These features can be top selling points—and upgrade opportunities—but customers won’t know it until you show it.
If you don’t show it, you’re not going to sell it.
That’s the attitude of Marc Thee, co-founder and design principal at Winter Park, Fla., interior design firm Marc-Michaels, who believes that home shoppers buy what they see.
Buyers in the market for a new house know what they want in a home—comfort, convenience, and an overall better quality of life for their family. But more often than not, these buyers don’t know which features, products, or design elements will give them the lifestyle they desire in a new home.
It’s the job of builders and designers to show buyers the myriad options available to them, many of which they’ve never thought of or might not even know exist.
“Home design is really about discovering the needs of your buyer and then finding solutions that you can offer to those needs, and sometimes there are needs that your buyer isn’t even aware they have,” says Jane Meagher, president of Success Strategies, a New Jersey-based company that specializes in creating design studios for home builders across the country. “Show them how a specific feature is a solution to a need that they have to live better, and they’ll invest in those features.”
From floor plans to lighting fixtures, here are nine design-oriented features that many buyers don’t realize they can’t live without.
Open space layouts have dominated single-family home design in recent years. Buyers no longer want separate kitchens, living rooms, and dining rooms, but instead are looking for informal gatherings spaces that the whole family can enjoy.
“I call it one-room living, where it’s really like the spaces are divided into zones more so than individual rooms,” says Thee. “Walls are coming down and what happens then is that you give buyers easy, casual, comfortable, non-compartmentalized spaces that encourage an ease and comfort of living.”
The concept is already popular in kitchen design, but Thee says buyers may be surprised by ways that an open plan can be applied to a master suite.
“You can design a master where the walls and doors between the bedroom, the closets, and the entire bath space just pocket away so the room lives more like a big beautiful suite,” he says. “Our days can be rushed, so an open master becomes a place where a couple can catch up while getting ready instead of sending them off into his and her baths—especially when that could be one of the few times they have to connect on a particularly busy day. By really focusing on one-room living, you take away the additional separation for active families.”
An open floor plan in the master doesn’t mean there has to be a loss of privacy, explains Thee, who says this is where thoughtful design really comes into play.
“Of course, there are some things you’re going to keep behind closed doors...but you could add something like a sliding screen that gives a sense of peek-a-boo privacy to the tub, or set the tub and shower back and have a lounge and dressing space between that and the sleeping area,” he says.
That isn’t to say that some buyers won’t be interested in a more compartmentalized way of living, which may work better for their family’s lifestyle.
“We’ve seen demand for a lot of multi-generational living options in our market,” says Ken Krivanec, president of Bellevue, Wash.-based builder Quadrant Homes. In fact, over half of residential architects in a recent AIA Home Design Trends survey reported that home features that accommodate multi-generational households increased in popularity the most among buyers last year.
“We offer a first-floor bedroom with its own bath that can be used as a guest suite to give residents the ability to have family living there full time or space for frequent visitors,” he adds. Providing this space on the first floor specifically can be key for families that need to accommodate accessibility concerns or an aging family member. “We merchandise it as a flex space that homeowners can modify depending on their lifestyle and needs.”
Consumers are more likely to spring for upgrades in the kitchen than in any other space in the home. Builders say that buyers in their design centers are immediately interested in a few specific kitchen customization options, most importantly quartz countertops, painted cabinets, and backsplash designs with colorful tiles or glass mosaics that allow buyers to customize their space in ways they haven’t thought of themselves. The same goes for product options.
“This is where it’s important to demonstrate to buyers the investment they’ll be making in a feature, because when they interact with a product in a design studio and it’s demonstrated for them, they’re able to see its benefits,” says Meagher. “For example, think about a hands-free kitchen faucet. You might see it in action and say, ‘that would be great if I’m cooking and have raw meat on my hands or the kids are baking and things are messy.’ It’s the kind of thing that a buyer didn’t even think about the uses of, but now has a heightened desire for.”
Designers also recommend adding a special appliance feature to make a kitchen feel a little bit more luxurious, such as a wine fridge, built-in coffee machine, or specialty cooktop feature.
“There is something about featuring wine in every budget that just feels expensive, and feels like you’re treating yourself to something,” says Thee of including wine refrigerators.
Big kitchen islands have always been popular, but one new trend that’s been catching on with buyers is what designers call a “combination island.” Instead of the typical breakfast bar, a table is attached to the island to give the family more gathering space.
“The most courageous decision for buyers is to realize that they don’t need separate breakfast rooms along with dining rooms, because the island is the secondary casual dining space,” says Thee. “With the combination island the space is very informal and open, and a wonderful way for families to still be gathered together even if everyone is doing something different, whether it be homework, cooking dinner, or eating.”
While they may not initially think they need smart home products—or in fact may be opposed to installing them altogether—buyers are interested in the benefits and conveniences that home automation can provide.
“The trends with smart home technology are to save energy, feel safer, be entertained, and worry less about little everyday things like remembering to close the garage,” says Rick Fletcher, vice president of real estate operations at Irvin, Calif.-based MBK Homes.
Home technology will be most attractive to buyers when it’s simple, and designers say it’s one of the features of the home where it’s most important for buyers to see in action to understand its value.
“This is an aspect of the home that really has to be demonstrated,” says Thee. “For every client I have that’s an audiophile, I have more clients that say, ‘Everything works perfectly when our teenager is here, but as soon as we use it ourselves it has to be reset.’ So it has to be easy for homeowners to use.”
There are some simple points of entry for builders to show buyers how smart home features will enhance their daily living experience. Automated lighting controls that allow homeowners to turn lights on or off remotely to save energy, WiFi-connected appliances that can be preheated on the way home from work for a fast weeknight dinner, or smart door locks that can be controlled and monitored from a mobile phone are just a few examples that buyers may not know are simple systems to use.
Other simple additions can make a big difference as well.
“One thing that’s becoming very affordable now are automated window treatments that can open and close with a button or remote from bed,” says Thee. “They used to be fairly expensive, but if you can add them in at least the master bedroom, it’s a simple technology feature that really makes homeowners feel like they’re living in luxury.”
After seeing strong interest from buyers for simple smart home features, Quadrant Homes decided to include a base smart home technology package as standard in all of the company’s new homes. The products touch on the few conveniences that buyers are most interested in, like the ability to double check that the garage door is closed or to remotely access thermostats that help save energy.
“What has really changed the smart home market is app technology because there are so many different things that the lay person can do that aren’t complicated and can be easily checked from a mobile device,” says Fletcher. “If you can introduce your typical buyers to a program that they understand, then they’ll use it and it’ll seem like any other technology. Once they get a taste of it and see it demonstrated to them, they really have a voracious appetite for it.”
Going to the spa is an indulgent experience. With the right bath features, it’s one that you can treat buyers to in their own home. Designers say that creating a luxury, spa-like bathroom with oversized walk-in showers and freestanding tubs will pull in home shoppers.
“Showers keep getting bigger and bigger, and I think buyers really want an oversized shower—the old three-by-five shower size seems insufficient these days,” says Meagher.
Buyers also like functional shower features that add a feeling of comfort, like bench seating, large rain showerheads, built-in shelving or nooks for toiletries, and handheld showerheads with different spray options. Plus, shower features are an upsell opportunity.
“We put operable showers into our design studios because it’s something that has a strong emotional impact on shoppers,” says Meagher. “When you see the performance of the different shower systems, jet sprays, or rainshower in action, it creates a heightened interest beyond buyers deciding on products based on the price.”
The lavish feeling in the bath can be enriched with a large soaking tub.
“A big tub really gives you a relaxing feeling where you’re enjoying the ambiance,” says Thee. “With a small bath you might just sit there for a few minutes and get out, but a big freestanding soaking tub is about treating yourself to an aesthetic of spa-like relaxation.”
Meagher says that if you’re going to offer a tub, buyers are more interested in—and investing more for—a freestanding tub rather than a drop-in one. However, she notes that not every space can hold a large soaking tub, and cramming one in will detract from the design of the room.
“It’s really about thoughtfully creating a space where the tub can shine and make a visual impact as the focal point,” she says.
When space is tight, owners will be happy with only an oversized shower in the master as long as one of the secondary baths has a tub for the kids.
Homeowners are always looking for innovative ways to keep things organized, so the more storage the better.
You can give buyers easy storage upgrades such as pot-and-pan drawers with rollout trays or built-in organizers to keep dishes stacked neatly, shelving in islands, or innovative additions to cabinets to organize spices or other food items.
“I also believe in things that store themselves. For example, you could install a rollout cart in the kitchen, that looks just like a drawer but can be pulled out and used as an additional work space for cooking, or taken out as a bar cart when guests are over,” says Thee. “People love things that are fun to demonstrate so I would always encourage builders to add something that’s interactive to a home.”
Buyers will also be surprised to find storage in unlikely places that are both functional and a design element. At a new community opening in Orange County, Calif., MBK Homes designed a hallway window seat option with built-in storage.
“The window seat will have a pullout drawer and storage bench, which will be a big seller because it offers much more functionality and storage in what would otherwise be just an empty hallway,” says Fletcher.
Storage is sometimes an afterthought for new-home buyers, who might think they can easily trick out their closets after they move in.
“With so many decisions to make in a design studio, buyers probably won’t have the time or energy to sit down and configure a customized closet system,” says Meagher. “What a builder has to do is show easy configuration options and provide a compelling value with a closet system that taps into the need people have for storage and organization. If you can price it competitively and present the value of having the system installed from the day they move in, it’ll sell.”
Fletcher says there are small touches a builder can add to closets that create a more elegant space. “Optioning a woodgrain shelving system instead of white or installing a valet dresser inside the closet with a nice top where homeowners could lay out accessories or jewelry gives them the same kind of luxury experience they get in a five-star hotel in the comfort of their own private space,” he says.
Lighting features are a subtle—and inexpensive—addition that can make a substantial difference. Recessed lighting especially adds a nice touch to some of the most important rooms in the home, like under-cabinet lighting in the kitchen or inside drawers. Beyond the kitchen, other unexpected areas of the home can benefit from simple lighting features.
“We’ve seen a lot of interesting and creative uses of lighting fixtures lately,” says Meagher. “Designers are adding mini pendants in or over nightstands as reading lights, in bath vanities, or as a cluster of small lights in a two-story ceiling.”
While small lighting elements can make a room look extra extravagant, adding them doesn’t have to be complicated.
“It can be as simple as a basic recessed stair light installed every few steps or so that keeps the steps illuminated late at night,” says Thee. “Or, hidden lighting installed under a bathroom vanity lets people see where they’re going if they get up in the middle of the night without having to turn on harsh overhead lights.”
Another place recessed lighting can come into play is in the laundry area.
“Laundry is already a chore, and I often do it at night, so you don’t want to be under a bright, harsh generic light,” says Thee. “It’s nice to have a secondary lighting source in the room that is relaxing, so adding two lighting levels or soft undercabinet lighting makes the experience more soothing.”
Thee adds that lighting is a sellable feature that builders can easily and affordably install.
“A builder could get creative with where to put a small indirect light that just casts a hidden, soft shadow,” Thee adds. “It’s something that buyers probably wouldn’t know to ask for, but would really like once they see it.”
For many of today’s homeowners, pets are part of the family. They can even be a top motivator for new home purchases—according to the 2017 Animal House: Remodeling Impact report, 81% of respondents said that animal-related considerations play a role when deciding on their next living situation.
Realtors surveyed also reported that one-third of their pet-owning clients often or very often will refuse to make an offer on a home because it is not ideal for their animal, so keeping furry friends in mind will go a long way with your buyers.
“Pet amenities just pull on your heartstrings,” says Thee. “People might put in a feature for their dog before they buy an upgrade for themselves.”
Some top features that pet-focused buyers will adore include fenced-in yards, doogie doors, and durable flooring, especially laminate.
While homeowners may not may not need a pet station in their own home, having access to one beats hosing the dog down in the backyard or making a trip to the groomers. Fletcher recommends putting pet washing and grooming stations in clubhouses that can be used by all neighborhood residents.
Outdoor living space has long topped buyer’s list of top home features. A recent quarterly AIA Home Design Trends Survey found that outdoor living space is the most popular special function area in the home. Now it’s up to builders to figure out how to come up with outdoor areas that stand out.
Fletcher says that privacy is what buyers want most in their outdoor spaces, and that compartmentalized or covered patios really entice home shoppers. “It’s important to give buyers some kind of yard space wherever you can fit it in,” he says. “It’s especially important for that space to have some level of privacy.”
MBK Homes specializes in high-density infill projects in California, where giving buyers an outdoor area to enjoy year-round is a priority even when square footage is limited.
“We put in roof decks at many of our properties—where you can do one, putting a water and gas line in and some shade is a real benefit and offers a lot of functionality,” says Fletcher.
At the company’s Ebb Tide project in Newport Beach, Calif., a development of 81 homes, Fletcher says almost every buyer in the community opts for the homes’ rooftop outdoor kitchenette upgrade, which includes a barbeque grill, outdoor refrigerator, cabinet storage, and granite countertops.
Savvy builders are upping their design game beyond the four walls of the home with community amenities that are both functional and unique.
For instance, Fletcher suggests including different kinds of “maker spaces” for residents such as artist studios or bicycle workshops that residents will see themselves using. A shared vegetable or herb garden is another fun feature for owners who may be interested in growing their own food.
Builders around the country are also offering more than just clubhouses and tennis courts, and are amenitizing their community spaces with spas, pop-up restaurants, family game rooms, clubhouse kitchens for cooking classes, walking trails and mountain biking courses, lakes with water sports, and resort-style pools.
Public gathering areas with green spaces are common in most planned communities, but buyers will be impressed by what Fletcher calls “compartmentalized gathering spaces.”
“You used to have big clubhouses with open spaces and those are still popular, but what people really want is an unexpected delight when they’re walking through the neighborhood and find a small covered patio area that has a fire pit, outdoor speakers, and lighting,” he explains. “Even though it’s for public use, it’s a private space where residents can go with a small group of friends or a spouse to hang out or have a glass of wine. They want those spaces they can call their own.”
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