What Home Buyers Want

Now that Americans are buying houses again, the nation's home builders are eager to find out what may have changed on consumers' wish lists and how the recession may have impacted overall attitudes toward lifestyle at home.

From new construction to renovation and remodeling, consumers are clearly more cautious and price-sensitive than they once were.

"They are doing projects to enjoy themselves, not just to flip [the home]," said Gary Case of Rockville, Maryland's Signature Kitchens, Additions and Baths. "They are also keeping resale in mind."

At the top of the wish list is Energy-star ratings. In a large survey released this month by the National Association of Home Builders, researchers found that Energy-star rated appliances are most coveted, followed closely by energy efficiency in the laundry room.

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"Nine out of ten buyers would rather buy a home with energy-efficient features and permanently lower utility bills than one without those features that costs 2 percent to 3 percent less," the survey noted. But while buyers like the efficiency to be there already, they are not willing to pay a premium for them.

What home buyers seem to want most is high-end amenities, even if it means living in a smaller home to get them, according to the survey. Of those polled, 62 percent favored high-quality products over space. They want a double sink in the kitchen and both a tub and stall shower in the bath. They prefer french doors to standard and garage storage systems. They also want technology, from wireless home security systems to whole-house electronic features that control entertainment and utilities.

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The amenities, however, only go so far for today's cost-conscious consumer. An elevator ranks number one on the list of things home buyers do not want. They also don't want a home in a golf course community. They don't particularly like wine cooler refrigerators and give a big thumbs down to laminate countertops. While they do like some outdoor space, they don't necessarily want an outdoor kitchen.

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Perhaps the most surprising finding of the NAHB survey is not what we want in our homes, but where we want our homes to be. Just 8 percent of those surveyed want to live in a city center, 36 percent prefer the outer suburbs, 30 percent the close-in suburbs and 27 percent still want the old-fashioned, rural American living. This counters recent assertions by those in the apartment sector that Americans are increasingly seeking a more urban lifestyle.

Rising rents and increased demand for rental apartments has fueled the theory that from young Millenials to downsizing Baby Boomers, the recent housing crash has changed the way Americans want to live, shifted attitudes toward home ownership and created a strong new desire for big-city living. Rising gas prices have also pushed more home buyers closer to city centers.

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While 23 percent of survey respondents categorically reject the idea of living in a city center, others could be swayed if, again, offered the right amenities. These include walking/jogging trails, nearby parks and an outdoor swimming pool. That bodes well for planned, gated communities.

The age of the McMansion may be over, as money spent on space is reallocated to energy efficiency and home technology. Builders today will look to do more with less space, and buyers who can now afford to be picky about amenities, certainly will be.

—By CNBC's Diana Olick; Follow her on Twitter @Diana_Olick or on Facebook at facebook.com/DianaOlickCNBC

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