Moving Up: The Most Popular New Home Upgrades

Kitchens are the most important room in the home, so it’s no wonder why home buyers want big kitchen islands to entertain and hardwood floors in dark finishes to create an inviting atmosphere. (Photo Courtesy of Sitterle Homes.)

It would be hard to miss the mountain of media pronouncements about the way American consumers were sobered by the recession and now are in more of a no-frills mode. Except, perhaps, when it comes to building their new homes.

The concept of “home” still pulls at the heartstrings and homebuilders say that upgrading certain features and adding special flourishes remains high on buyers’ shopping lists. Consumers may be leaning in a somewhat more practical direction now than they did during the spend-athon of the housing boom, but homebuyers still want what they want. And “bare bones” is not on their wish lists.

“For several years, they (buyers) sat on the sidelines to see what was going to happen (in the economy),” said Jeff Buell, co-owner of Sitterle Homes, which builds in San Antonio, Houston and Austin. “During that time, they thought about what they wanted, they saved some money, and now they’re building what they want.

“They’re not going crazy, but they’re not not doing anything,” he said. “They have more buying power because interest rates are low. They’re saying, ‘We can go ahead and add this (option) now because we can afford to.’ ”

The whole concept of what’s “standard” and what’s “optional” in a new home has itself changed over the years: Many builders took note of the kinds of features their buyers routinely favored and began incorporating them into their regular/standard offerings in order to compete better in the marketplace. Lennar, a national builder, exemplifies this trend with their "Everything's Included" approach.

Additionally, builders have tried to streamline the sometimes-complex pricing process in choosing options by grouping them as packages — a higher grade of appliances as a group or a suite of finer plumbing products in a master bath, for example.

What home buyers are adding in the true realm of options can vary according to regional tastes, the builders said. But the hankering for hardwood floors, laid throughout an open-concept family room/kitchen, seems to transcend geography. And buyers are interested in an air of luxury in their bathrooms, particularly when it comes to their showers. In the kitchen, big work islands continue to pack an appeal — though the long-running love affair with the granite countertop may be getting a re-think, they said.

Some highlights from around the country on how homebuyers are going a step or two beyond their builders’ basic offerings:

Making a Splash in the Bath

The tub and the shower are increasingly separate, according to Julia Humphrey, a designer who works with buyers on behalf of Savvy Homes, a builder in several North Carolina markets. And that shower option is increasingly likely to be tiled, rather than a standardized stall, she said.

Although Humphrey said buyers are still interested in upgrading from a standard to a jumbo tub, buyers who may have had such an oversized tub previously seem willing to forgo it in their next home because they never seemed to use it much — filling and soaking in it consumes time they never seem to be able to spare, she said.

In some cases, the master bath will have no tub at all, according to Kevin Beauchesne, whose Bryson City Log Homes in North Carolina specializes in building log homes. His options aren’t just any old shower stall — the “grotto showers” that his customers have opted for lately are almost cave-like, and somewhat in keeping with the rusticity his buyers are seeking.

“Think of it as if you had found a natural quarry where the setting had been carved out of stone, that the shower itself looked like it’s been carved out of the earth,” and walled by boulders, he said. “Once I show it to people in one of the models we have, they want it.”

In the Kitchen

It’s increasingly an “island” nation, and the bigger the center island you can offer as an option in kitchens, the better, the builders said.

Builders said buyers are seeking larger islands as the centerpiece of their kitchen. Buyers picture their guests being able to lean against the island or sit at the same level to talk.The same holds true for countertop eating areas found in many homes.

Mary DeWalt, an award-winning model home merchandiser (AKA designer), works with Jimmy Jacobs Custom Homes in Austin, Texas and several other builders.

According to DeWalt, instead of having a bar that's 42 inches high, "we are lowering everything to the 36 inch counter height. It makes the kitchen feel larger and you don't have to climb (so high) up the bar stool." For a two-minute video that NewHomeSource created with Mary DeWalt on the latest kitchen design trends, click here

Unsurprisingly, buyers place a high priority on kitchens. “You can ramp up the amenities,” Buell said. “Among the most popular ones are stainless cooktops and ranges, undercounter lighting and lighted cabinet interiors.”

Not that you have to be a gourmet to crave such goodies. “It’s funny because some of the people upgrade to the big stainless range, and you say to them, ‘What do you like to cook?’ And they say, ‘I don’t ever cook. We just want it to look good,’ ” Buell said.

Granite countertops continue to be a popular kitchen option, but the stone became so popular that it has morphed into a standard inclusion for some builders. Consumer fondness for granite may be evolving: Popular upgrades are granites with more exotic patterns that add a different design dimension to the kitchen, Buell said.

In what may be one of those regional variations, Jyll Fuhler, a design consultant for Taylor Morrison Homes’ operations in Southern California, said buyers are less interested these days in the exotic granites.

“White granite is hot, but hard to find in large slabs,” she said. “Therefore, marble is what people are going for a lot in white.”

And granite isn’t the only stone in town. “We’re not doing as much granite as we used to,” agreed her colleague, Kimberly Timmons, whose Denver interior design firm “merchandises” (or outfits) model homes locally for Taylor Morrison, among other builder clients.

“I don’t think granite will ever go away totally,” she said. “But we’re doing more solid-surface countertops. Buyers seem to want more of a modern look, cleaner, crisper.” Toward that end, they’re upgrading to quartz countertop materials such as Silestone or Caesarstone, she said.

All Around the House

Other sightings:

  • Bright ideas: In the past year, Matt Hill of Epiphany Developments, a builder and remodeler in Denver, says a major “splurge item” has been in lighting fixtures, with fabric shades and intricate glass designs.
  • Curb appeal: Stone, as an exterior upgrade, has become more popular than brick, Humphrey said of her North Carolina buyers. “I’d bet that 75 percent upgrade to a stone. It adds a richness to the front of the house.”
  • Wood Flooring: Hardwood floors continue to reign, particularly in open-floor plan designs that unify the kitchen and great room areas, several builders said. And look for dark-stained planks in multiple widths throughout the room.
  • Drop Zones: Customers want a “drop zone” for keys, backpacks, mail, etc., when they enter through the garage. Though the spaces often double as laundry rooms, Buell said his company offers ways to individually upgrade and customize them for drop-zone purposes with such options as kids’ coat lockers, cubbies, etc.
Freelance writer Mary Umberger has covered real estate and home-related products for publications such as The Chicago Tribune, Inman News and other leading print and online publications.

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