost that don't detract from the style or livability of the house," said Mr. Barrett, who expects Prestige homes to attract first-time homebuyers.

Modifying a product can involve adding features as well as eliminating them.

Centennial Westminster, the developer of a 168-unit condominium community in Westminster, learned that most of its prospective buyers didn't want amenities like fireplaces, separate showers and tubs, and double bowl sinks in the bathroom. But they did want eat-in kitchens and larger laundry-storage rooms.

"Most of the people didn't care about having a separate shower and tub, so we could cut down a little bit on the size of the bathroom and put that into the laundry room," Ms. Leizear said.

"A lot of condo buyers are looking for storage space," she said, "because they may have a lifetime accumulation of stuff that they're not willing to discard."

The changes, made at Parr's Ridge last fall, will affect 46 units under construction, according to Linda Leizear, director of the New Homes Division of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn, which is handling sales. Fifty-six units, all now occupied, have already been built according to the original floor plans.

Subtracting the glitz lowered the cost of the units, which went on the market in 1988.

Originally, they started at about $90,000 and went up to about $122,000. They're now priced between $79,900 and about $88,900, Ms. Leizear said.

The changes have helped to speed sales.

Eight or nine units are now selling each month, Ms. Leizear said. Twenty-eight have sold so far.

Most developers and builders agree that refining products isn't easy.

But "any self-respecting builder who wants to keep his market share will have to do this," said Michael Barrett of Landmark Homes. "You have to be creative in today's market. People are looking for service from their builders."

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