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More buyer input by design

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Drew Mace and his wife went to purchase a new house in Harford County recently, they decided to customize the single-family home by instructing builders to extend the foyer and the front of the house.

"My ultimate goal would have been to have had an architect design my own house, but obviously that's prohibitive," Mace said. "Being able to have choices X, Y and Z was very nice."

In a radical departure from the past, home designs aren't being left to the experts anymore.

New-home shoppers increasingly are aging, affluent and well-informed about design trends, according to industry specialists. And builders can use technology to be more flexible in the home designs they offer than they have in the past.

"The trend of customizing home design is increasing," said Gopal Ahluwalia, vice president of research for the National Association of Home Builders. "The consumer today doesn't want what his next-door neighbor has. He wants to put his own stamp on his house."

Anthony and Linda Miller, who recently bought a new Ryland home in Aberdeen, said the opportunity to customize their house was the prime motivation for having one built.

"[Builders] put much more into the design areas than they did even 10 years ago," said Anthony Miller, who liked having so many choices for flooring and bathrooms. "That lets us put our own personal touch on the house, and that shows that we place a lot of value in being at home."

While most buyers 30 years ago wouldn't have thought to be included in the home design process, that lack of involvement is virtually unheard of today, builders and architects said. Most of the interest from prospective buyers is focused on the interior of their homes - choices such as high ceilings, where to put a family room and whether to even have a living rooms.

Increasingly, consumers have grown used to shopping for good service and they have succeeded in remaking the home design and customization process in their image. And, experts say, that influence extends to various homes - from mansions to townhouses.

"For example, empty nesters aren't compelled to move, so you really have to get them to the point where they see something so unique that they say, 'I have to have this,' " said Clark Turner, a builder in Bel Air, reflecting on his own company's design process.

For homebuyers, the choices can determine which builder is chosen.

"They're realizing that the consumer is very service driven and that if you're going to gain one, you're going to have to add flexibility and more choices than the standard cookie-cutter house," Mace said. "That's going to bring more people in their door."

Ryland Homes, which produces about 30 new designs annually in the Baltimore area alone, also has changed to allow greater customer participation in the home design process, according to Earl Robinson, Ryland's vice president of sales and marketing.

Upfront involvement by consumers is much more common than in the past, said Ortrude White of Atlanta, a national housing expert and past chairwoman of the American Institute of Architects' National Housing Committee.

"Years ago, homebuyers didn't mind starting out simple. They were just happy to have a place to raise a family. The expectation was that people's incomes would increase over time and that they would make the house more their own as their family's needs changed," she said.

Open space

Now, said Peter C. Pivko, a New Jersey architect and president of Domicile Development, client involvement begins much earlier. "People are enamored of family rooms and a very open concept. And they are interested in comfort, for example, heating systems like radiant floor heating. And with the aging population, more and more families are requesting master bedrooms downstairs."

Technology also has played a role in the increase of consumer involvement in the home design process. Buyers can stay on top of design trends without ever leaving their homes, simply by looking at magazines, television programs and Web sites devoted to home design.

And, said Richard S. Hunt, an architect with Hunt, Hale and Jones in San Francisco, access to technology not only makes it easier to see what's out there, it also allows him to work with clients from a distance.

"I'm doing things by fax and e-mail now," Hunt said. "I have a client in Montana, and we've met four times and we may move to a Web cam. Low tech [today] is a digital picture."

Hunt foresees the ability to sketch online with a client, resulting, he said, in a home that is truly tailored to a homeowner's tastes. Like most architects, he believes that even the 80 percent of new buyers who aren't shopping for true custom homes still are making custom choices.

Tailored interiors

"There's a whole generation that wants things exactly to suit them," Hunt said. "Now they come in with detailed photos of a niche for a hobby or for a space that's peculiar to them."

Exterior facades remain similar to other homes in the neighborhood, thanks to community associations that often place covenants or other restrictions on homes, limiting color schemes, architecture and other exterior features.

"For whatever reasons, people prefer to express themselves on the interior," Pivko said.

One reason could be that buyers are less likely to purchase a home with the expectation of living in it for the rest of their lives, and know that curb appeal can go a long way toward selling a house, he said.

Large-scale builders, once limited in offering customers the opportunities to customize their designs because of the costs and time associated with it, are now lining up to accommodate them.

Today's homebuyers are well aware of their buying power.

Mace, a computer programmer, and his wife, Laurie, a teacher, recently bought a new development home from Universal Housing Corp. in Harford County. Mace estimates that they made about $40,000 in design changes and upgrades to the home's $293,000 base price.

"Money buys everything," Mace said. "For a price they would redesign the garage."

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