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Builders Take Care to Find Out in Advance What Buyers Want

The Baltimore Evening Sun

A bathroom with only a sink, toilet, shower and tub is not enough.

Today’s home buyers want “relaxation centers” with Jacuzzis, double sinks, a shower stall with a clear glass door and two shower heads that can wash a person’s back and front at the same time.

A walk-in closet in the master bedroom is a must. His and Hers walk-ins are preferable.

And while families may spend less time cooking than in the past, they still want a spacious kitchen with a breakfast nook, a built-in microwave, and lots of cabinet and counter space.

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Builders say home buyers are no longer content with the kind of houses built just 10 years ago. With both husbands and wives working, young families have more money to spend. And even though families today are smaller, they want two-story houses with four bedrooms and a two-car garage.

Keeping up with changing tastes is a challenge for home builders, who must figure out what kind of homes will sell long before the foundation is dug or the first brick is laid, and even before the architect sketches the design.

No longer do builders simply bring in their architects and marketing people and ask them what buyers want. Now they hire consultants to conduct focus groups, survey buyers and potential buyers and hire researchers who pore over demographic data.

“We need to do more than have six smart people sitting around the table,” says George L. Tresnak, director of market research for The Ryland Group Inc., a construction company in Columbia, Md.

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When Pulte Homes wanted to find out what home buyers would think of a new townhouse that the Bel Air., Md.-based company was planning to build in Owings Mills, Md., it hired consultants to conduct a focus group. Twelve people were chosen to review the drawings and give their opinions on the house. Pulte learned that they wanted more brick on the outside of the home and double sinks in the master bathroom.

The cost of the focus group was $3,000, but Douglas Lee, director of sales and marketing for the company’s Baltimore operations, says that amount is just a fraction of the what the builder hopes to gain on the 282 townhouses it plans to market at $100,000 to $110,000.

“A little investment up front pays dividends,” Lee says.

Ryland recently spent $20,000 to research the townhouse market in Cincinnati. “If we do the research correctly, we should look upon research not as a cost but an investment,” Tresnak says.

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Even after the houses are built, builders survey their owners for suggestions on how to improve them.

Buyers like to see vaulted ceilings, lots of glass and ceiling fans. “Give them the toys,” says Richard Azrael, president of Chateau Builders, which is building a townhouse and condominium complex in Howard County, Md.

Tresnak says more buyers want security systems, brick exteriors, smaller lots, more molding and woodwork. “I think we’re going to find an increasing demand for upgraded amenities,” he says.

Families want to come home and relax, says Christopher Zell, vice president of marketing with Bethesda, Md.-based Winchester Homes. “They want to say, ‘I can have fun living here.’ ”

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Lee says that buyers are apt to focus on the family room rather than the living room or the dining room. They want the family room to be well lit and have a fireplace.

Builders say buyers want eat-in kitchens that are fully equipped with appliances.

Zell says one popular new gadget is a hot water dispenser that costs between $150 and $200. It fits on the sink and provides boiling hot water.

Modern families “are not going to spend time cooking, but when they do cook, they want every kind of convenience,” Zell says.

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Master bathrooms are another important feature. “The master bath is now a relaxation center,” Zell says.

“In the 1990s, people are going to have a definite idea of what they want and we’re going to need to talk to them more about it,” Tresnak says.


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