Function Over Size: Is a Bigger Home Better?

Homebuyers are foregoing bigger homes for smaller ones that offer more feature they want, like bigger rooms and walk-in closets, like this one in a model home from Edward Andrews Homes at Lake Haven of Crabapple in Milton, Ga.

When it comes to size, is a bigger home better?

Not so. In fact, today’s homebuyers say it’s not size, but function that counts.

For some, a functional home might translate into an open-concept floor plan and a bedroom on the main floor or it might be lots of storage. For others, function comes from flexible spaces that can adapt to a specific lifestyle or changing needs that range from being able to keep an eye on a toddler to having spaces for slumber parties or room for grown-up kids or family to visit and maybe even stay for a while. 

“Consumers really like the flexibility of having a house that can live in various ways,” says Jeff Benach, co-principal of Chicago builder Lexington Homes. “You can have five different families and you will have five different ways they are going to want to live in their house. They might buy the same house and set it up in different ways.”

In a recent survey conducted by the NewHomeSource Insights Panel, 64 percent of respondents pointed to increased functionality as an incentive to purchase a new home. Among those not focused on function, aesthetics and style were cited as deciding factors.

“Buyers want the house to feel good and have spaces that are designed around the way they life,” says Casey Margenau, a northern Virginia real estate broker who specializes in new construction, pointing to features such as larger mudrooms and bigger secondary bathrooms. And, he says, “excellent closets have become a tipping point.”

Homebuyers  particularly move-up buyers and downsizers  are much more aware of options and design than even a few years ago thanks to Houzz, HGTV and sites like NewHomeSource.

According to research from the National Association of Home Builders, more than two-thirds of buyers in all price brackets said they would opt for a smaller house with more features and amenities over sheer size.

“It isn’t about square footage. There is an understanding quality of thoughtful design can be more enriching as a lifestyle than just large rooms,” says architect Elissa Morgante, principal at Morgante Wilson Architects in Evanston, Ill. 

A growing number of builders are paying attention, offering a higher level of finishes and integrating multi-use spaces into plans. Post recession, Benach says they upped standard features in their townhomes to include wood floors on the main level, granite countertops throughout and stainless GE appliances.

But what one builder includes might be an add-on option for another — and that’s important to remember when comparing per-square-foot prices. “You’ve got to take into account what you are getting for your money,” says Benach. 

Some homes simply feel more spacious than others. In part, it has to do with the ways spaces interact, as well as placement of windows and sightlines. It’s as much about connectivity, flow and light as anything else.

Increasingly, transom windows are being used to infuse light into a room and enhance a sense of openness, while also acting as a design element. Also, says Lisa Lenhart, marketing director for Fielding Homes in Charlotte, N.C., “Natural light is becoming a big deal. We often fill up the back of the home with windows.”

Ensuring privacy, often by strategic placement of the house on the lot, also makes outdoor spaces and visual connections functional. 

When it comes to storage, homeowners think of it as more than an afterthought. Walk-in closets in secondary bedrooms, capturing space under stairways, additional space in garages and well-thought-out cabinets all optimize square footage. According to Lenhart, other storage options becoming more standard are pantries and serving pantries.

Also, appearing more frequently in floor plans are rooms on a main level that can be adapted to varied uses — playroom, office, guest space, first-floor bedroom. Some new plans allow potential buyers to adapt a space without moving walls or tacking weeks on to a construction schedule.

For example, a number of Fielding homes include space behind a garage that can be incorporated into the interior. Some of Lexington Homes’ single family plans have a two-story family room, but buyers can also opt to have the space filled in to add additional bedrooms and/or bathrooms on the second level.

When she is working with architects to plan a community, Jennifar Evans, director of design services for Edward R. James Companies, says “square footage is not as big of a priority. It’s something we think about, but we’re more concerned about room sizes.”

And the days of builders offering only one or two plans with few alternatives are also fading as more include multiple plans with a wide range of options in each one. It may not be the same as a custom home, but it’s also not a standard-level production home either. 

Evans, describes it as “this nice sort of middle area where we can give homeowners more options, but without having to add a lot more time or a lot of expense.”
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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