If your home is your castle, then the kitchen is the Great Hall — the central meeting place, the mainstay of the manor house. It is the heart of the home, radiating the character of the homeowner.
That's why, in an increasingly pricey, picky and competitive housing market, it's where homebuilders are turning up the heat.
"Kitchens are the focal point of the home. Again and again our buyers tell us, if you get one room right, get our kitchen right," said Richard Dugas, CEO of Pulte Group.
So in a warehouse outside Atlanta, Pulte is running focus groups through kitchen models. The models were designed by potential suppliers, like Whirlpool, Electrolux, Moen and Kohler, in something of a "kitchen throw-down." Rather than plowing through samples of countertops and flooring, Pulte asked its suppliers to construct model kitchens for different types of buyers, considering life stage and personality.
"I'm a functional guy, everything has to be in its right place. I'm a neat freak, and I'm more charismatic than you might think," said Deal Kelly, a member of one focus group and a father of three.
Kelly didn't like one of the models that had short stools at the end of an enormous island. One of his boys is already over 6-feet tall.
The project is an attempt to hone in on exactly what today's buyer wants and is willing to pay for. Dugas said his company is now heavily focused on the move-up buyer and the non-entry-level first-time buyer.
"We're talking price points of 400-500 thousand (dollars) in many cities," he added.
The latter is a new segment of the market, a consumer who has the money to buy a more expensive home but has chosen to rent during the last decade. Since this group doesn't necessarily have to buy, builders need to cater to them and excite them even more.
"You don't have a lot of urgency driving people today. Rates have been so low for so long, buyers are simply saying, 'You know if I don't buy today maybe a couple of months from now it will be just as good a time,'" Dugas said.
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While the majority of the big public builders spent the prerecession decades focusing on volume in the suburbs, that model took a hard turn after the housing crash. Bigger isn't always better, and farther out is less in vogue.
Young millennials and downsizing baby boomers are now the biggest buying cohorts, and these groups have similar desires. They want urban homes that may be smaller in size but bigger in amenities. Two of the six kitchen models featured have less storage but more bar space. One has a long, sleek ice tub sunk into the island granite for drinks.
"I like to entertain and I like to be around people. I want to be able to see everybody," said Billie Jo Hill, another member of the focus group. "If your kitchen is closed off and that's how you like it, you're probably the person who doesn't want to entertain, doesn't want to be the life of the party."
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Pulte is using focus groups now to help them create national models, not just for kitchens but for entire floor plans. In the past, most designs were locally driven. Some models worked, some didn't.
Dugas said investing in this research now will ultimately make Pulte money by offering buyers exactly what they want, based on who they are.