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Today's buyers are most interested in value, value, value. That's the consensus of builders of production housing and architects designing custom homes. It's a buyer's market, and people are taking full advantage of the fact to get the features they want for what they want to pay.

Builders and architects say that today's customers are smarter shoppers than those of the past, and less willing to put show before substance. They're thinking more about the future -- whether it's how they will be using the house over the long haul or what the resale value will be.

"Before, if you wanted value, you were willing to trade off design," says Anne Madison, director of marketing and communications for Ryland Homes. "Now people are minimizing trade-offs. They're saying, 'We want more design and more value.' "

The building industry has been forced to become more service-oriented, and builders are giving customers many more choices to customize their houses. Buyers can select from hundreds of interior colors, many different plumbing fixtures, several lighting packages, a variety of counter tops -- much, much more than was available a decade ago.

Consumers want materials that are high fashion and low maintenance, say builders. They want more architectural details that add individuality to a house. And builders are responding.

More space, more value

"Finishing details are more important than they were in the '80s," says John Mack, director of design at H. Chambers Co. and a registered architect. Such details say quality; people are no longer interested just in structural quality.

This is true of people purchasing their first house in a development and those hiring an architect to design a custom home. Cost isn't usually the driving consideration for clients of residential architect Steven Hoffman Shapiro. "But now people are establishing an upper limit," he says, "and holding me to it. They're willing to make sacrifices, and they're more responsible to their long-term goals."

Five or six years ago, his clients wanted more rooms and bigger rooms, even if they had to sacrifice quality by using, for instance, less costly materials. No longer. Now people will insist on hardwood floors, even if they end up with a smaller den than they had originally planned.

You might think that smaller is getting to be the norm, what with the economy of the past few years and declining household size. But that's not so, according to surveys by the National Association of Home Builders. The trend toward larger new single-family homes has continued with only a temporary slowdown in 1991. In 1992 a new home contained an average of almost 2,100 square feet, an all-time high.

"People want more space for different activities -- home offices, hobbies, family rooms that are larger than TV rooms or dens," says Dean Crist, research economist for the home builders' association. "The trend has been unabated for 20 or 25 years."

The association's surveys found that the market is dominated by buyers "trading up" from starter homes to larger ones. They are likely to be raising a family -- with all that implies about the kinds of spaces needed. For example, Georganne Derick, whose firm MS Interiors specializes in model homes, sees a trend to larger children's bedrooms.

"In the late '80s the master bedroom suite sometimes took up 50 percent of the upstairs. Now there's likely to be a children's suite: two bedrooms with a bath between them."

Today's buyers want more bathrooms, larger family rooms and garages for two or more cars. Because there hasn't been an increase in lot size to accommodate extra and bigger rooms, more houses are being built with at least two stories.

Houses for homebodies

Experts speculate that Americans are spending more time at home for a variety of reasons, ranging from fear of crime to love of their media centers. The economy also has something to do with it: The number of Americans working in home offices has almost doubled in the past four years, according to LINK Resources Corp., a New York market research firm.

Susan Martinez, sales and marketing director of Grayson Homes, sees another result of people spending more time at home. Although value is still dominant, she says, "emotion is a big part of the buying process. Home is where the heart is now more than ever." Buyers see a new house not only as a good investment but also a lifestyle decision.

All this is changing what buyers are looking for in a new home . . . and what builders are providing. For example, some builders are putting a room that can serve as an office right inside the front door off the foyer, so clients don't have to walk through the house, points out Susan Bradford, senior design editor of Builder magazine. Some of the home offices even have a separate entrance.

The new buzzwords in home building, says Georganne Derick, are "comfort," "kid-friendly environment" and "brain spaces." That last refers to the fact that technology is becoming a major factor in new houses. Media centers and computer spaces, for instance, are much in demand.

"The nesting factor is very strong now," says Ms. Derick. "More builders are finishing basements."

Some smart-house concepts are making their way into the general building industry: People want, and are getting, enhanced security systems and sophisticated environmental controls.

If home is where the heart is, the kitchen is the heart of today's home. Buyers want -- and builders are giving them -- large kitchens with islands and lots of counter space. They want comfortable, large breakfast nooks. As for specifics, light wood is the rage now for the kitchen, especially light maple and natural cherry. Dark and pickled woods are a thing of the past, according to Ms. Derick. There's also a high interest in the quality of appliances, says John Mack of H. Chambers Co. "Builders are upgrading to the upper end of appliances," he says.

Where the heart is

Today's buyers are thinking long-term. They don't see themselves as moving on in a few years, and they're looking for houses with flexible floor plans to fit the changing needs of their families. A first-floor master suite with a full bath and shower, for instance, can be used now as a library or a den and then later as a private and convenient room for an elderly parent.

Some things, however, don't change.

Everybody still wants a fireplace.

Also, the desire for open spaces continues, with some variation. Ten years ago, Steven Shapiro remembers, clients wanted two-story living rooms and lots of windows everywhere. Now he finds people are more conscious of the problems of heating and furnishing such spaces.

"People still want a big, wide open space somewhere in the house," he says, "but not everywhere."

Builders may offer 10- to 12-foot ceilings, which give an impression of spaciousness, instead of vaulted ceilings. Grayson Homes is opening up its latest models with more windows than ever, particularly Palladian windows, and rear staircases that leave the foyer open.

Another thing that doesn't change: In the Baltimore area, the most popular new-home design is still the traditional center-hall Colonial, preferably with a brick exterior. Susan Bradford of Builder notes that national trends are slow to come here: the use of stone instead of brick, for instance, including synthetic "stone" made out of cement, and the use of color as an inexpensive way to give lots of individuality to a house (hard to do if you have a brick exterior).

As John Mack puts it, "New homes are being driven by traditional values."

This may be because such houses have a greater potential resale value, or because today's consumers are more comfortable with something timeless -- with design that won't become dated stylistically, as architect Steven Shapiro suggests. But for whatever reason, if the buyer wants traditional features in his new house as well as a home office and a media center, in today's market he's probably going to get them.

What today's buyers want and what builders and architects are

giving them:

* Home offices

* Finishing details like enhanced crown molding

* Larger windows

* Larger breakfast nooks that are part of the kitchen

* Lots of choices for customizing

* Enhanced security systems

* Larger family rooms

* First-floor master suites

* Open spaces

* Two-person showers

* 36-inch vanities

* More storage space

* Fireplaces

* Hardwood floors

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