Builders tailor homes to draw picky buyers The house is again a place to live instead of a real estate play; MARYLAND HOUSING TRENDS: 1996


Talk about tough customers. Today's new homebuyers are a demanding bunch, and they're forcing builders to rethink floor plans, exterior designs, appliances and amenities.

Buyers are tighter with their dollars, choosing products more carefully and planning to stay longer in their new homes, builders say. Following the last couple of years' trend of "bigger is better," families are now looking for more value for their dollars.

"I think people can afford more, but they are not extending themselves," said Wanda Cross, local marketing director for Ryland Homes, which sold 961 homes here last year, 10.3 percent of the Baltimore region's new-home sales.

"They are buying homes that they plan to stay in for more years," she added. "They are looking at the house as a place where they can relax, not so much as an investment."

Rick Kunkle, president of Patriot Homes, said: "This year the emphasis is on value, the price of the home and square-footage value."

Buyer demographics are changing, and builders are scrambling to keep up.

"We are seeing more single-parent households, more multigenerational families, as well as more active retiree households," said Bob Coursey, marketing director for Ryan Homes, which, along with its affiliated company, NVHomes, sold more than 1,100 homes locally in 1995.

Mr. Kunkle said builders have to respond to the needs of "empty nesters" who are staying in the Baltimore region, and looking for housing that suits their lifestyles.

"It's not automatic that people who retire go to Arizona and Florida. Many are staying home to be near family and friends. They want to be near things that they have become comfortable with," Mr. Kunkle said.

Traditionally, the Baltimore-Washington market has been a siding and brick marketplace. But homes are becoming "a little less boxy, with more gable roofs and more movement in the facades," said architect Don Taylor of DW Taylor Associates in Ellicott City.

Other changes include a Southwestern/California look, with the addition of stucco, stone and synthetic stone composition on the facade. Stone is also being used in the interior around fireplaces.

Some roofs feature glass fiber and fiberboard shingles designed for different or heavier textures. Experimentation with steel framing has been looked at as an alternative to lumber, as prices for wood escalate.

Because of today's busy lifestyles, buyers are looking for low-maintenance homes. For example, builders are putting in gas fireplaces; many buyers have little time or desire to chop wood.

Buyers are requesting natural tiles, such as limestone, Mexican terra cotta or French glazed and unglazed tiles in kitchens and baths for aesthetics as well as durability. Ryland has its own "Home Store" in Lutherville that offers buyers a chance to look, touch and feel the textures of floor coverings and counter tops and to evaluate bathroom and kitchen fixtures.

Homes that are cheaper to heat and air condition are also in high demand, builders say. Customers want heat pumps and gas furnaces that are more efficient, and windows that are energy-stingy as well. Many builders participate in Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s EnergyWi$e program, which pays them for the extra costs of higher-efficiency water heaters, better insulation and more expensive windows.

Ryland is one of the BGE EnergyWi$e builders. Windows in EnergyWi$e homes have a coating that helps reduce the heat that enters a room and drives up air-conditioning costs. The heat-blocking effect also helps protect furniture and drapes from fading from sunlight. Ms. Cross said Ryland has also upgraded the heat pumps to a 12 SEER.

The SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) is a measure of the heat pump's efficiency, and moving from a SEER 7 to a SEER 12 can save more than $340 on annual heating bills, according to BGE.

Another change sought by buyers is more flexibility in floor plans: They want rooms that can be expanded or plans that offer a more open interior. Designs incorporate fewer walls and respond to a less formal lifestyle. Living rooms are shrinking in size. The family room/kitchen combination and great rooms are popular. It's almost standard to have a new home with a cooking island in the kitchen.

Interiors are turning more contemporary, with the use of columns instead of walls to separate living spaces.

"We are seeing in smaller homes an opening up of the sight lines," said Georganne Derick, an interior designer with Merchandising East in Laurel.

Staircases are turned to create more angled walls that allow the eye to go to the rear of the house.

Cathedral and vaulted ceilings in bedrooms and family rooms are still popular, but a wave of nostalgia is influencing builders. Some new homes have flat 10-to-14 foot ceilings or "coved" ceilings like those found in Victorian homes. "Buyers like a family room that is vaulted or has a cathedral or two-story space," Mr. Kunkle said. "When you do that, you can't build over the family room, so what we have done is raised the ceiling two feet and then upstairs raised the ceiling in the master bedroom for a high look and we can use the space and allow more square footage in the house."

Purchasers of $300,000 to $500,000 homes want to be able to customize the home to specific needs, according to Robert R. Corbett, vice president of Williamsburg Builders. "Certain rooms smaller or wanting to enlarge or relocate walls or retrofit a study into a bedroom or full bath for an in-law, all seem to be a major concern to buyers."

Pub Date: 4/28/96

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