At the start of COVID-19, homebuyers felt uncertain about applying for a mortgage during a time filled with so much uncertainty. Now, as the pandemic and restrictions become more “normal,” we’re seeing demand grow and housing inventories shrink. But, what new homebuyers this year are likely to find are larger houses with smaller kitchens, master baths and garages. They’ll also find fewer models with open floor plans, too, as builders rework their square footage to accommodate home offices, gyms and other specialty rooms. And, buyers will likely have to venture further out from major metros to find what they’re looking for.
Larger Homes for Post-pandemic Buyers
For the last four years, the size of new, single-family houses has been trending downward as builders added entry-level houses to their mix in an effort to boost supply. But, the National Association of Home Builders says its members might reverse course as buyers seek more space as a result of the pandemic, perhaps to accommodate extended families or those aforementioned extra rooms.
Actually, there already are signs of the shift. In this year’s first quarter, the Census Bureau found that the median of single-family floor area ticked up to 2,291 square feet; up from 2,252 in last year’s fourth quarter. But, while a June survey by John Burns Real Estate Consulting found that some recent buyers moved because they disliked the layout of their previous homes, many wanted more space.
Even before the pandemic struck, size was important to many buyers, according to a poll of nearly 1,800 people in late February and early March by Michigan-based builder Lombardo Homes. Price was paramount, of course, but size was more important than the house’s layout, schools or even property taxes.
Moving to the Suburbs is on the Radar
Buyers are likely to find houses with more space in the suburbs, exurbs and distant outposts. Already, the NAHB is seeing construction expand at a more rapid rate in smaller cities and rural areas. Before the pandemic hit full throttle in March, the builder group found activity increasing at a higher rate in inner and outer suburbs than in high-density places. And while the pace of construction was increasing everywhere prior to the lockdown, the outlying suburbs registered the strong growth.
The Rise of the Home Office
What is the extra space likely to look like? With the movement to work from home, count on more square footage for a home office, whether it be a room dedicated as such or a converted extra bedroom. “For years, people were scared of working from home,” said one Urban Land Institute member during a recent digital happy hour. “Now they are seeing it can and does work.”
The same goes for employers, who have since discovered their workers can be just as productive working from home, if not more so. More and more companies are joining the likes of Twitter, American Express and Morgan Stanley, all of which have told their employees they can work from home, either through the end of the year or forever. “Some companies,” offers Tim Sullivan of Meyers Research, “may never go back to office space.” Families also need space for children or college students who are learning for home. Only 17% of parents feel prepared for the upcoming school year, so a home office is important for those families to best feel ready for fall semesters.
Studies by the NAHB have shown that many buyers have always wanted an home office. In a 2018 survey, for example, 65% said it was a key feature on their shopping lists, and the builder group says that percentage is likely to grow.
The Forgotten About Home Gym
Another strong possibility: An in-house gym, or certainly at least a dead-end hallway that has been dubbed the “Peloton® room” where an exercise bike can be parked. Of course, there’s “only a finite amount of space” with which builders can work before the cost of their products becomes prohibitive, Dan DiClerico of HomeAdvisor points out. Consequently, he and others believe there will be a major “redistribution of space” in newer models.
The End of the Open Floor Plan?
Younger buyers, in particular, “displayed a clear preference for flexible spaces in their next home” in the latest national survey by Atlanta-based home builder Ashton Woods.
“Instead of rooms dedicated to just one purpose, home buyers now want a living, breathing floor plan that can flex as their lives change,” says Jay Kallos, the firm’s senior vice president for architecture. “They want it to adapt easily for when they’re newlyweds, starting a family, becoming empty nesters and even inviting family back into the home later in life with aging parents or boomerang kids.”
Spacious kitchens going forward could be less so. “Fewer people are going to want the great big open rooms that include the kitchen, with more now wanting the kitchen to return to having some separation to hide the smells, mess and noise,” suggests Bill Ramsey of the Denver architectural firm, KTGY.
Big master bathrooms also could become smaller, too. And builders may be taking space from large garages. Even though most people don’t park their vehicles in their garages, two-car pads are the norm nowadays. Nearly two out of three new houses sold in 2019 had two-car garages, and 19% had three bays or more.
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