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Model Home Designs that Sell

Builders of extravagant, James Bond-esque mansions need not apply. Today, model homebuilders are avoiding high-tech gimmicks and the “bigger is better” philosophy of years past in favor of more practical technology and simple designs.

Homebuyers looking for upgrades are less concerned with a fifth bedroom or home theater and more interested in features that will save them time and money. Many are looking for upgrades that can’t be found in older, un-remodeled homes, like energy-efficient appliances, automatic lighting and well-appointed laundry rooms.

Here are some tips to help create model home designs that sell.

Incorporate Useful Upgrades

Finding a balance is key, particularly when it comes to tech-heavy upgrades like house-wide audio systems or a complicated alarm system, says Stephen Melman, director of economic services at the National Association of Home Builders in Washington, D.C. They can be smart solutions for some buyers; however, they must be applicable to the market in which you’re building or you’ll risk scaring potential homeowners away, he says. You will need to prioritize which upgrades to offer while keeping costs down to remain competitive.

Shift from Quantity to Quality

The McMansion craze appears to be waning. The U.S. Census Bureau shows that in 2010, the median square footage of single-family homes was 2,169, down from 2,277 square feet in 2007. The median price has also dropped from its peak of $247,900 in 2007 to $232,600 in June 2012.

McMansions, which were often outfitted with low-quality materials, are no longer attractive to homebuyers, says Tony Poanessa, project manager at Bensonwood Homes, a builder and designer of energy-efficient homes in Walpole, N.H. Instead, Poanessa says homebuyers are investigating more instead of making quick purchases like they used to. “They’re more knowledgeable and willing to pay for durability and quality construction over schedule factors,” he says. This could be attributed to the difficulty of securing loans or a lingering response to the recession. As a result, Melman says builders and remodelers will need to prioritize quality over quantity, which will be especially evident in the homes’ finishes.

What is Selling

Quality hardwood flooring and countertops are helping sell homes right now, Melman says. Using an exotic wood like bamboo will make a model home stand out, along with the popular trend of staining concrete floors.

Arnold Karp, founder and president of Karp Associates, a custom home building and remodeling firm in New Canaan, Conn., points to less molding in favor of crisper designs. Poanessa also says that homebuyers want interior finishes made from more natural, low-VOC materials, due to their consciousness of indoor air quality.

Know Your Real Estate Market

Understanding market demographics is just as important as knowing which locations are booming. If you’re building in Maine and West Virginia, for instance, between 43 and 45 percent of households are headed by people 55 years or older. In five central Florida counties, people 55 or older head at least 60 percent of each county’s households, the most significant concentration of baby boomers in the United States. These baby boomers will likely prefer one-story houses and be less interested in technology upgrades that might be important to their younger counterparts, Melman says. Baby boomers also prefer to have home offices, while younger buyers may not see an extra room as a valuable upgrade because they work wirelessly. If you expect to attract younger buyers, offer appliances and control systems that will integrate seamlessly with their laptops and smartphones. Karp recommends speaking with local realtors or conducting focus groups to determine which sorts of features to offer and which to omit.

Melman suggests purchasing survey data from a consulting firm or conducting a survey to get to know your prospective buyers. Visit census.gov or nahb.org for more information about demographics and building activity.

Create Useful Space

Spaces are smaller than they were a few years ago, but homebuyers are still looking for useful spaces to make their lives easier and more efficient. Many are looking for upgrades including more designated areas that might not appear in older homes, like walk-in pantries and closets, linen closets and bright, well-ventilated laundry rooms. Some builders are elevating washers and dryers a foot off of the ground to make shoveling laundry into front-facing high efficiency washers easier. Buyers are also looking for other perks like built-in shelving and foldout ironing boards. “None of this is expensive or rocket science, but it sure makes organizing a home much easier,” Melman says.

Prioritize Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency is one of the most important variables for homebuyers these days. “Everyone consistently wants ENERGY STAR-rated windows and appliances,” Melman says. Poanessa suggests that builders take it a step further by either contacting a local electricity company or hiring a home evaluation company to perform a comprehensive energy analysis to help quantify the improved energy performance of an entire home. The bulk of savings will be the result of upgrades you can’t necessarily see, such as foam or spray insulation in the walls instead of bat insulation or installing energy-efficient HVAC systems. Using better insulation and programmable thermostats may also be a strong selling point because it can cut home energy costs by 20 to 50 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Offer Practical Technology

“Each home ought to have at least one thing that makes someone say, ‘I’ve never seen that anywhere else,’” Melman says. This could range from multiple showerheads and sprays to door and walls outfitted with glass-enclosed mini blinds. HVAC systems, thermostats and new appliances can be controlled automatically, sometimes even by smartphone, which may entice younger buyers, Poanessa says.

Also consider adding a lighting control center that’s organized by mood or function, Poanessa says. “With a lighting panel, the house is more beautiful because you don’t have switches all over,” he says. “People can hit one switch and it automatically adjusts the lights to how they’re living.”

Beware of Tech Overload

“Sometimes when we start to talk about technology, people’s eyes glaze over,” Karp says. “If people won’t understand it, we shouldn’t be putting it in their house.” Extravagant features like hot tubs and home theaters are becoming less popular with homeowners, Poanessa says. “You don’t want someone to buy their home and then feel frustrated by all the bells and whistles,” Melman says. “And it will cost more.”

Recognize that Homebuyers are Cautious and Careful

Despite historically low mortgage rates and low home prices, the job market is still very tenuous, Melman says. “Any homebuyer is going to be extremely cautious and focused on value,” he continues. “They’ll opt for all the upgrades they really need and maybe one or two cool features. They’ll be really careful and won’t say, ‘give me all of it.’”

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