Homebuyers want it their way.
Forget the formal living room filled with fancy furniture or the dining room rarely used except for the holidays. Flex is in.
A popular trend in new homebuilding, flex space offers homebuyers just what they want -- flexibility. Homebuyers want flex space in their new homes so they can define the space and choose its purpose, then adapt it to other uses as their needs and desires change.
People live differently today, and today's market is all about staying in touch with who your customers are and what they want, said Debbie Beaver, vice president of William Ryan Homes.
"We just designed the Sequoia floor plan for today's Gen Y buyers with three bedrooms and a loft. The living room is a study because Gen Y doesn't need a living room. We call it a study/living room flex space that they can use for whatever they wish," Beaver said, referring to young buyers in Gen Y, or "Millennials," generally considered people now in their 20s or early 30s.
"We design our own floor plans, and we try to anticipate buyers of each plan and think about what they want," she said. "Then we preprogram that into every house we build while at the same time considering the whole market, not just a specialized niche."
Many builders use the term flex space on their floor plans, including Pulte Homes. "We want to make sure our homes are changing with the times," said Mary Wilhelm, general sales manager for Pulte Homes. "All of our homes include flexible living areas as well as flexible options to add to our homes."
So where is this flex space, and how are homebuyers using it?
Today's houses contain flex space in different areas, depending on the floor plan and size of the home.
In the past, lower levels were often unfinished and used for storage or stood until the do-it-yourselfer decided to finish the space for a specific purpose.
Today lower levels are usually finished, decorated and shown in a variety of vignettes, such as a family room, media room, hobby room or guest bedroom.
At Pulte's Arlington Crossings in Arlington Heights, the Dalton model invites you to movie night in the lower level, which shows framed movie posters, an old-fashioned popcorn machine, an assortment of candies and plenty of seating.
At the builder's Gateway Estates model in Park Ridge, the lower level is shown as a home office. "We understand that people do from 25 to 100 percent of their work at home, and they want a place where they can live and work with comfort and convenience," Wilhelm said.
Similarly, at M/I Homes' Whitmore Place community in St. Charles, many plans in the Uptown Series offer a bonus room on the lower level that can play several roles. People can use it for watching sporting events on a big-screen TV or as a game room with pool tables and poker tables, dart boards and wet bar, said Cheryl Bonk, vice president of sales and marketing for the Chicago division of M/I Homes.
Homeowners typically stayed in a townhouse for three to five years because they outgrew the space. But today's flex space allows homeowners to remain in their homes longer, Wilhelm said.
Many builders incorporate flex space on the main level in their new designs. This space may have a multiple purpose or dual function to further enhance the versatility of the flex concept.
"We try not to pigeonhole our floor plans because everyone doesn't want a traditional house with a living room, dining room and this and that," said Ray Blankenship, area vice president for K. Hovnanian Homes. "People live differently, and they want flexibility to live the way they want to live."
At the builder's Regency Estates community in St. Charles, the Regency model features a dual function area tucked in a spot off the family room. This room is furnished with a desk, plasma TV and sofa. Here homeowners can catch up on work from the office, watch TV or read.
"Across the country we're introducing a lot of multigenerational living-space options on the first floor. In a plan coming out in our Lisle development, we have a bedroom and small living area with bath geared for an in-law situation," Blankenship said. "The plan will be flexible, so if a buyer doesn't have that situation, we can customize it for other uses."
William Ryan Homes features its signature 16-by-12-foot morning room in all its floor plans, which has been well received by homebuyers. People have used the space to extend the kitchen, create a playroom, a TV room or office space, Beaver said. "It truly is flexible space."
In the builder's Jackson design, the option for a study in lieu of the third car bay in the tandem garage offers even more flexibility.
In its new Kendall single-family home model at Whitmore Place, M/I Homes features a flex room set up as a home office with a built-in bookcase, desk and a collage of memorabilia showing the owner's passion for rock and roll. This space is conducive to working with clients or conducting meetings.
The home's mudroom with cabinets could double as a tech niche or command center with a laptop and family calendar for scheduling sporting events and other family activities.
An upstairs loft area offers valuable flex options for relaxing or reading away from the downstairs living areas. Here you can stretch out in comfort with a favorite book before bedtime, or outfit the space as a quiet homework area for serious students.
At Regency Estates, K Hovnanian Homes shows a loft with two windows furnished as a homework area with built-in cabinetry and cubbies along with hooks for backpacks. Likewise, in the Dalton at Arlington Crossings, horizontal stripes painted on the wall bring an artistic touch to the loft that features dual computer stations and an open display case.
All townhouses by M/I Homes feature a loft area that may be multifunctional -- such as a combination of media center, office area and a guest area where a sofa sleeper pulls out, Bonk said. "We're seeing a lot of this kind of use of flex space."
Many buyers don't need a third or fourth bedroom, and this bonus room can function in endless ways.
With health and fitness so important to people today, buyers can envision using a secondary bedroom as workout space so they don't have to go to the gym, Wilhelm said. People like the concept shown in the Providence model where a bedroom is outfitted as an exercise room with mirrors, treadmill, cubbies, hand weights and yoga mat.
Many builders also offer the option of dual master suites on the upper level or a bonus room over the garage to customize their homes for today's buyers.