New home buyers are coming back, but they don't want the same old McMansion. They want a house they can use. That means a "great room" where everyone can gather — and a spa-like bathroom to escape from the crowd. But usefulness also extends to lots of storage space for big-box buys. It means "drop-off zones" for recharging smartphones and pet-friendly "puppy showers." It means a home office actually designed for work and media centers made for play. It means big closets and little nooks.
These new homes combine practicality with the way we want to live now, builders say.
"We're rolling out all new designs," said Jeff Lake, national head of architecture for major builder Standard Pacific Homes.
These designs are the culmination of a three-year process, Lake said. "We studied how people actually live in their homes. We found they're more connected than ever — and not just texting."
They want to feel connected to their family as well as to their media, Lake said. In some places, they also want to feel connected to the great outdoors with windows everywhere and patio rooms that look like their indoor counterparts.
According to experts, today's home buyers are much more budget conscious, a natural consequence of the recession. They demand more value per square foot. They're not interested in rooms they will rarely use, such as a formal dining room. Most of all, home buyers want a house that "works" for them.
"McMansions put a huge percentage (of square footage) into hallways and formal spaces that are used infrequently," Lake said. "It adds up to a lot of square footage."
A walk-through of new luxury home models in Rocklin, Calif., at Standard Pacific's Manzanita at Whitney Ranch illustrates his point. Priced at $454,000 to $504,000, each home featured a mammoth "great room" combining a large kitchen with family, dining and living room space into one very large area without halls.
Great rooms are the No. 1 requested feature among current new home buyers, real estate experts say. "Everybody ends up in the kitchen, so why not make room for them?" Lake said.
One kitchen/great room combo had a layout that could double as a small restaurant. The L-shaped area had space for three dining sets: one adjacent to the kitchen, another for more formal gatherings in the living area and a third near a media wall that could double as a game table. Separating the kitchen from the great room, a 14-foot island served as a buffet and breakfast bar. Every eating area could see the media wall, anchored by a 70-inch flat-screen TV.
Meant for entertaining, this great room can hold a crowd. At a recent community event, 75 people gathered in this space.
"And it still felt comfortable," said Danielle Tocco of Standard Pacific Homes. "It's the perfect kind of room for a large family."
New inventory and new designs can help lure buyers back into the market.
Alicia Eckman of Rocklin, Calif., recently toured the Manzanita models with her mother, Sylvia Vining.
"Builders are getting smarter," Eckman said.
Besides the great room, the women pointed to other thoughtful touches such as mud rooms (some with a dog-friendly shower to wash dirty paws) and "drop zones," located near the entrance doors and designed to encourage organization. "It gives you a place to drop your stuff right when you walk in," Eckman said.
"In my home, I have very little storage space," Eckman said. "Everything is in the garage. I liked the upstairs laundry room with the storage right there (near the bedrooms). How convenient! Boom, it's done!"
Other thoughtful highlights: a home office near the front door (convenient for deliveries) and state-of-the-art smart technology to keep the home running as efficiently as possible.
New homes have the space for everything, but it's a matter of how to use that space.
In 40 years, new homes have grown substantially nationwide. The average new home is 44 percent larger than one built in 1973, according to real estate statistics. Back then, the average new house measured 1,660 square feet. In 2007, the national average hit 2,521.
Although construction came to a virtual standstill during the recession, home size slipped only slightly. The average new house still measures 2,480 square feet.
A mid-size home is now considered anything between 2,500 and 3,000 square feet. According to U.S. Census statistics, about 20 percent of new homes fall in that category. Almost 20 percent fit the 3,000- to 4,000-square-foot range. Another 7 percent top 4,000 square feet.
The most popular new home size — 1,800 to 2,400 square feet — accounts for 27 percent of new homes, but that also includes townhouses and other attached dwellings as well as single-family homes.
New homes also tend to feel like resort living, an outgrowth of "staycations." Next to the great room, the most requested amenity is a spa bathroom, Lake said.
That includes "the whole idea of a spa," he added, with such amenities as a soaking tub, steam shower, luxurious cabinetry and natural stone.
"People want huge showers — uber showers, car-wash showers," Lake said. "I haven't found a limit yet on a shower that's too big. Everybody wants a seat in the shower, too. It's another case of dedicating square footage where people use it every day."
New home buyers want usefulness, with rooms designed around practicality and the connectivity of how we live in today's world.