Is America's love affair with big houses finally over?
Yes and no. In 2013, fewer big houses were built, but the average size for new homes continued to increase.
According to U.S. census data, the percentage of new houses built in 2013 with more than 3,000 square feet of living space declined to 31 percent from a high of 45 percent at the peak of the homebuilding boom in 2007.
At the same time, the average size for a new home built in 2013 edged toward the 3,000-square-foot benchmark figure, ballooning out to 2,679 square feet, 160 more than the previous year, according to the National Association of Home Builders' annual survey of home trends and buyer preferences presented by Rose Quint at the International Builders Show in Las Vegas this year.
The 2013 average house size is also bigger (by 180 square feet) than the average built during 2007's housing peak, when it was 2,499 square feet.
The appeal of ever-larger "average-sized" houses can be explained in large part by the changing pool of new homebuyers, Quint said. In 2013, the number of first-time buyers purchasing smaller houses fell because of this group's difficulty in obtaining financing. With a challenging job market and stricter lending requirements, far fewer of them qualified for mortgages.
Comparing the current situation to a "more normal market" where first-time buyers would constitute 40 to 45 percent of new homebuyers, Jim Zeumer of the Pulte Group noted in an email that this group made up only about 30 percent of the new home market in 2013, and for his company only 25 percent.
With proportionately more affluent homebuyers in the mix, new homes built in 2013 typically had more upscale features. As a percentage of the total, nearly half of last year's new houses had four bedrooms (48 percent), a third full bath was a popular option (35 percent) and a three-car garage (22 percent) increasingly common.
As the spring home-buying season begins, what features will grace the new houses purchased by this more affluent clientele this year?
Querying homebuilders for their most likely choices from a list of 40 possibilities, NAHB found the winners to be surprisingly modest. The top scorer was a walk-in closet in the master bedroom, a staple of home building for more than 20 years. The builders' other top choices reflect buyers' heightened interest in environmentalism: energy-efficient windows, Energy Star appliances and programmable thermostats.
The builders' "least likely" choices for inclusion in a new home in 2014 indicate that Americans' long-standing love affair with two-story ceilings in the foyer and family room and a whirlpool bath for the master suite is over.
What will new houses look like in 2014? Several IBS presenters who follow national trends made a number of predictions.
Heather McCune, the head of marketing for Bassenian/Lagoni Architects, a Newport Beach, Calif., firm that designs custom and production housing all over the country, said buyers of newly built homes can expect to see more houses combining a contemporary flair with traditional styling and a migration of this aesthetic from urban areas, where it has been gaining in popularity, to suburbia. The interiors will feature more open plans and kitchens with ever larger islands that can easily double as eating areas and work spaces where kids do homework.
There will be a high level of finishes and detailing that convey "authenticity" because today's buyers expect it, she said. Although Tuscan styling has enjoyed enormous popularity over the past 10 years, buyers now want something closer to their own roots, be it Colonial, Mediterranean or Craftsman. Another feature of new upper-end houses: separate bathrooms in the master suite, seen as a necessity for "marriage preservation," she said.
Zeroing in on the kitchens in new homes, color is the new variable. Houston-based architect Sanford Steinberg said he's seeing kitchens with bold color contrasts or subtle color differentiation. The bold look pairs white wall cabinets with black base cabinets. The subtle look combines cabinets that are "warm" white with counters and backsplashes in a different white, often a granite with gray streaks or some other natural coloration.
Jill Waage, an editorial director for Better Homes & Gardens, said her reader surveys and the hundreds of photos readers submit show that gray is also hugely popular in kitchens now.
The look is not "foreboding and grim," she said. The grays have warm tones, and they're combined with other colors that can be earth-toned or bright -- school bus yellow, marigold orange or leaf green.