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Dot-com home buyers raise the bar for builders

By JUDY STARK

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2001


ATLANTA -- It's easy to dismiss dot-com millionaires as people with more money than they know what to do with, but, actually, we should thank them.

The demands today's new multimillionaires are making on builders may eventually filter down to the homes the rest of us can buy.

They expect structured wiring as a standard in their homes, they're asking for fiber optics, and they want to run a conduit to the street so they're ready to hook up to the next new thing when it comes along.

They want to pay more attention to the back of the house: architecture, landscaping, pools and other water features.

They want a quality home. They expect the builder to upgrade everything, including the quality of the subcontractors. They want builders to seek out a specialty contractor base to handle their unusual demands.

These tech-talking buyers expect big things of their home offices, where they'll typically spend at least 20 hours a week. They want them large, comfortable and functional.

They want digital brochures, sophisticated builder Web sites and communication with the builder via e-mail.

This checklist of what the wired and wealthy want came at a session at the recent National Association of Home Builders convention in Atlanta.

Dot-com buyers may have plenty of money, "But their ability to visualize is no better than anyone else's," said J. Mark Wiedmann, an architect with Mike Rosen & Associates in Philadelphia. "Essentially, they buy the model," then tweak and customize it a bit.

They want upgrades of basic components, including building materials (caulk, house wrap, piping), and they want emergency generators, especially those who are building in rural areas.

In areas of the country where basements are possible, these buyers insist on them, but don't call it a basement: It's "the lower level," with full kitchen, theaters, spas, and tanning and exercise areas.

"They want a gathering hall separate from the family room," Wiedmann said, where they can entertain their friends.

The mechanical room is "very important: They want to show off their 20,000 feet of wire," he said, that connects computers, lighting, heating and cooling and security systems.

They want computer nooks for their families, and he likes to offer them flexible spaces: computer areas within a room, off a room or as a room that they can modify depending on the ages and stages of family members. As parents, they want to be able to monitor their kids' computer use, but they also want to be able to hide the computers when they're using the room for something else.

Buyers "want to integrate traditional architecture with a high-tech environment," said John Thatch of the Dahlin Group in San Ramon, Calif. "They want traditional homes, something that feels like a home." Heavy timbering is popular, he said: "They want to come home to a retreat. Maybe it's an anchor to their life."

We can thank the dot-coms for all that, but these are not undemanding buyers, said Barbara Anderson, a designer with Preferred Designs in Kennett Square, Pa. "You have to know the names of their dogs and their kids," she said, and they'll expect the blueprints to be labeled not "Bedroom No. 2" but "Emily's bedroom." (Quipped Thatch: "Maybe it helps the parents remember their kids' names!")

These are the same people, Anderson said, who want to install under-counter refrigerators for their kids' juice boxes and computers for their 3-year-olds.

Also on the must-have list:

Tandem garages in which one of the bays can be used as a studio or additional bedroom.

Fireplaces -- lots of 'em.

Entry courtyards and porches that can be used as outdoor rooms.

Automated shades that raise and lower at preset times to preset levels or that can be controlled with a hand-held remote.

Room for extended families. Their adult kids can't afford to live on their own in expensive places like Silicon Valley.

Outside lighting.

"The dot-com buyer is the easiest for me to deal with," Anderson said. "Money is no object. They just want it."

She recalled one buyer of a $2.1-million house who tore out $75,000 worth of custom cabinets and replaced them with something he liked better. He put the old cabinets in his workshop in the garage.

Her buyers love spaces like "cookbook nooks and juice bars -- they love these innovative names," she said.

These buyers want to be the first on their block with the newest and most expensive, even if they don't know what it is. ("They'll ask, "Does my neighbor have it?' " Anderson said.) They believe "anything is possible for a price," Thatch said.

And they don't like to take no for an answer. Some builders are charging $500 for each change order, hoping to deter them, often to no avail.

"They want change on a daily basis," Anderson said. "They have no idea that changing things causes delays. They just don't understand why it takes such a long time to get their houses built."

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