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What's Inside The New American Home?

Outdoor living rooms, spa-like baths, retractable glass walls, home-management tech systems — and pet suites. These home amenities aren't just the province of the top 1%.

They're among the most popular features homebuyers and renovators want in a home these days, regardless of their budgets, according to builders, designers and remodelers.

"Residential trends usually start in the luxury market and trickle down to the rest of the market," said Jeffrey Lake, national director of architecture for Irvine, Calif.-based Standard Pacific Homes (SPF).

To help determine how buyers use their homes and what features they want the most, Standard Pacific conducts "livability" studies with many buyers who have been in their new home six months to a year, interviewing them in person or online.

A Real Pet Project

One result of those interviews led the company to new options for buyers: pet suites. Ranging from 50 square feet to 170 square feet, they feature low shower stalls with handheld faucets for "puppy washes." They boast ample storage for toys, leashes and outfits, and the larger suites feature washers and dryers.

"It's been getting rave reviews," Lake said. "It's an option we're offering in a huge number of our communities.

A more common desire, and one that mirrors a huge nationwide trend, is for outdoor living rooms that extend the indoor spaces. Like some other builders, Standard Pacific integrates flooring, installs movable glass walls to eliminate visual barriers and often puts in outdoor fireplaces, flat-screen TVs and refrigerators.

"It's more than a covered patio," Lake said.

Standard Pacific also extends outdoor living spaces in master suites, where models are furnished with resort-style beds or chaises.

What Baby Boomers Want

Near the top of the want list for all types of buyers are spa-like baths, home designers and builders say.

"The baby boom generation has been traveling their entire lives and staying in four-star hotels. They know what a spa bath looks like and they want to have it in their homes," said Timothy McCarthy, managing director of Traditions of America, a developer of active-adult housing communities in Pennsylvania.

Traditions of America's designers help buyers customize their homes, which average between $300,000 and $400,000. But some buyers spend up to $300,000 more to customize them, McCarthy says.

"They don't want to buy an off-the-shelf model. People are investing in their homes. This is their last, best home and they want to enjoy it," he said.

Millennials may lack the budgets of older buyers, but don't appear to want to skimp on design.

"Millennials today would rather have a smaller space but nicer features and options," said Joe Duffus, CEO of interior design and merchandising firm Builders Designs, which works with homebuilders and developers.

Millennials, he says, are "the most design-savvy buying group ever.

Automation Nation

They are also probably the most tech-savvy homebuyer. Homes catering to first-time buyers will get a little smaller but home technology will become increasingly prevalent, according to panelists at the International Builders Show held in Las Vegas earlier this year.

Home automation systems for all age groups are "hugely popular," Duffus says. Various systems allow occupants to program and remotely control temperature, lighting, security and more.

"I don't know any builder that is not using a programmable thermostat right now, even for first-time buyers," Duffus said.

Some popular automated thermostat systems used by builders are by Nest and Honeywell (HON), he says.

Kitchens and baths are the two most popular remodeling jobs by far, according to a survey by the National Association of Home Builders. The reason cited: a desire for better or newer amenities.

In bathrooms, jetted tubs are out. Soaking tubs placed away from walls are in. So are large walk-in showers with frameless doors and multiple shower heads.

"For those who can't afford both, they will settle on a larger shower," said Robert Criner, chairman of the NAHB Remodelers and president of Criner Remodeling in Newport News, Va.

In kitchens, said Criner, "everybody wants islands." And they're bigger than ever. The average island in a Standard Pacific home runs 5 feet by 9 feet, but some are 15-16 feet long. And sometimes two are put back-to-back or side-by-side to make them doubly large.

Homeowners also want base cabinets with rollout trays and drawers for nesting bowls and pots and pans, Criner says. Also popular in kitchens are hidden walk-in pantries, coffee bars and home-management areas for stowing and handling mail, recipes and other papers.

Criner integrates USB ports in kitchen outlets in all his remodeling projects so that occupants can charge their mobile phones and tablets. He often puts them in islands.

LED lighting is popular in both kitchens and baths. "People like the energy efficiency of them and they last much longer," Criner said.

"White is probably the No. 1 trend in the kitchen and bathroom," but gray tones are becoming popular, too, says Duffus.

Other hot trends in homes, he says, are quartz countertops, distressed or textured wide-planked hardwood floors and ceramic tile made to look like wood.

Caesarstone (CSTE), based in Israel, is one fast-growing supplier of quartz countertops. Mohawk Industries (MHK) has the flooring market covered.

"This is kind of a shock to people, but chrome is coming back in a big way," Duffus said, in bathroom and kitchen fixtures such as faucets and shower heads. Manufacturers have "amped up the design.

Among the biggest design trends in remodeling projects winning prizes in the NAHB's 2015 "Best in American Living Awards" are white-on-white kitchens (cabinets, countertops and back splashes), doubled kitchen islands and sculptural stand-alone bathtubs.

Homes With Good Energy

Energy efficiency was a big theme in another recent survey conducted by the NAHB. Among the 10 features homebuilders said they are most likely to include in a typical new home this year were low-emissivity windows to reflect sunlight and heat, Energy Star appliances and windows, and programmable thermostats.

Beyond energy efficiency, buyers increasingly want to live in "healthy" homes, says Sarah Barnard, an interior designer in Santa Monica, Calif. "They're interested in nontoxic materials and clean-air quality achieved in the baseline construction of either a new build or remodel," she said.

Healthy living trumps environmental sustainability these days, she says. "The distance the item has to travel to get to the job site is less important than the inherent materials.

Healthier materials include water-based paints and adhesives that don't throw off gases, natural fibers such as wool carpets vs. synthetics and natural stones.

Features routinely built into homes may get more advanced if builders start adopting the kind of innovations featured in the aspirational "New American Home" of 2015, a high-concept dwelling built by Blue Heron in conjunction with the International Builders Show.

The home incorporates photovoltaic panels, weather-sensitive irrigation systems and hydronic air handlers, among other innovations.