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Upgrading now, not later

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Lee and Robin Walker bought their home in Ellicott City, it became more than a new house: It became their very expensive canvas.

One would think that a home with a base sales price of nearly $420,000 would come with just about every material upgrade imaginable. Not these days.

When choosing options for their 4,500 square-foot, four-bedroom Colonial to be built by Ryland Homes, the Walkers went for the works.

Among the $73,000 worth of enhancements they selected are:

A three-level morning-room extension and sitting room off the master bathroom. Price: $23,100.

A full bathroom off the guest room. Price: $3,740.

Recessed kitchen lighting. Price: $480.

Corian kitchen counters. Price: $1,955.

Upgraded flooring. Price: $6,576.

Upgraded stove with overhead microwave. Price: $1,250.

Finished basement, including exercise room, family room and full shower bath. Price: $20,125.

"We figured by doing the options now it would cost less; it would be in our mortgage," Robin Walker said. "They also offered us an incentive to do them."

With the grand opening of The Preserves at Mount Hebron, Ryland, as an enticement, was offering buyers a maximum credit of $17,500 to go toward the purchase of options. The Walkers took advantage and were able to roll $55,500 into the mortgage.

"We liked to choose the options. You're able to put what you like in the home," Robin said.

Buoyed by low mortgage interest rates ranging from 6.75 to 7.25 percent, a competitive building climate and choosier buyers, options are selling like crazy.

Years ago it might have been just upgraded carpet, hardwood floors or a deck, but today buyers often pay tens of thousands of dollars for luxuries.

Instead of waiting years to upgrade their homes, owners prefer to get improvements made during construction and add the costs to the mortgage. Sometimes the cost added monthly to the mortgage is just a few dollars; other times it can be several hundred dollars.

"It's stressful enough just to move in," said homebuyer Mark Dewey, who with his wife didn't want to deal with making future additions. "We're in our 40s, and we want to stay here until the kids graduate from high school or college. We wanted to plan ahead and get exactly what we wanted."

The Deweys, who added more than $33,000 in options, are to move in in April.

"People like to feel they can customize and personalize their homes," said Larry Zarker, vice president of marketing for the National Association of Home Builders. "Builders want to give enough in the basic package but let the customers personalize the home. That's better marketing."

"We don't want to spend your money for you; it's your choice," said Earl Robinson, sales and marketing manager for the Baltimore division of Ryland Homes. "We sell an equipped home that can be personalized."

Robinson said Ryland's option list covers 10 pages and the selections can go into the hundreds.

Builders walk a fine line between what to offer as an option and what to keep standard. If they make too many items options, they can appear to be nickel-and-diming the client. If they include too much as standard, they risk making the home too expensive for the market and too complicated to build.

"It's a fine balance," Zarker said. "You must develop a product that draws them in but not overprice it."

"We always try to do what's feasible," said Tim Morris of the Williamsburg Group, which annually builds about 50 upper-end houses in Howard, Prince George's, Montgomery and Carroll counties. "We start with our floor plans [15 to 20 choices] and go from there. It's not easy, but it keeps us in business. We're geared to it."

"Anything you add in as standard bumps up the house price," said Linda Veach, executive vice president and general manager for Harford County-based Bob Ward Homes. "You don't want to include so many things that you make it unaffordable - but you don't want a cookie-cutter home."

Nevertheless, some things made the leap from option to standard because of customer demand. Built-in microwave ovens and hardwood foyers are two major examples.

Like health plans that charge patients more for using "out-of-network" doctors, builders such as Ryland often charge a markup for a "custom" upgrade that isn't included in their options packages.

The Deweys wanted a particular kitchen range configuration, gas line and back-splash that weren't on the options menu, so they had to pay a $200 "custom feature" fee to have plans drawn up and reviewed by Ryland.

"I don't know how many times they said, 'We're not custom builders,'" Mark Dewey said of the negotiations.

Mass-production builders often won't allow outside subcontractors to work in their homes because they can't provide warranties for their work, Veach said.

Robinson said Ryland isn't a custom home builder and typically discourages changing its offerings.

But when buyers organize their option wish lists, additional space - usually called "bump-outs" in the business - usually is at the top.

"Nothing replaces footage," Robinson said. "When interest rates are low, people get as much space as they can. We see more than nine-tenths of the homes with a finished basement."

"People are willing to give up amenities, but not size," said Gopal Ahluwalia, director of research at the NAHB Research Center, which recently completed a study of "What Buyers Want."

About half of Bob Ward Homes' customers buy more square footage as a priority; the other half buy more amenities. Age seems to matter with Bob Ward customers. Older clients often "move down" to smaller homes but want more amenities such as customized kitchens and high-tech wiring.

"Our older customers buy more options because they have grown kids who have moved out, so they get their dream options," Veach said. "The younger buyers choose the space."

Bump-outs, such as sunrooms, can cost $25,000 or more. Another way to increase space is the finished basement, which can cost $6,000 for a townhouse and $20,000 for a single-family home.

Mark and Joanne Dewey split the difference. They paid $11,200 to finish about one-third of their large basement as a play area and media room. The rest will remain unfinished for the time being.

NAHB researchers and builders also have noticed more focus on kitchen and bathroom upgrades. A common request is the upscale kitchen with a 9-foot ceiling, granite or Corian counters, and stainless steel, gourmet-grade appliances. These upgrades can run from $1,500 to $20,000.

The Deweys would have gone with granite kitchen countertops but chose upgraded Corian because granite would have cost $10,000 (including markup on the "custom" request).

"These amenities used to be only for the upscale homes. Now many more people [in moderate homes] want them," Ahluwalia said. "It's due to lifestyles. One focus group we held basically said it was keeping up with the Joneses."

Bathrooms are also showpieces, particularly the master bath.

Homebuyers shell out thousands on options to upgrade counters, add decorator windows or glass block accents, improve tile and turn the tub into a whirlpool spa.

The Deweys went beyond the master bath and upgraded their children's bathrooms with an eye toward the future. Their sons have a "buddy bathroom," and their daughter has a "Princess Bath."

The buddy bath, Mark Dewey, said, "connects two bedrooms, and there's a third door to the hallway. That way, the boys will have access from their own rooms."

For their daughter, they took an option to convert a walk-in closet into her fully equipped bathroom for privacy.

Fireplace upgrades are still popular. Many buyers choose to pay $4,000 to $5,000 for a gas fireplace with remote control or put in a new gas fireplace.

The Deweys upgraded their standard fireplace for visual effect. Because of the family room's vaulted ceiling, the basic fireplace unit seemed dwarfed. They chose the option of a stone surround two-stories high, to the ceiling, for $3,270, plus $400 for a new mantel.

"The standard fireplace was just a mantel with a marble surround. The fireplace seemed lost there. Now it's a focal point," Mark Dewey said.

When it comes to high-tech options, buyers old and young seem to be on the same wavelength.

Fifteen years ago, having a home wired for cable was the high-tech option more and more people requested. Today, as multiple computers become commonplace and satellite television becomes more prominent, buyers are asking for network packages using category (CAT) 5 wiring that cost $2,500 to $3,500.

"Little by little, more are asking for CAT 5 wiring," Robinson said. "The trend is not dramatic. We used to offer it in the high-end singles. Now it's also offered in the more affordable models."

High-tech security systems are also becoming more popular, and many base packages have become standard. Williamsburg Group provides every buyer with a base system, including door motion detectors and control panel. Buyers can refine the system to monitor such things as windows and carbon monoxide.

In the future, options might be more about rearranging space than expanding it, builders say.

In California, narrow lots leave little room for bump-outs. Buyers there like to rearrange interiors, moving walls to enlarge one room at the expense of another. That isn't as prevalent in the Baltimore area, but densely built-up areas such as Bel Air in Harford County can expect more of it, several builders said.

"Sites are getting smaller," Robinson said. "If you made every home bigger, not all would fit on their lots."

The answer, he said, could be a family-room-over-garage addition. Builders use that approach, especially when there's no basement to finish.

Some builders include "you-finish" spaces. The builder might include bonus space within the home, such as over the garage, but leave it bare, like an unfinished table.

That way, it doesn't raise the price significantly but gives buyers space for future use.

What they want: 1995 to 2000

According to the National Association of Home Builders Research Center, the features consumers want builders to include in their new homes include:

Refrigerators: 31.5% to 44.0%

Dryers: 17.3% to 24.6%

Microwave: 67.9% to 79.4%

Vinyl flooring: 15.7% to 11.5%

Ceramic tile flooring: 8.2% to 12.0%

Hardwood: 8.4% to 9.7%

Marble floors: 0.2% to 0.6%

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