Builders respond to changing needs, desires of families MORE SPACE MORE OPTIONS


American families aren't getting larger, but they're demanding more space in their new homes -- and more flexible spaces at that.

Families are spreading out to work, exercise, entertain, even to go to the movies, and builders are accommodating them with bigger homes.

The median size of a new home has increased from about 1,450 square feet in the early 1970s to about 2,100 square feet today and is expected to grow to 2,300 square feet in the next three to five years, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Over the same period, the median price of a new home has increased from $23,400 to $130,000. "For today's modern family, 2,000-plus [square feet] is the norm," said Dwight Griffith, president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. "We just want more. We're demanding more and getting more, and builders are trying to meet the marketplace."

Those who've been out of the new-home market for the past decade or so might find a few other surprises. Besides being bigger,new homes have become more customized.

Options go beyond choosing kitchen cabinets and color of carpet. Some builders let customers decide where to put windows and walls.

Even high-production builders are making efforts to customize, said Jay Shackford, a spokesman for the national builders group.

"He might have four models, but there's a lot he can do to tailor it to buyers' needs," Mr. Shackford said.

In the Baltimore region, buyers will likely find options in exterior front elevations, shingles, siding and shutters, landscaping, decks, patios, lighting, plumbing fixtures and flooring, Mr. Griffith said.

Along with customization comes the "smart house." Many new homes come wired for technology, designed to accommodate cable television, security systems that program heating and lighting and multiple lines to link computers and phones.

Builders and architects say they're increasingly designing homes around lifestyles, with flexibility for lifestyle changes. "Family structure is changing," said Barry Berkus, of Santa Barbara, Calif.-based B3 Architects + Planners. "The nuclear family is not the wife at home and the husband out -- it's two people working and children in day care and the family gathering in the evening" in large, open kitchens and family rooms.

As the baby-boomer generation ages, older buyers want fewer stairs, or sometimes fewer reasons to go upstairs. Many are choosing homes with first-floor rooms they can convert to master bedrooms later.

Meanwhile, some families are going to the other extreme, buying homes with two sets of stairs, a curved, front staircase in a formal foyer and a back staircase leading out of the kitchen, for the children.

Buyers also are looking for low-maintenance and convenience in a home -- everything from smaller lots to bigger freezers to microwave ovens and easy-to-clean appliances.

With more people using computers to work at home, home offices continue to be major sellers. Many double-income couples want two offices, often one designed as an office and the other a converted bedroom.

Mr. Berkus said he has seen a trend toward building offices as separate, on-site structures, "so you do walk to work. It's important to remove yourself from the house in your mind."

When they finally break from the daily grind, buyers today want to go home for pampering and entertainment. "Everyone's scrambling to make a good living, and they take their time more seriously," said Al Trellis, president of RCM Corp., a custom homebuilder in Columbia.

More and more buyers are willing to invest in high-tech media rooms, equipped with computer games, surround-sound stereo, wide-screen TV or in-home movie screens. Not to be confused with the traditional family room, such media centers often are separate rooms where someone could play a computer game or watch a movie without disturbing the rest of the household.

Builders and architects envision a day when interactive television will make the media center a place for learning, shopping and communicating outside the house. "Many, many builders are incorporating media rooms as part of their models," Mr. Griffith said. "By the end of the decade, they will almost be a given."

Families often are willing to skimp on space in children's rooms to enlarge master bedroom suites, which probably have peaked in terms of space and amenities. In many new homes, master suites -- bedroom, sitting room and a bath with double vanity sinks, a large soaking tub and separate shower -- are now offered as standard.

In the typically conservative Baltimore region, a style of home known as "transitional" has emerged, blending contemporary elements into a traditional house. Such a home might have a brick front with semi-circular or pentagonal windows or a two-story family room with a vaulted ceiling.

The transitional look often appeals to move-up buyers looking for something different. "People who move up don't want a bigger version of the house they just left," Mr. Trellis said. "They want things that excite them."

Susan J. Rettaliata, marketing director for Altieri Homes Inc., which sells homes from $155,000 to $655,000 in Howard, Baltimore and Carroll counties, said the builder traveled to Atlanta in search of fresh ideas a year ago. A team returned with new floor plans featuring two-story family rooms visible from second-story landings, columns and arched entryways to separate rooms and ceiling heights and shapes that vary from room to room.

"Everything we saw there was a much more multidimensional look as opposed to the Colonial that is so traditional," Ms. Rettaliata said. "In order to stay competitive, you have to have something new. We're working with a sophisticated marketplace. Buyers can afford more and are willing to pay for something a little more exciting."

Among other popular items in new homes are nine-foot ceilings,hardwood floors, open kitchens and family rooms and large windows that better enhance natural light.

Besides the interior changes, the outside has been getting fancier too.

"In the '70s and '80s there was very little detail on the exterior of the house," Mr. Griffith said. "Now you're seeing more of that because manufacturers have come out with products that are more durable than wood, plastic crown molding to trim windows and doors on the exterior."

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