Smart Money Magazine's Cover Story The Comfort Craze By Jim Rendon Published: April 17, 2006 As the housing market cools down, home renovators are focusing on pampering themselves instead of pleasing real estate agents. Call it "remodeling for me." In This Stor y: The Family Spread Colossal Kitchens Masterful Bathrooms Massive Bedrooms Outdoor Living Building Under the Stars Also See: Financing That Remodeling Project IN A GATED BATON ROUGE subdivision of neocolonial houses, Keith Cox's place stands out — because an entire wing is covered in building wrap. But when he walks through those half-completed rooms, Cox sees beyond the sawdust and exposed pipes to what's taking shape: a lavish tribute to family and comfort. He talks excitedly about the chef's kitchen with a 20-quart pot for crawfish and gumbo he'll store in an ergonomic sliding cabinet. He gushes about the vaulted-ceiling family room, where his three children will do homework and, more often, do battle on the Xbox. And his fantasies wander outdoors, too: Cox daydreams about spring afternoons, when he'll not only cook at his elaborate outdoor grill station, but sink a few balls on his own private putting green. "I want this to be the place where the kids b ring their friends," he says. Not long ago homeowners like Cox might have been more interested in impressing real estate agents than in pleasing their teenagers. After all, when real estate prices were booming, a wannabe Bob Vila couldn't so much as replace a soap dish without giving some thought to how the project would increase his home's value. But if there's an upside to today's cooling housing market, it's this: Folks who want to remodel are free to focus on themselves. There's "a desire to have something no one else has, to customize, to make the home their own," says Vince Butler, chairman of the Remodelors Council for the National Association of Home Builders. And in doing so, families are turning their homes into plush gathering places full of crea ture comforts. Call it "remodeling for me." In some ways, this new quest for the nest is reshaping the home itself. Kitchens are getting bigger, filling up with fixtures designed to make cooking as convenient as possible for amateur chefs. Those kitchens n ow open onto couch-potato-friendly family rooms where socializing, homework and TV all happen at once. And the nesting impulse means more than sledgehammers meeting walls: It's in the details, manifesting itself in everything from plush sectional sofas to spa-style multiple-head showers. Best not to dwell too long on the topic of heated toilet seats, but sales of one company's bun-warmers were up 20% in 2005. The movement has also spilled to the outdoors, where the whole idea seems to be forgetting that you 've left the house. The humble barbecue now sits alongside refrigerators and storage space, so grill -masters won't face too many trips to and from the kitchen. And some homeowners are even erecting entire new buildings outdoors — from pavilions with fireplaces to $50,000 tree houses — where a weekend warrior can nap without worrying about sunburn or summer showers. This comfort splurge is actually happening during a slowdown for remodeling in general. In 2005 home - improvement spending rose just 4%, to $149.5 billion, after averaging annual growth of 9% between 2000 and 2004, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. But the focus of that spending is shifting in revealing ways. Take a look, for example, at bathroom renovations, a remodeling c ategory that consistently adds a lot to resale value. Although there are still plenty of bathroom makeovers under way, overall spending has bogged down. At the same time spending on outdoor projects — those great enablers of lazy afternoons — has soared, rising by 47% in 2004 to $21 billion, according to the Census Bureau. Meanwhile, changing tastes are making waves in the aisles at Home Depot. The huge home -improvement chain saw double-digit earnings and revenue growth in 2004 and 2005, and some of its big gest sales surges are in high-end product lines that help homeowners pamper themselves. Elaborate barbecue grills and restaurant-quality kitchen appliances are claiming more and more shelf space, and last fall Home Depot launched 10 Crescent Lane, a spinoff retailer that sells plush furnishings like wicker armchairs and $1,500 outdoor loveseats. Indulgence for the id doesn't come cheap. Some popular renovations require the rerouting of plumbing and electrical wires — costly jobs fraught with hassles. The increasingly popular natural-stone patio can run $25 a square foot, more than double the cost of concrete, turning even a modest project into a $10,000 endeavor. And some in-demand amenities are energy suckers, which can hurt homeowners in an era of $60-a-barrel oil and climbing natural-gas prices. All the more reason to choose carefully when putting together your home wish list. That's where we come in: We've polled designers, architects and other experts about projects in six different areas inside and outs ide the house. Here, we catalog the perks, drawbacks and costs of expanding your home's comfort zone. Page 2 of 8) The Family Spread For evidence of the growing comfort craze, look no further than the growing American living room. Traditionally, most homes were built around a series of smaller spaces, including a formal dining room and living room that might showcase the family's best furniture but didn't get much everyday use. Today, however, comfort trumps formality, and in new upscale homes, formal rooms rarely get built: Instead, open- plan family rooms are the hub of the house. "We've started building homes for people who entertain more, where people can spread out but still see each other," explains Kevin Scott, vice president of architecture and design at national homebuilder Centex, whose family rooms in newer floor plans are more than 60% larger than traditional living rooms. "There is a whole lot more of that now than ever before." And not just in new homes: Plenty of homeowners are adding elbow ro om without changing addresses. The '70s-era home of Cindy and Hampton Oberle in Annandale, Va., had all the hallmarks of the decade: low ceilings, tiny rooms. "The whole layout was chopped up," Hampton recalls. So last year, down came the walls. Now the centerpiece of the home is a spacious family room with a 12-foot ceiling, a space that swallows up the smaller, fussier formal dining room. While the television serves as an anchor, it doesn't dominate: Visitors feel just as comfortable eating or chatting as they do watching a big game. Thanks to spaces like these, media rooms — where TV watchers are isolated from the rest of the family — are falling out of fashion. Homeowners are finding that they can squeeze more entertainment equipment into their family rooms, thanks to the flat-screen-TV revolution. The average prices of plasma and LCD sets fell 25% in 2005, while the number of sets sold rose by 80%, to 5.1 million. When Don Dillon remodeled his Scottsdale, Ariz., home, out went the bulky living-room media center. In its stead he has a 60-inch wall- mounted plasma TV. Granted, there's one challenge that even a big family room can't eliminate: Figuring out where to hide the increasingly elaborate — and usually unsightly — components of the rest of the audio- video system. Dillon wound up building an extra pantry off the garage where he could stow the gear, but there are less extreme options. Furniture retailer Drexel Heritage, for example, has seen a big increase in sales of low, sleek media centers that show off the television but hide the DVD player and wiring. Meanwhile, with more homeowners eating lasagna in the same room where they watch Lost, furniture makers are ensuring that more of their products can, well, multitask. Crate & Barrel's bestselling sectional sofa, for example, is covered in stain-resistant microfiber suede. "You can't use something fragile in a space where everyone lives all the time," says Michelle Wempe, residential forum adviser for the International Interior Design Association. Another kind of multitasking is also invading the living room. As wireless home networks become more popular and easier to install, telecommuters who used to huddle in a spare room with their bulky PCs and tangled cables are now untethered and free to join their families. That has made home offices, in general, less popular: In 2005 the average home-office remodeling job recouped only 73% of its cost, the least of any type of renovation, according to Remodeling magazine's "Cost vs. Value Report." But think careful ly before you bulldoze your own workspace. If you frequently find yourself putting the finishing touches on quarterly reports from your home laptop, you may not want to share a room with two tweens going head -to-head at Madden NFL 2006. (Page 3 of 8) Colossal Kitchens Today's kitchens aim to pamper home chefs as much as their family rooms pamper their guests. The kitchen itself offers more elbow room: In new homes, the amount of counter space alone has expanded more than 50% in the past decade, according to The Freedonia Group, a market-research firm. Meanwhile, inspired by celebrity chefs and the Food Network, homeowners continue to flock to shiny accoutrements of the professional kitchen, like high-end commercial stoves. New-home buyers are no different. Last year KB Home saw spending on appliance upgrades grow by 40%. If that trend leaves you skeptical, you're not alone. "People think that if they had a nice kitchen they'd be like Julia Child," says Vince Butler of the National Home Builders Association. "Is that the truth, or is this the Jacuzzi tub of our day?" In fact, a smart, functional layout can be a better investment than fancy gadgetry. As trivial as it may sound, much of the physical strain of cooking comes from carrying food and crockery from p oint A to point B: Shorten that journey, and cooking will feel less like work and more, well, comfortable. So architects are working to minimize the distance from sink to refrigerator to stove. In laying out his "dream kitchen," Keith Cox, who has a mania for Cajun cooking, worked with his architect, Kevin Harris, to ensure that he wouldn't expend too much energy running from one end to the other. He invested in a warming drawer, a $900 appliance that keeps finished dishes warm while the rest of the meal is cooking. He also has a vegetable sink on his kitchen island — again, saving steps. And the cabinets all have sliding drawers so that he can find his stockpots without having to fish around for them. Some folks seeking simpler projects are transforming their kitchens by reworking their islands. It's not uncommon to find islands that measure 5 by 10 feet — bigger than some apartment dwellers' entire kitchens. Renovators are adding natural-stone counters, whose sales have risen more than threefold since 1999. Many are using unusual materials like limestone flecked with fossils — hardly the kind of move you make when you're thinking about flipping your home, says Jennifer Mapes, an analyst at Freedonia. (Page 4 of 8) Masterful Bathrooms Every workday at 5 a.m ., electric heating pads click to life under the tiles of Robert Tardiff's master bathroom. An hour later, when he and his wife begin their day, the floor is toasty and inviting: "You can walk around in your bare feet without getting jolted from the cold," he says. Of course, a pair of fleece slippers would have been cheaper — installing a heated floor in an average-size bathroom starts at $1,500. But it was only the beginning for the Tardiffs. When they remodeled the space in their Vienna, Va., home, they put in Italian tile, a skylight and cherry cabinets. Their shower is the highlight: Surrounded on three sides by a custom glass enclosure, with eight jets that spray water from all directions, it's a little oasis of spa luxury. "We went top drawer across the board," Tardiff gushes. Recognizing that every da y includes substantial time in the bathroom, more homeowners are treating it like a refuge. Natural stone tile, prized for its irregular, customized look, is edging out less expensive material. Heated towel bars are in demand, to go with those heated floors. And the Japanese firm Toto is building a new factory in Me xico devoted to heated toilet seats — just to meet American demand. Multijet showers like the Tardiffs' fall into the same, self-indulgent vein, with costs for materials running between $6,000 and $10,000. But be prepared to pay an even bigger price for the luxury, because these showers are hot-water hogs, says Everett Collier, president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. Th e y typically use 15 gallons per minute — at least six times as much as a low-flow shower head. When Fredda Lerner installed a six-jet spa shower, she was surprised to learn that she also needed a new water heater — potentially a $2,000 job — to handle the load. And with natural gas so expensive, she's keeping that heater turned down low, which means she has to remember to crank it up every time she wants to use all the jets. (Thank goodness she really, really likes the shower.) There's a cheaper and lower-maintenance alternative for bathroom luxury: the good old-fashioned bathtub. Not the loud and often unhygienic whirlpool tub, either — instead, homeowners are gravitating toward equally decadent but less flashy deep-soaking tubs, which range from $1,900 to $6,000. When Patricia Rock remodeled her Mendocino, Calif., ranch house, she put in a raised tub surrounded by frosted windows. "I can feel the warm breezes at night," Rock says. "I want to soak in the tub right up to my chin. It's very relaxing." Massive Bedrooms When Robert Blanche reconfigured his 7,000-square-foot, 1930s-era home in Louisiana, he laid out a suitably grand master-bedroom suite, including a walk-in closet and a huge bathroom with a soaking tub. But one feature particularly tickles him — the built-in audio speakers and control panel. The setup connects him to his big music collection, saving him trips to and from the rest of his stereo equipment, which is several rooms away. And Blanche only wishes he'd installed something similar for his home's lighting, because "walking around the house turning off the lights takes 10 minutes." The master bedroom is usually a lower remodeling priority than the kitchen or living room, where the whole family can converge. But those who are sprucing up the boudoir are increasingly opting for "built-ins." Along with labor-saving electronics systems like Blanche's, customized cabinets that cut down on clutter are in heavy demand. Other homeowners are solving space problems by annexing adjacent rooms, adding a gym, a library or a foyer-like area where someone can watch television without disturbing a sleeping spouse. When Blanche's youngest children graduate to a bedroom down the hall, he'll absorb their adjacent room into his own. (Page 6 of 8) Outdoor Living Americans spend consistently on outdoor projects, regardless of what the housing market is doing. But these days, homeowners are not spending to show up the neighbors — unless they're having those neighbors over for a slab of ribs. Between now and 2008, Freedonia Group expects sales of outdoor furniture and grills, the essential tools of suburban relaxation, to grow at an even faster rate than overall outdoor spending, at 5.4% a year. Meanwhile, front-of-the-house landscaping, often designed with "curb appeal" in mind, is losing ground. "The idea of the front lawn as a showpiece is going away," says Michael Dollin, principal of Urban Earth Design in Phoenix, in favor of "recapturing the backyard as livable space." Some homeowners recapture more yard than they really need. Weekend chefs often overspend on outdoor cooking appliances — not hard to do, when top-of-the-line grills can cost up to $10,000 and require hookups to natural gas lines. For most, that's excessive, Dollin says: "There are plenty of good br ands out there for under $1,000." But when well tailored to a family's needs, an outdoor project can transform a home. When Tom and Lisa Starr had a dinner party at their Swarthmore, Pa., home a few summers ago, they were disappointed that so few of their 75 guests explored their large yard. So last year they o verhauled the space with a $12,000 renovation job based around two flagstone patios. On one, Tom set up a stainless -steel 36- inch grill with a rotisserie attachment surrounded by a blue-slate L-shaped countertop; even in cold weather, Tom says, "I grill every chance I get." And this spring they're rolling out new lounge chairs to take over the other patio, in a secluded nook surrounded by old trees. Thanks to the comfortable space, the Starrs are looking forward more than ever to their soirees: "It's a pleasure to be out there and look back at the house," Tom says. "It's beautiful where we live." Building Under the Stars The biggest drawback to the backyard "room" is unpredictable weather: No one uses their patio in a hailstorm. One classic compromise is the old-fashioned screened-in or glassed-in porch, which adds some climate control to the outdoor experience. But homeowners in growing numbers are going one step further: adding entire freestanding structures to their yards. "We see people asking for cabana houses, entertaining houses, arbors," says Kevin Rice, owner of Innovative Landscape Design in Lambertville, N.J. "People are seeing that the landscape can be built." At the high end, projects can get lavish and whimsical. Designer Roderick Romero builds tree-house retreats — taking "nesting" literally — for celebrities like Sting and fashion designer Donna Karan, with hand - fashioned details including stained-glass windows and copper roofs. But there are plenty of options that are more quaint and simple. You can buy a wooden arbor, for example, with benches for reading and lounging and plants stretching over a trellis -like roof, for prices starting at $3,000. By creating a bit of sheltered space, these structures make outdoor entertaining a little easier. Patricia Rock, whose Mendocino home sits in the middle of a vineyard, often hosts large parties; she's now building a pavilion just off her patio — open on three sides, but with a fireplace to take the chill off a cool evening. And homeowners who feel more ambitious — and are willing to put up with the hassles of getting more- complex building permits — can always create a second home right in the yard of their first. "Spring houses" and cabanas with bars, bathrooms and full living-room furnishings have been gaining traction. And those who already have outbuildings on their property have a great head start. Robert Blanche converted what was once a 15-by-20-foot garage into a retreat for him and his six kids. He added French doors, opened up the ceiling so that the beams are exposed and added dormer windows to bring in more light. The room now has a high-end digital video projection system, a bar and a sprawling sofa. Come to think of it, it could easily be mistaken for Blanche's family room. That's typical of homeowners in this comfort-crazed era: They're never more than a few steps away from a place to relax. (Page 8 of 8) Financing That Remodeling Project With interest rates climbing and home values stalling, securing financing for a major remodeling job is no easy task. But lenders, facing an expected slowdown in borrowing this year, are eager to make loans and there are plenty of options to consider. Here are some of the best approaches. Home equity These loans are usually the first stop for remodelers. In addition to the traditional fixed -rate home-equity loan, home-equity lines of credit have been gaining in popularity, especially for projects that may require payments in stages. With a line of credit, you borrow the funds you need when it's time to pay for, say, that deep soaking tub. You only pa y interest on the sum that you've borrowed and the balance remains available to you if you need it. Unfortunately, these loans almost always have an adjustable interest rate — a drawback in this era of climbing interest rates. Refinance Depending on the rate you have locked in for your primary mortgage and how much your home has appreciated, it may make sense to completely refinance, take out the cash you've accrued and put it into your renovation. This is expensive and, with interest rates up, rarely an option for those who bought or refinanced in the last few years. But for those that are paying more than 6%, it may be worthwhile to ask your bank to run the numbers. Low equity loans Haven't built up much equity in your home yet? The Federal Housing Administration has a few programs to help renovators in these cases. Title One loans are designed for basic repairs of up to $25,000. They don't require any equity in the home and can be obtained through commercial banks. But you can't pay for much with a Title One loan: Luxury items such as hot tubs or pools are out. If you're considering buying a fixer - upper, the FHA's 203(k) program lets you borrow 125% of the home's value in order to renovate. But in a slowing market, this may be a bit of a gamble. Beware The real estate boom is just like any other: Following the money is a parade of opportunists hoping to siphon off some of your cash. Any loan secured by the equity in your home where the monthly payments are out of reach is setting you up to lose your property. Also beware of lenders that want to refinance often; this process is riddled with fees. And, of course, read the fine print — all of it. Unscrupulous lenders may want you to sign a loan that is different than the one you agreed upon.
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