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Friday, May 23, 2008

Big Air Rooms Out

I’ve reported here before on the concept of functional obsolescence in real estate. That generally refers to some feature or style in housing that has fallen out of favor – split-level houses for instance. Now, from one of the real estate news sources that I get comes word that a much more modern design component in houses is “out.” The cathedral-ceiling "great room" -- a defining feature of big suburban houses for the past 15 years -- is losing favor. Owners say these double-height rooms are expensive to heat and cool. They can be drafty and reverberate noise; cobwebs are hard to reach; painting requires long ladders; changing light bulbs in ceiling light can be a challenge and washing the second-story windows can be a nightmare. Moreover, growing numbers of home buyers think these soaring rooms waste space.

More home buyers are opting to add second-floor rooms in place of a double-height ceiling, builders say. Major home builders including Pulte Homes, Toll Brothers and K. Hovnanian say more buyers are looking for the maximum number of rooms and square footage for their money, so they're opting to have a loft, bedroom or playroom built in the air space where the plans call for a double-height ceiling.

Meantime, some people who already own such a room are seeking new uses for the air space. The housing crunch and mortgage mess mean more people can't afford to trade up to a bigger house. Filling in the space below the ceiling costs about half of what it would to add an addition because the walls and roof are already there. All a contractor typically needs to add are joists, flooring and doors, he says.

U.S. Census data seem to affirm the trend. Expenditures on interior restructuring of homes rose about 40% to $13 billion from 2005 to 2007, according to the census. But spending on new-room additions fell 57% to $4.8 billion over the same period. Andy Hait, a survey statistician with the Census Bureau, says these figures indicate that homeowners are spending more to reconfigure existing space, such as by building a loft, and much less to expand a house's footprint.

For decades, cathedral ceilings have been an attempt at grandeur. They started gaining momentum among suburban homes in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a way to show off wealth in a growing economy, builders say. The most common variety involved ranch houses with a vaulted room near the entryway (à la the house on "The Brady Bunch"). When the housing market soured in the early 1990s there was a brief blip toward smaller homes. But as the economy recovered and building once again boomed, tract homes moved toward more traditional, two-story models including faux Tudors and chateaux, and double-height ceilings became common in great rooms -- the new term for family rooms. As housing lots shrunk, having a taller (or "Big Hair") home with an airy, light interior helped give the impression of more space.

Then came high-ceiling fatigue. Toll Brothers started to see interest wane in the Carolinas, where people tend not to have basements and wanted an extra room. The trend to fill in the ceiling area spread to the Northeast, where heating and cooling such high spaces cost more and rising land prices made additions prohibitive.

Many people put a bedroom where the high ceiling was. But Atlanta-area architect Lisa Stacholy says a laundry room, exercise room or homework room can be better uses for some families. In many areas companies still uses two-story ceilings in model homes because they're great to lure prospective buyers. But when it comes time to buy, the proportion of people choosing to put a room above the great room in place of the cathedral ceiling is now around 20%, compared with fewer than 5% two years ago.

So the volume room look is out. To be honest I never could understand it. I like the 9.5’ ceilings in my historic home, but I wouldn’t want them to be any higher. I visited a grand old historic in a nearby town a few winters ago that has 13’ ceilings. I’ll admit they were grand to look at, but the owners told me the place (which is over 4,000 Sq Ft spread over three floors, with a five floor turret in front) cost them over $1,300 a month to heat in the winter – too much for me! I also wondered about the noise problem, since he ceiling seemed to be a perfect place to bounce sounds off and into the kids’ bedrooms.

I haven’t seen any homes locally that look like they started out with high ceiling great rooms and then were modified to use that space, but I’m going to start looking a bit closer. I have noticed a few newer homes that one might have assumed had the big air rooms and then got into and found that the room wasn’t there. Maybe they made the change to the plans when they were building.

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