By Jeffrey Steele, Special to the Tribune
March 4, 2011
It wasn't too long ago that buyers looked at a new home and pondered whether they would flip it in two, maybe three, years. Today, the questions are different.
If we have kids, can we use that home office as a baby's room? Can the family room be turned into a children's playroom? Will the first-floor den work 10 years from now as an in-law suite? Can we rough in some plumbing in the basement, in case our grade schooler is a "boomerang" child after college?
Now that the whole idea of flipping has flopped, today's buyers are thinking not in the short-term range, but in the 10-to-15-year range, said John Wozniak, president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Chicago and J. Lawrence Homes of Wheaton.
"People thought the economy would continue to boom, but today they're not sure it always will," he said. "So they're planning ahead for family needs that might include the kids moving back after college or the in-laws eventually moving in with them."
After outgrowing a one-bedroom condo in the West Loop, Mike and Trinity Haynes focused on buying a home that would grow with them. Last year, the parents of a 2-year-old bought a three-bedroom town home at Lexington Square in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood. The couple plan to turn their home office into a bedroom in a couple of years and repurpose a family room.
"We're thinking of making it into a playroom for Molly, and then possibly a bedroom for relatives who visit," said Trinity Haynes.
Several factors are reinforcing decisions to buy for the long haul, including a sluggish housing market, financial considerations, growing children, adult children moving back home, accommodating the needs of elderly parents and the "aging in place" concept.
Anticipating the future needs of your family at the design stage allows you to stay in your home and neighborhood longer. Here's a blueprint for buying a home that will adapt to life's stages without major renovations down the road.
Study the floor plan carefully. At Northbrook-based FGH Architects, President Jeff Harting sees more clients asking for "life houses." They're 30 or 40 years old and want a comfortable home they can stay with for the next 35 years, "but not one that's going to feel like an empty hotel after the kids leave," he said.
Harting's team designs such a home around a central core comprising living and dining room, kitchen, mudroom, home office and a single bedroom, with compact, efficient connections.
"We typically create a second, back staircase leading to kids' wings and kids' bathrooms, bedrooms and play areas," he said. "When the kids leave, you're still left with a more compact home, so that remaining occupants don't feel they're walking around an empty house."
Many of the homes have elevators, used now for convenience and later to help older residents get around.
"That allows it to be a life house," Harting said. "It can be for a young family, growing family, shrinking family or aging family."
Think smaller, more flexible. J. Lawrence Homes, with communities in Wadsworth, Joliet, Lynwood and North Aurora, used to offer homes of up to 4,000 square feet, but finds today's buyers want 2,500- to 2,900-square-foot homes.
"Not everyone is buying a four-bedroom house anymore," Wozniak said. "Many are focusing on three bedrooms. We offer quite a few three-bedrooms with lofts that can accommodate many functions."
For instance, first-floor dens can become bedrooms, home offices or some other form of flex space as family needs dictate, he said. The second-floor loft can start out as a kids' playroom, then become the video game room, the family entertainment center, a home office or a homework center for kids.
Size up the basement. One secret of finding a home that will grow is to consider the height of the basement ceiling, said Court Airhart, president of West Chicago-based Airhart Construction, building single-family and town homes in West Chicago, Wheaton, Winfield, Woodridge and Lisle. A higher, 9-foot ceiling allows a basement to become flex space and offers far more functionality.
"That will accommodate the build-out of a bedroom or perhaps a teen's recreation area," Airhart said. "That height makes the space feel so much better. And you can always rough in plumbing in the basement, then build a bathroom down there when you need it in the future."
Universal design. Incorporate user-friendly design features such as a stairless front entryway, walk-in showers and lever door handles that make a home safer, accessible and more comfortable for everyone — young and old.
Open floor plans. Buyers aren't looking long term at just single-family homes. They're also viewing condos and town homes that way. At Lexington Homes' town houses in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood and Des Plaines, and soon Palatine and Prospect Heights, "we're opening up floor plans, where kitchens are not separate rooms anymore," Executive Vice President Jeff Benach said.
"They flow into the family or great rooms," he said. "That opens it up to accommodate different morning patterns. With the kitchen open, you can adapt those patterns as family needs change."
Many families buying Lexington's Bridgeport town homes are drawn to the flexibility of first-floor family rooms next to the garages, Benach said.
"A lot of people are looking to make that family room into a full master suite as their needs change down the line. ... We offer rough-ins for a bathroom down there, so they can easily build a full bath when they need a master suite."
Loft living. Airhart, like Harting, sees elevators as a key to homes morphing over time. At his Courthouse Square row houses in Wheaton, buyers have the option of a third floor with general loft space, and an elevator option.
With a 750-square-foot apartment in the loft, accessible by elevator, "we've had from 'bounce back' kids to parents living there," Airhart said.
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