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SPACE, BIG KITCHEN HEAD HOME WISH LISTS

If you bought a new house in the same way you bought groceries, here's what might be on your shopping list:

-Lots of space.-A large and convenient kitchen adjacent to a family or "great" room.

-Nine-foot ceilings.

-Solid-surface countertops.

-Separate toilet compartments.

-Four bedrooms.

-A two-car garage.

And when you got to the counter, you'd tell the cashier you were planning to pay $163,000 for everything.

It all represents a sample of what was on the wish lists of 3,600 potential buyers surveyed in the fall of 1995 by the National Association of Home Builders.

The main finding, according to NAHB research director Gopal Ahluwalia, was that "people want more space and are willing to give up amenities to get it."

"This is true of all segments - from affordable to luxury," said Ahluwalia, who has conducted five studies on homebuying trends in the past 15 years. "If a person is living in a home of 1,800 square feet, they want 2,200 square feet."

"You can change bathroom fixtures and update your kitchen by remodeling your existing home, but you can't buy more space at the home improvement center," said Randall Lewis, president of Lewis Homes in Upland, Calif.

The survey's approach was somewhat different from previous studies in that it focused on potential homebuyers rather than people who already had decided to buy a new home.

"It appears that there is a different response when you ask buyers what they want before a community opens than when they are there writing a check," Ahluwalia said.

Meg Mahon, marketing director of Realen Homes in Ambler, Pa., agreed.

"Some of the responses in this survey - for instance, 67 percent wanting a whirlpool tub - would be different if they were actually buying a house," she said. "If that many people preferred a whirlpool tub when they bought, we would offer it as standard instead of an option."

The NAHB survey, released atthe organization's annual convention earlier this year, covered nine metropolitan areas, including Philadelphia. It was conducted with Fulton Research Inc., of Fairfax, Va., and Home Guides of America.

Surveys were mailed to potential homebuyers who had requested a copy of the Home Guide magazine for their area, Ahluwalia said.

As the median income of respondents rose, perhaps not surprisingly, the importance of public transportation declined, while the desire for such items as tennis courts increased, Ahluwalia said.

The new-home shoppers surveyed had a median age of 39 and a median household income of $64,394. More than 75 percent owned homes and 77 percent were married.

"Although single people are the fastest-growing household-forming segment of the population, married couples still dominate the home market," said Jim Irvine, a builder in Portland, Ore., and president of the NAHB.

He said the number of married couples without children who were buying new homes "was growing dramatically."

More than 79 percent of those responding to the survey said they intended to buy a house within a year, Ahluwalia said.

Besides the desire for space and affordability, the survey found buyers focusing on kitchens and specialty rooms, Ahluwalia said. The survey also reaffirmed that the living room had fallen out of favor with home buyers, while the master bedroom suite had held its own. And it showed that what the buyers felt they should pay for their dream home was about $20,000 below the current median for such a home.

Space and affordability. The survey left little doubt that buyers want space. While the median size of the shoppers' current home is 1,700 square feet, they want a new home with 2,200 square feet.

The median size of new homes built in 1994 was 1,945 square feet.

Gary G. Schaal, vice president of sales and marketing for the Orleans Co. in Bensalem, Pa., said: "The desire for more space is true in most cases, except, of course, for move-down buyers."

The need for space even overwhelms the desire to save money. Only 24 percent of those surveyed would sacrifice square footage to reduce costs.

"You can tell that immediately when people walk into sales offices," Mahon said. "People already have done comparison shopping, and they know the price per square foot of each house."

Almost half of all buyers want a two-story home. About 50 percent want a full basement.

However, Orleans' Schaal has found that some buyers are willing to forgo a basement if there is a two-car garage. "They just won't park one car inside," he said.

About 80 percent want ceilings of 9 feet or higher on the first floor, while half want the same height on the second floor.

The desire for space, even by married couples without children, shows that buyers "expect to grow into these houses," said George Fulton, who conducted the NAHB survey.

"About a third of the respondents were willing to give up something so they can move in now," he said.

And what they are willing to give up is "finished" space.

To hold down costs, 45 percent said they would prefer unfinished space, such as a basement or a bonus room over a garage, that could be finished later, Fulton said.

"They do not want to sacrifice quality or features, but are willing to accept less (finished) space if they can be shown how they can grow into it," he said.

According to Schaal, the idea of unfinished space is not new and is often easier said than done.

"In the 1970s," he said, "builders in this area left space unfinished because it would save about $12,000 on the price of a new house," and, according to Commerce Department statistics, the average price of a new house during the decade ranged from $30,000 to $65,000.

"With all the building-code requirements these days, leaving a space unfinished would result in savings of only about $4,000, or about $28 a month on a 30-year fixed mortgage," Schaal said.

Commerce Department figures put the cost of a new home in the third quarter of 1995 at $184,000.

Realen offers optional floor plans with "bonus" rooms - a breakfast room or sunroom - that can be finished later, Mahon said.

"But buyers want finished basements," she said, disagreeing with the survey. "They may decorate them later, but they want them finished first."

The survey shows that more than half of the buyers wanted a minimum of four bedrooms. According to the NAHB, only 30 percent of all single-family houses completed in 1994 had four or more bedrooms.

Buyers prefer one master suite to two (yes, there are homes with more than one master suite). In the Philadelphia area, the master bedroom is on the second floor, for privacy's sake. And the bedrooms that won't be used for sleeping will be used as guest rooms (81 percent) or home offices-studies (71 percent).

- Kitchens. The emphasis on kitchens was greater in this survey than in the previous NAHB survey, Irvine said. New-home shoppers are demanding large and convenient kitchens.

"Dishwashers were once an option," Schaal said. "Now, they're standard. Microwaves are headed that way. They want plenty of cabinet space and storage space. Working couples want to limit the number of times each month they have to go to the supermarket."

Kitchen cabinets are taking on a "furniture look," said Joan McCloskey, an editor with Better Homes and Gardens magazine. "The kitchen is actually becoming our new living room."

About 90 percent of the buyers surveyed want a double sink and 61 percent want solid-surface counters, while 52 percent want ceramic tile.

Three to 5 percent want two sinks, McCloskey said.

- Baths. Ninety-four percent of those surveyed want a linen closet in the bathroom.

"That's becoming standard again," Schaal said. "Builders used to do it, then figured they could get away with it in the hall."

Toilet compartments are desired as well, because they afford privacy.

White is in for bathroom fixtures and countertops.

- Specialty rooms. Ninety-five percent of survey respondents want a laundry room.

"If they have teenagers, they want it on the second floor," Schaal said. "If their children are younger, they want it on the first floor."

A dining room is desired by 88 percent, "but it's no longer the full-blown one, but a scaled-down variety," Mahon said.

Sixty-nine percent want a den-library and 66 percent a home office. The whole cocooning issue "is pushing people into asking for a separate access from the outside to their office," Mahon said.

- Tradeoffs. Forty-four percent of buyers would prefer a much larger family or great room to a living room, and some are willing to forgo a living room altogether.

However, Mahon said, "We wouldn't put a house on the market without a living room. People still like having some formal space."