Built Your Way: Builders Use Consumer Research to Build Better Homes

The hallway of the home and a hat lying on the hanger. The hanger is white, matching the colors of the door.

Functional spaces such as the drop zone and pet rooms are features that buyers say they look for in a new home. Consumer research helps builders determine what new features buyers want most. Photos Courtesy of Pulte Homes.

When Standard Pacific introduced pet amenities as an option in one of their communities last year, it was a PR home run generating reports in almost all the major news outlets.

Consumers, with pets in tow, lined up to tour the model homes.

While it might seem this was just a lucky result to a trial balloon, the outcome was no surprise to Jeffrey Lake, Standard Pacific’s national director of architecture. “We’re always looking to enhance the life of our customers and pay attention to their needs. We conduct livability studies both online and in person. One theme that kept coming up was pets.”

In the homes, owners would show him where their pets slept and where they ate. “They talked more about their pets than any other feedback that we were looking for in the home,” he adds.

Standard Pacific’s livability research is only one example of ways in which builders today are getting to know their customers. For large production builders, the days of “build it and they will come” are long gone. Coming out of the recession, rising costs for development, labor, land and materials means no one can gamble on an option or a floor plan that won’t resonate with consumers.

At the same time, expectations by future owners of how the house will live have never been higher. Steve Moore, a senior partner with BSB Design in Des Moines, Iowa, advised builders at last year’s International Builders Show, “Everything you do has to look better, has to feel sharper, feel more relevant. When you walk into the house, you should feel like a million bucks.

“Are we doing more research today? Absolutely. The downturn certainly put every builder and business under the spotlight,” observes Doug Smith, national director of architectural services for Pulte, who says having a foundation of consumer research gave his company “a leg up” during the downturn.

Post recession, Pulte and other builders have upped the amount of research and some, such as Pulte, continue to refine the way they gather information. “The process has just gotten better. How we’re presenting product today and getting consumer insights has gotten better,” says Smith.

Pulte relies on prototypes both physical and virtual to help people understand the spatial relationships in a house. It started out, Smith says, with some “very basic” prototypes assembled in a parking lot. This year, Pulte consolidated all the physical prototypes to one location in Atlanta, which Smith says enabled them to “raise the bar to the next level,” with furniture and props showing life-sized appliances and cabinets. “A consumer walks in now (and) they really a get a sense of the house.” In fact, Smith says, “some say it is easier to buy a house based on a prototype than on some of the model homes.

A prototype kitchen made of cardboard is used by PulteGroup to help determine what homebuyers want in a new home.“It’s easier to do research now than it’s ever been. It’s easy to put together a survey to ask buyers how important a specific feature might be. We get the results quickly with little inconvenience to our buyers,” says Klif Andrews, president of the Las Vegas division of Pardee Homes, citing a recent survey that asked buyers about a patio cover as a standard feature in their homes.

Although being on target with designs and amenities is good for business, most builders also say meeting consumer expectations and offering homes that will help their buyers live better is equally or more important. “What the consumer appreciates is the end product. They appreciate they are able to live in a Pulte house differently or better than they would have in another (home). They might not know exactly why, but it’s because of all the insights we gain through our consumer research and product research,” says Smith.

Pardee Homes in conjunction with architecture firm Bassenian Lagoni has developed two demonstration homes to be unveiled at the International Builders Show in January 2016. Although the designs are relevant to all generations, they are specifically geared toward Millennials and use recent insights from Ketchum Research services. There has been a lot of speculation and conjecture about what this demographic will do and will want regarding homes, but a growing body of new research, including Ketchum’s, reveals there often is more myth than reality to many of the claims made about this demographic.

“The Millennial research brought some surprising results regarding home design,” according to Andrews. For example, Millennials have a lot of nostalgia about home design, so the exterior of one of the two models, which they are dubbing “responsive homes,” evokes an old-fashioned farmhouse. On the other hand, Andrews says, “our research demonstrated that the Millennials have a very informal lifestyle with more casual spaces and no formal gathering spaces.”

One of the best insights came forward, Andrews says, when they were trying to figure out which was more important for Millennials in the kitchen: more cabinets or more counter space. More counter space came out on top because, he says, they like to have lots of friends over and frequently get take-out food to entertain. They want to be able to lay out the take-out items and gather around a large island. “Another big difference is that Millennials are very specific about being non-acquisitive. They don’t want to acquire a lot of stuff,” he explains. “They are not looking for big storage areas. Millennials are proud of the fact that they don’t accumulate things.”

Another not surprising feature that appeals to Millennials is a high-speed, high-powered router, according to Andrews.

What’s New?

If you look at new homes today, many of the features that make them so appealing for consumers grew out of consumer research. For example, Pulte now includes a planning center in many of their homes. “It’s not so much an office, not tucked away, but engaged in the (kitchen workspace) triangle,” says Smith.

Another example of features related to consumer research are entries for owners — creating an entrance from the garage — which have become a family organization center with drop zones and cubbies.

Pulte also began offering “snore rooms,” a smaller room off the master for one partner to use if they need a retreat or perhaps where one partner is “banished” if they snore, as a result of consumer research. Looking ahead, Smith says they are doing a lot of testing around the kitchen and promises the results will be innovative in the way the kitchen works and how the kitchens flows. And, he says, being able to test things is really the fun part.
Camilla McLaughlin is an award-winning writer specializing in house and home. Her work has appeared in leading online and print publications, such as Yahoo! Real Estate, Unique Homes magazine and Realtor Magazine. She has also freelanced for the Associated Press.

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