HUNTING IN PAIRS

The Baltimore Sun

The passion housing play has begun. A young couple, medical professionals, look to upgrade from a townhouse to a home in Baltimore County. Separately, they attend an "open house," taking turns going on that long slow-motion walk through a doozy of a four-bedroom Colonial.

So many factors and features to consider before making one of the most emotional, important and expensive decisions a young couple can make: Cost. Closet space. Master bathroom. Kitchen countertops. Club room. Yard. Location. Location.

"How close is Wegmans?" asks Michele Giffel. "Right now, we're seven minutes from Wegmans."

In the Mayfair community of Timonium, Michele Giffel is here on a weekday without her husband, Barrett Giffel. He'll drop by later, but for now, Michele is the lone scout. Thanks to them - and to experiences in the trenches from area real estate agents into the home-shopping differences of men and women - we can peek not only into the hard facts but into the soft facts of human nature.

Along with the well-publicized slumping U.S. housing market, other factors have also changed on the home-buying scene. Single women, for example, represent the fastest growing segment of homebuyers, the National Association of Realtors reported this year. In 2006, single women represented a record 22 percent of all buyers compared to 9 percent for single men.

The largest category of homebuyer is still married couples. This hasn't changed, either. When it comes to looking at homes, men and women can wholeheartedly agree on this much:

What do they agree on again?

What does she want?

What does he want?

Michele's tour

"He says he wants a tractor," Michele Giffel says, "but I think that will get old once the novelty wears off."

How dare a woman question a man's commitment to yard toys? How dare a woman often be right?

Shadowed by her Long & Foster agent, Wanda Lehman, Michele appraises the backyard of the Timonium house, where a ridge seems to squeeze whatever yard there is. Children (one day) would be playing ball out here. That's what prospective parents see: children's playgrounds.

"Barrett would be happy with 5 acres," Michele says. This isn't close to 5 acres but what is? Still, it's a lovely, landscaped yard, but nothing John Deere is going to break out in a sweat over.

Inside, she likes the detail of the crown molding. (Men, crown molding isn't a dental procedure.) She eyes the pricey Plantation shutters. Six-panel doors. Important to have one step from the kitchen into the garage. One step it is. Michele and Lehman tread softly through each bedroom. First thing Barrett will say is we need to paint the whole thing, Michele says. That's easy to fix, Lehman assures.

They descend into the clubroom - a small house, really. Someone could live down here. A mother-in-law, for example. A TV remote control seductively rests on the arm of a sofa. The walls are half wood-paneled and there, center stage, is a pool table.

"If they had a pinball machine here, he'd love it," Michele says.

Men vs. women

House-hunting men, as a general rule, are interested in big yards, big clubrooms and big garages, i.e., modern caves. They can become easily hung up on paint colors and paint jobs. Height of bathroom shower door is important. Man does not want to strike head and lose consciousness.

Regardless of how mechanical they are, men inspect a house's mechanics. How's the septic tank? Radon fan? Heat pump? Furnace? A man will fixate on the rust on the furnace, although the rust probably means nothing. But it's important they determine the house is safe and sound. Nesting, schmesting. Must make right business decision. Must use right side of brain. Must analyze. Must check rust again.

When everything on his checklist checks out, he proudly announces his intentions to ... ask his wife what she thinks.

"If he loves the house and she doesn't - that's not going to go away," says Lehman, ever the diplomatic Realtor. The Long & Foster agent in Timonium has been selling houses for a quarter-century. She's seen it all - many times over. Every couple is different, and every couple can be the same.

Michele has been her client since June, and today's "open house" is their 12th together. Showing the house is Ashley Richardson, a Realtor for Coldwell Banker. From her vantage point - every room in any house - Richardson has also observed the dance of the home-buying couple.

"If the wife wants one house, and the husband wants another, the wife usually wins," Richardson says.

House-hunting women, as a general rule, tend to like closets big enough to drive a tractor through. The closet, by the way, will be hers. As the old line in real estate goes, his closet will be down the hall. Do women want a fireplace? Take it or leave it. Big ol' soaking tub? Take it.

"Men don't seem to care about the nice tub," Richardson says.

As for the kitchen, clearly this is the domain of the woman. Clearly, that is so wrong.

Barrett's tour

"I like to cook," Barrett says. Chicken parmesan is his messy specialty.

Barrett has arrived at the open house. He commences exploring the kitchen. He does not like the cabinets. The word "detest" is overheard. He does not like the size of the kitchen island, which is a small island unto itself. Chicken parmesan needs room, as any cook knows.

"You'll like this part," says his wife, leading him down into the clubroom.

He says, "I could do without the wood paneling motif."

"I thought you'd like that," she says.

The pool table looms. "Well," Barrett says, all poker faced, "I do like being able to have a pool table." Progress. But, as she guessed, he doesn't like the paint colors. "The house is obviously very well kept," he says - which is like saying someone on a recent blind date had a really good personality. At this point, she's more sold on the house than he is. He also has a much better poker face. You got to have one, Barrett says.

They move outside, but interior thoughts remain. The home has a soaking tub in a truly masterful bathroom.

"Do you want a soaking tub?" he asks. Michele looks at her husband lovingly but as if he just asked her if she wants a roof over her head.

"I don't want just a shower."

No one uses a soaking tub, he says. Big tubs just gather dust, rust and dead insects. She concedes as much. Yet.

Silence.

But enough about tubs.

"Not a lot of place for the kids to play," he says, eyeballing the distance between narrow open yard and closed windows of the home's solarium. Barrett envisions costly sporting activities. "I'm fairly certain you're going to get a baseball through that window."

Teach them to throw straight, Lehman says, jokingly.

It'd be hard to justify a tractor, he says, with resignation.

It's the wiring

In the end, it's about wiring - but not home wiring.

"Real estate is not about bricks and mortar. It's about people," says John Toner, a Realtor with Providence Real Estate in Columbia. "The better you understand people, the better house you will provide to them." As a corollary, the better a couple understand each other's wants, perhaps the better their chances of finding a home before their children graduate from high school.

Michele and Barrett understand each other. They talked it over, and they passed on the house. There was no arguing. The kitchen would have had to be redone. Wrong colors. Not enough yard for sure. But for them, colors, kitchens and backyards aren't deal breakers. It's more than that. Does the house feel solidly built? How does it flat out feel?

The Giffels remain on the open-house circuit. Every weekend.

"The more homes we see," Michele says, "the more we try to piece together what we want."

Room enough to throw a baseball and not hit windows. A kitchen island fit to be circled with friends. A soaking tub, probably.

Definitely a quick trip to Wegmans.

rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com

What women want - and men, too

Male or female, what will people want in a home over the next 10 years? The National Association of Home Builders asked a panel of housing experts to predict what areas and features of the average home will increase in popularity and demand. Among the trade group's findings:

More than any other rooms, the family room and kitchen will increase in size and importance.

Ceiling height has been rising for 10 years. By 2015, average homes will have nine-foot ceilings.

In kitchens, cabinet space will remain the highest priority.

In bathrooms, double vanities - and both shower stall and tub in master bedroom. (Multiple shower heads!)

Lighting: In a word, recessed.

Colors will move away from white toward a bolder interior palette.

Programmable thermostats will be hot.

Open space or communal space in subdivisions will be popular.

Increased demand for energy-efficient appliances.

Two-car garages will get bigger.

And the future of the ignored living room? It will either become a parlor, library, music room or will most likely vanish, according to housing experts.

[ Source: National Association Of Home Builders' "Home of the Future" study, 2007]

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