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Sunrooms add light, space and value
The idea is nothing new. Thomas Jefferson's house had one. President Taft added one to the White House. Many of the early 20th Century catalog houses featured one. But for a variety of reasons, the sunroom is enjoying a renaissance today.
"It's a relatively inexpensive addition to a house," says Paul Bishop, managing director of research for the National Association of Realtors (NAR). "It adds square footage and it sets apart the house at resale."
Asked which rooms are "very important," respondents to the NAR's most recent "Profile of Buyers' Home Feature Preferences" ranked a sunroom higher than a media room, exercise room and in-law suite.
Buyers in the Northeast and Midwest are warmer to the notion than are buyers in the South and West.
Driving the sunroom surge, Bishop explains, is the huge Baby Boomer home-buying bubble. The NAR study shows Baby Boomers and the over-65 set are the most likely to say "yes" to sunrooms.
Builders give their sunrooms different names — solarium, conservatory, veranda, to name a few — but, basically, there are two types. The three-season room has no heat vents, so it may be too cold to use in the winter, unless it is on the house's south side and collects enough passive solar heat. The four-season room does have heating, so it can be used year-round.
Although sunrooms used to be limited to high-end, custom housing, they have trickled down to semi-custom and production housing. Half of the buyers at Ashford Place in Plainfield, where houses start at $259,900, choose the sunroom upgrade, says the builder, Wheaton-based Smykal Homes.
Lourdes Quinones and her husband, Rich, added a sunroom to their two-story Ashford Place house because it gives them more room to host their large family. "When both of our families are here, it's 40 people, so we don't all fit into the kitchen and family room," says Lourdes. Their sunroom, she says, catches the overflow.
At Ashford Place, the 170-square-foot sunroom upgrade costs $13,900 to $14,500 and includes the basement. The room has 9-foot ceilings, windows on two sides and exterior sliding-glass doors.
For today's high-end house buyers, "the sunroom is a must," reports Gopal Ahluwalia, vice president of research for the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).
"It's part of the outdoor living trend that also includes outdoor kitchens, fireplaces and upscale patios."
In Charles Page Builders' custom, $2.5 million-plus houses on the North Shore, the sunroom is a given. "My clients use them for entertaining, for meals, and to play with the kids," says Page. His well-appointed sunrooms often include fireplaces, beamed ceilings and porch swings.
"It's part of our casual lifestyle," adds Page. "The formal living room is passé. When people entertain, everyone is in the kitchen. The sunroom, which is usually off of the kitchen or family room, gives them more informal space for guests."
The sunroom upgrade is not limited to single-family houses, say the builders. "We don't have exact numbers, but we know we are seeing more sunrooms in townhouses and row houses," says Ahluwalia.
"The sunroom was the deal-clincher," says Steve Engledow of the upgrade he and his wife, Sherry, chose for the townhouse they bought at Country Club Villas in Joliet in 2008. "It's where we sit and read, away from the TV and the noise of the house, while we watch the deer and the geese outside," he says. For $9,875, the Engledows got a 120-square-foot sunroom with brick walls, tile floor and vaulted ceiling. "It can be blustery cold outside, but it's nice and warm in there because the brick and tile help retain the heat," says Engledow. "In the summer, we'll open up all the windows and use it like a screened porch."
Jeff Querio says the sunroom was why he and his wife, Mary Jo, chose the Canterbury model at the Villas at Fox Run in Joliet, built by Wilcox Development in 2008. "Every evening, it's where we read and watch TV," says Jeff. When they entertain, guests spill from the adjoining family room, he says. When summer comes, the sunroom will be the connection between the townhouse and the patio.
Other homeowners opt for sunroom kits, which are available from several companies, including Georgetown, S.C.-based Florian Solar Products.
Chicagoan Eric DeChant installed a Florian Monarch model on top of his parents' flat-roofed Chicago house. Reminiscent of old-money conservatories, it has glass walls and roof, although DeChant gave it a wooden, interior kneewall because he added a kitchenette inside.
"I'm a contractor so it wasn't difficult for me, but a do-it-yourselfer could install one of these," says DeChant. If you are not so handy, though, Florian matches you with an installer. Not including installation, and depending on added features, the Florian sunrooms cost from $10,000 to $30,000. Their aluminum frames fit together with company-supplied connectors.
"I linked it to the house's HVAC system, so it has heat for cold days," says DeChant. "But when the sun was shining during the winter, it was plenty warm in there. During the summer, we open the awning-style windows and let the breeze flow through."
Midway between a custom-built sunroom and a kit is a sunroom constructed with panels that serve as windows during the winter and screens during the summer. Combination Door Co. ( CDC) in Fond du Lac, Wis., makes such panels that run about $350 each. The 10 panels needed for a 130-square-foot sunroom, not counting the roof and foundation, cost about $3,500, says CDC owner Dan Schmidt.
In addition to being popular upgrades on new houses, sunrooms are hot additions these days, say Chicago-area remodelers. "Ten years ago, people were more likely to say they wanted a finished basement if they had the money to add usable space to their houses," says Mike Pudlik of Legacy Design & Construction in St. Charles. "Now, it's more often sunrooms. It's part of the outdoor-living trend, I think, because the sunroom can be the hub between the kitchen and the back yard. In the winter, when you're in the sunroom, you're not outside, but it feels like you are."
"For the two-story house with a dark kitchen that has 8-foot ceilings, we remove the back wall and add a sunroom with a vaulted ceiling to make the whole area lighter and brighter," adds Pudlik.
Although many of his clients come to him asking for three-season rooms, Pudlik says after they hear it only costs about $3,000 more to make it a four-season room, they usually choose the latter.
Northbrook-based remodeler Maurice Forde agrees. "The great thing about the sunroom is it doesn't necessarily have to fit the architecture of the rest of the house," says Forde, who has seen an increased demand for sunroom additions, too. "It can be simple or have a lot of woodwork, but it's still mostly glass."
The diamond necklace of the housing industry, the sunroom adds Old World class to a house. A house is perfectly functional without it. But, for the homeowner with some extra cash, what a lovely luxury it is.