What Home Buyers Really Want

September 23, 2013 — 37 Comments

I am an architect who designs – among other things – residential projects for a fairly upscale clientele. I might be a rung or two down for the very top, but I generally have a crack at designing homes that fall in the $2-$5 million dollar range. That’s not the only range I work in, I have examples of $150k projects, and I have done a projects in my past that have approached $10M … something in there for almost everyone. Out of all these houses, probably 99% of them have been for actual clients and not for the speculative home building market – and I’m fairly glad that’s the case because as much as I like to design awesome projects, I generally prefer awesome clients. I said all that as a preface to this post because I am writing today’s article in reaction to reading a survey published earlier this year from NAHB (National Associated of Home Builders) titled “Top 10 Features for Upscale Homes” prepared by Paul Emrath, Ph.D. I read these sorts of articles – even though they aren’t geared towards me as a client-based service provider, because I think its important that I know what’s going on in the marketplace … I like to call it “learning.”

Bennet Kitchen by Michael Malone Architects

This report was basically a survey that asked buyers to rate about a ba-jillion different features on a prepared list of items (windows, doors, kitchens, baths, specialty rooms, etc.) and mark them as either “Essential/Must Have,” “Desirable,” “Indifferent,” or “do not want.” The items on the list are not features strongly demanded by all home buyers, but rather luxury items that you might typically expect to find in an upscale home (identified as over $500,000). Got it?

So what exactly are some of the “Top 10 Features for Upscale Homes?”

#10 Game Rooms – rooms that were specific to recreational activities like playing pool or “table top” games. 34% of respondents felt that a game room was “desirable/essential.”

#8 An Exercise Room – a room dedicated to exercise, often outfitted with a treadmill, weights, or other specific type of equipment. 48% of respondents felt that an exercise room was “desirable/essential.”

#7 A Wet Bar – a room with a sink whose sole purpose is dedicated to the mixing and serving of beverages. This feature registered a surprising 42% of respondents who felt is was “desirable/essential.”

#5 Two-story Foyer – I was surprised to see this on the list, unless it exists here because the assumption is that “Upscale Homes” are two-story structures. Of all the items that I associate with the ubiquitous generic market data-based spec home, the two-story foyer ranks right up at the top of the list – bracketed by “half-moon windows” and “turrets.” 39% of respondents felt that this was must have stuff, while *92% of architects thought two-story foyers should be outlawed.

#4 An Outdoor Kitchen – Now we’re cooking! While this space could be as simple as an area permanently dedicated to grilling, it could also be a more substantial area that includes sink, refrigerator, cabinetry and specialty lighting. 49% of surveyors felt this was an appropriate feature to include in a home costing more than $500,000 and we here at Life of an Architect think this number should be higher (maybe the survey was taken in summer when the temperature was like 110 degrees outside?)

#3 Kitchen with a Wine Cooler – Obviously if you don’t drink this item wouldn’t have much value. Personally, I don’t consider this to be an Upscale Home feature, it is an every-home sort of feature considering that the costs of under-counter wine refrigerators and beverage stations have been coming down in cost the last few years.

#2 Two-story Family Room – What?!? Seriously … what is the deal with two-story spaces?? The report didn’t specify (at least not anywhere I could find) what height defined a “two-story” space. We do a lot of heightened rooms which have taller ceilings in them (for the method to my madness read Ceiling Heights & Scoreboard) so I’m not generally against rooms with elevated ceilings. If you have a bigger room, it only makes sense for it to have a taller ceiling, otherwise it will feel like the basement level of a community church. (Hot dish not included) 32% of respondents who felt is was “desirable/essential.”

#1 Kitchen with a Warming Drawer – Okay … warming drawers are nice but top billing? I suppose the things that separates warming drawers out from the pack and puts them on the upscale home wish list is that you don’t really need them and they take up space that is typically at a premium unless you have a gargantuan kitchen (or two kitchens). 42% of respondents who felt is was “desirable/essential.”

Did you find that an inspiring list of features? No, I didn’t either.

Now – the real objective of me pointing out some of the items that are on the list of “What Home Buyers Really Want” is that there is an underlying theme to these items. Did you notice what sort of things were missing from this list? Things like “triple paned glazing” in windows, or “upgraded electrical service” … What about “Super awesome dishwashers”? No … the reason people didn’t vote to get these items on the list of upscale home features is that those items don’t convey Lifestyle.

A few years ago I was helping a contractor buddy of mine renovate a home he was planning on selling. This house was probably in the $2M dollar range and we were having a conversation about the kitchen appliance package. He wanted to put two dishwashers in (there was plenty of room) and I thought that was a mistake, he obviously needed to put in a wine fridge. I tried to use my favorite teaching method, the “narrative” to explain why I was right

[scene – couple walking through a house that’s just been placed on the market for $2.2 million]

Her: Oooo, look at this kitchen, it’s gorgeous!

Him: Wow. That is a nice kitchen … You can see the TV while standing at the island!

Her: O. M. G. Look at that – there’s two – TWO – dishwashers. Think of how fast we can get the dishes done!

Him: Totally fast … this is a dream come true.

[and scene]

Okay … that conversation would almost never happen. Maybe if the Brady Bunch moved in and they brought Alice along with them and actually asked her what she thought about two dishwashers. now imagine that same scene with a wine refrigerator:

Her: Oooo, look at this kitchen, it’s gorgeous!

Him: Wow. That is a nice kitchen … you can see the TV while standing at the island.

Her: O. M. G. Look at that .. that’s a nice dishwash … WAIT – it’s also got a wine refrigerator!! We would be so popular and everybody would think we were such generous and gracious dinner hosts. Our dinner parties would be so much more amazing!

Him: Totally amazing … this is a dream come true.

[and scene … and home sale]

Okay, maybe there was some hyperbole there on my part, but I still think that the things that people see and get excited about have more to do with their ability to project their lives into a particular lifestyle. Do you think people ask their Realtor “Uhm, what the spacing on the studs? Is it 16″ or 24″ on center?” Nobody asks that question because the people who don’t know, don’t think to ask those sorts of questions, they tend to keep things a bit more surface oriented and aesthetic.

When I sit down with a client to work through the programming on their new home, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out “how” they live, not necessarily “how they want” to live.  I also think that I am better at my job when I am able to get personal with my client along the way – it makes it easier to help them set priorities that will make the difference between a house that fits the way they will really use it instead of how they think they will use it. The items on the list of “What Home Buyers Really Want” when it comes to luxury amenities are all a result of how successfully people are able to project themselves into that environment with those particular amenities. Who imagines how their life would be improved with triple-paned windows (other than the people who live in Minnesota?)

At any rate, I read these sorts of articles because at some very rudimentary level it allows me to keep my finger on the pulse of the “average” consumer. I wasn’t too surprised by the findings and with a little bit of effort from your friendly neighborhood design professional, most of these items would show up in your project because it was appropriate for the project type, scale and budget.


Bob Borson signature

*this is an unsubstantiated claim/value determined by Life of an Architect staff members but we still think it’s “need to know information”



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  • Rocso

    Two-draw dish washers are popular in this country (Australia), although I’m not entirely sure why. I suspect it keeps the dirty stuff out of the sink during the small (ha!) window of time after the wash cycle and emptying, so that it doesn’t ever get an opportunity to go feral.

    Generally on the survey overall, money does not equal style. I know this even though I have neither.

  • Aquapura

    I’m a commerical Architect and can’t really comment on what home buyers want other than some moonlighting adventures I had years ago. That said it kills me to go inside middle income spec type homes that my friends are buying and see all the cut corners on things that are important. Things like floor finishes or countertops can be changed relatively easily, windows not so much, but I see plenty of granite countertops next to the cheapest of cheapest vinyl slider window that can be had at Home Depot for $100. Aaargh!
    On my own home I’m slowly working my way around replacing the 1960’s vintage windows. Yes, it’s painful to spend up to $1000 an opening but I know I’m getting a quality triple pane product from a reputable national brand that will last 50 years + like the windows I’m replacing. (BTW I do live in Minnesota.) After recently having sticker shock on a quote I asked the rep what type of homes these are usually going into, he said $1M+. Guess on more limited budgets people want “everyday” luxury that their friends will notice.

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  • Mark Mc Swain

    Now, one of the reasons I’m not part of NAHB anymore is that their 80% (closer to 98%) focus is upon, for, and with large tract builders.
    All of whom cleave to the myth of “resale value.” The changes in the market over the last few decades, and particularly since 2008, have reduce the number of turn-key buyers to a small minority. Yet, “everyone” knows you can only ‘do’ to your house those things that do not hurt its “resale value.”

    The RE people do not much help dash this absurdity, either. Their own data suggests that house, on (a very loose) average change hands about every 6-7 years (now stretched to 9 to 11 since 2008). One need merely consider what was “in” in multiples of that turn rate. Let us consider the “must haves” of 12 or 18 years ago. Most of those things are “tear-outs” now.
    Even if one installs the current chic/hip items, there are so many choices that a wrong decision is far more likely than a right one.
    Consider only counter tops. Corian, Avonite, quartz, glass, concrete; stome; tile; etc.–even if you guess the right product, you then have to guess the right color. And, this is a thousand(s) sort of guess, not hundreds. Right when you are relocating. What to tell the home-owner? Choise what _you_ like.
    But, I could be biased.

  • Mark Mc Swain

    When you ask certain appliance questions matters, too. You survey people from, oh, 25 Nov to 15 Jan–you will see a lot of folks keen on warming drawers and multiple dishwashers. Only natural after they have invited 15, 16, 25 people over in a spec house that really barely has capacity for 7 or 8.

    However, for a different 2 cents’ families of 8 or more, especially multi-generational ones, as prime candidates for warming drawers and multiple d/w. They also need (and not as an upgrade option) a butler’s pantry (which is an excellent location for a second-servingware–d/w, which can balance the base cabinet run for having the wine/undercounter fridge to the opposite hand).

  • Archiworm

    Ya hit it on the head once again! Excellent post… and fitting because I too read that same article and shook my head. Unfortunately though, I had to take a job with a big builder “the whose name we do not speak” and honestly, it’s a joke. I don’t want to bash the place that signs my paycheck, but as a person who likes to consider himself as a ‘designer,’ I’ve got a huge gripe with the whole “builder defined luxury” thing that’s going on. Two story foyer…AND living room??? ::facepalm:: Although I am doing what I can to mix things up here and get the ‘architects’ of this place to take responsibility for their ‘products’.. just be assured that there are trying to take them down from the inside!

    • It’s anarchy!!

      Keep fighting the good fight, I’ll say a prayer for you are your co-workers

    • Mark Mc Swain

      My other non-fave from that market is blanket use of raised ceiling heights. Was detailing casework last week for a house that had been “upgraded” to 144″ ceilings. So, all three first floor bathrooms had toilet spaces ranging from 34″ to 52″ wide, 5′ to 7′ in length, and all with 12′ ceilings. That 42″ tall “headknocker” cabinet over the toilet looked very lonely in elevation–not something the AIBD ‘certifed’ designer’s 2D thinking ciphered out.

      About $40 in 2x and 0.5m/d in labor each would have furred those ceilings to a much more humane 96″ cleing height–which would be more than offset by the savings in drywall and paint.

  • Dan Jansenson

    Over the years I’ve grown to be very skeptical of NAHB (and other industry) lists of what customers want. This research is generally oriented toward the mass-housing market, and the results are averages obtained from customer surveys taken when potential customers visit these developments. For custom home design, it is extremely difficult to make broad predictions–not only because of the custom nature of the work (meaning individually different to each client), but also because micro-markets have their own shared values and preferences that may not be reflected in the larger survey. Houses I’ve done in Beverly HIlls, CA, have often had very different requirements from projects I’ve done in Santa Monica. The populations are different, along with everything else.

    So while this kind of survey is interesting, in a voyeuristic kind of way, it has little applicability to custom residence design, I feel.

    • I would tend to agree. In Dallas there is a HUGE spec home market and we compete against them for clients. With the spec homes there is a “Get it now” mentality that sometimes makes the client think that 2 years is way to long to go through the design, documentation and construction process. I can tell them all day long that it’s worth it but sometimes … I lose.

      • Mark Mc Swain

        [humor]That is no way to talk about people who think that $2.50/sf is “premium” design rates [twisted smile]

  • Maybe I’ve missed the bus, is “office” and “media room” so engrained now as to be assumed to be essential like “master bedroom” and “garage”? Or do we just work mobile and watch TV in every room? Sounds like a good opportunity for a group think checklist…

    • Based on what I see in my practice, there are TV’s everywhere and the luxury upgrade would be a home theater. The number of dedicated offices isn’t going done in quantity but the square footage dedicated to these spaces is reducing.

      Sound like an interesting project – the group think checklist.

  • Karen

    I thought #6 and #9 were deliberately left out to be discussed at the end…what happened to 6 and 9? Enquiring minds would like to know 🙂

    • They were:
      #9 Living on a Golf Course, and
      #6 Elevator

      I had no comments other than a shoulder shrug on those two items.

      • Robert Moore

        I talked to a couple this weekend looking for a house(they don’t have the time to build), and what most impressed them about the house they looked at was the elevator! I couldn’t say anything.

        • Brandon Smith

          A client several moons ago approached me about installing an elevator in their house…. for the maid.

      • Mark Mc Swain

        Sadly, we all need to start plugging in accessibillity into our design toolboxes.
        This not only because we have a population surge in persons with money to buy house who are also planning ahead for decreased mobility. But, because, as that population peaks, the AHJ will begin to mandate the sorts of accessibilities that are only optional now.
        I routinely reserve 8 x 10 in DD, and 5 x 7 in SD in any multi-level residential design. Stair designs are planned for blocking & vhair lifts. Accessible bathroom design sizing is almost second-nature for me from commercial design.
        This can require artifice–things like aligning “storage” closets; sketching in bookcase runs down hallways, and so on. Fifteen, twenty years from now, being able to waiden a hallway 12″ in a simple step will win praise.

        • Alie Peters

          Your first word, “sadly”, should be replaced with “hopefully”. My husband and I are in the process of designing and building a wheelchair accessible home for our very nice and friendly child. There are very few homes we could purchase that we could even modify to meet our needs. Universal design benefits everyone. For wounded veterans, expectant mothers on bed rest with complicated twin pregnancies (increasingly common with in vitro fertilization), people carrying in groceries, aging parents, our own future mobility…you get the picture. I’m glad you prepare a home to easily be retrofitted and wish others did, too. Another feature to include is visitability-one stairless entry, wider doorways and reinforced bathroom walls. Developers around here claim people want the obstacle-laden stuff they build, but I think people choose from what’s available.

  • Mark Wilson

    Hey, bob. Be suspicions anytime you see these lists that involve outdoor kitchens. I also work in a similar demographic, and in the last ten years (roughly 50 homes) have schemed a total of three outdoor kitchens. One project actually went to construction docs and is getting built, and that’s on a house with a 2 story foyer with flanking turrets :). I think the outdoor kitchen phenonmena is based on HGTV crashing something and the high end grill and equipment company’s publicity and internet marketing efforts building interest to the point that the consumer thinks, “yea, I gotta get me one-a them”. I’m not sure many outdoor kitchens get built. Here in a very temperate climate with an emphasis on outdoor living, for people who have the budget for such things, there’s just a paucity of actual builds. The reality is that unless you actually do already enjoy outdoor living, then you probably won’t spend actual money on it. Do you think a similar concept reins on the rest of the list?

    • Monkey See, Monkey Do? No question.

      I do a fair amount of outdoor kitchens – I’d almost go so far as to say a vast majority of our projects have some sort of outdoor living area that generally includes a grilling area. While they aren’t totally blown out kitchens, they generally include a grill, sink, and an under-counter fridge.

      • Mark Mc Swain

        As a person who cooks, and cooks outdoors, these spaces concern me. For one, we really do not know whay sort of longevity any of this will have. In the construction, I see far too much reliance on thinfs like mortar and grout being 100% waterproof.

        But, I also have a bias–I cook outdoors so as to not heat up the kitchen & house; the food comes indoors into the a/c to be eaten.

    • Brandon Smith

      First and foremost you have to think about geographical locations. Being a Southern Californian I’d say half of our meals cooked at home are cooked outside simply because we have the weather to support it. Now a house in Rhode Island? Well… that’s a different story.

  • Besides echoing what Kelly & John said, it would be interesting if they broke these down based on geographic area – I can easily see how the “two-story” items made the list based on many areas of the country, while in your neck of the woods, etc… it probably wouldn’t break into the top 30. Nice piece as always Bob & you nailed it in one – what is your lifestyle

    • Seeing a geographic breakdown would add another layer of information to this value of this list – that’s for sure.

      My lifestyle doesn’t rate on this list (although I would love to add a wine fridge to my own house) Kinda surprised I don’t already have one …

    • Dan Jansenson

      In my area (L.A.), during the Nineties, the double-height entry was often called a Lawyer Foyer. That’s entered the lexicon now, along with Costco Closet.

  • Lynne Knowlton

    You had me at wine cooler.

    Just sayin’ 🙂

    I need to move to your neck of the woods. I like how you think.

    Cheers obi-wan-kanobi,
    Lynne xx

    • contrary to what NAHB likes to think, we prefer the term “wine refrigerators” in my office, wine coolers has a “Bartles & Jaymes” ring to it …

      “we thank you for your continued support”

      as long as you have one, I suppose it doesn’t matter what you call them

      • Lynne Knowlton

        I am in 100 % support of the ‘wine refrigerator’ and not ‘cooler’.

        *inserts more coffee* before hitting comment button.

        I need to be more AWAKE when I consider words. xx

        Cheers! and Happy Monday to you.

        • cooler was their word – you were just keeping the semantics in place.

          *maybe I should consider drinking coffee*

  • John Nicholas

    Bob, Great Article! Too many sellers assume that people want in their home the things they sell. Windows, Beams, Dishwashers etc. What people really want is something else. It may relate to their current life, it may involve some changes. The trick is defining what current and improved are and then finding the lowest common denominator.

    I would suggest the feelings of comfort, space, relaxing, safety, and familiarity would be essential to this process. My grandmother would define relaxing as a 7 course dinner with friends, fine china and the ladies wearing hats with veils and gloves. So we need to keep in mind the definitions of the homeowner.

    The things people sell such as windows, Beams and dishwashers enable the homeowner to feel the impact on the issues they deem important.

    • I wouldn’t disagree but determining what dialog to have and with whom is really at the heart of this list. Everything about this list screams lowest common denominator … but that’s the lowest common denominator on a $500,000 and up home.

  • Kelly M

    Interesting list. (You should see my face at the moment. Or maybe not.) I wish homeowners would get excited about windows, beams, et al. but as you say, projection.

    Er, I should point out in my world, your first and second conversations aren’t too far off from what I’m seeing. It’s simply that the double dishwashers are usually paired with two sinks, a wine refrigerator, steam oven, a microwave drawer unit, integrated refrigerator, under-counter refrigerator drawers, the built-in coffee maker, and yes, the warming drawer.

    Currently working on a games room as we speak, although there is more of
    a desire for a sound-proof area for the kids to play in than actual
    games rooms.

    • We don’t get too many requests for “game rooms” as a room dedicated to playing games but we do see requests for 2nd living areas (we call them family rooms – a bit of a throwback nod) These are the rooms where you would play games but it’s real function is that it’s the room that gets destroyed while the “other” living room remains presentable at the front of the house.

      I don’t mind two dishwasher’s as long as the programming supports it. Your standard sized kitchen would benefit more from one DW and one Wine fridge a bit more I would think. If there was space to do a Butler’s Pantry, we sometimes put the second dishwasher in that space so it can act as a makeshift catering kitchen whenever you have a heavy washing period.

      • Dan Jansenson

        In my area (westside L.A.) double dishwashers are a frequent request; either because of religious reasons, or because even higher-income folks who could afford household help can see the workflow improvements that result in their own kitchens.