What’s hot in new homes? Fewer walls, more toys.

Buyers are looking for open spaces in the main area of the home with oversized kitchens that flow into large family rooms. When it comes to the master bathroom, buyers are looking for a little luxury.

“We’re basically seeing larger kitchen areas and more open floor plans with vaulted ceilings,” says Dick Koestner, a regional vice president with the National Association of Realtors and partner in Koestner McGivern & Associates in Davenport, Iowa.

Buyers want something “far less formal and far more celebratory,” says Ron Phipps, a regional vice president of the National Association of Realtors.

Living rooms are going the way of the powder blue tuxedo. “The real formal living room is gone,” says Joan Isgro-Grant, an affiliate of Weichert Realtors in Kingston, N.Y.

Homeowners are also demanding more for the money. And with lower interest rates, they are not afraid of buying more home. “What they look at isn’t the cost, it’s the monthly payment,” says C. D. Boring, president of RE/MAX Realty Plus in Sebring, Fla.

That translates to higher-grade appliances, more wood, more tile, more solid surface countertops and more designer touches in mid-priced to high-end homes.

“It amazes me,” says Phipps, president of Phipps Realty and Relocation Services in Warwick, R.I. “Even in modest homes, you have much more money allocated for cabinets, countertops, appliances and raw space.”

Homeowners may be eating out as much or more than ever, but they are using their kitchens to entertain and as a gathering place for the family. As a result, “builders are putting more money in kitchens,” says C. Kent Conine, president of the National Association of Home Builders, an industry trade group.

Likewise, the master bathroom is the place they get away from it all. “It needs to be large and needs to have a feeling of luxuriousness — and high quality,” says Dan Lee, vice president with First Weber Group Inc., in Madison, Wisc. “Natural light is important, too.”

Here are some of the most popular new home features:

First-class kitchens. “They are really tricking out the kitchens,” says Sean Degen, vice president of architectural services for Pulte Homes Inc., which builds everything from $100,000 houses to those priced well above $1 million.

The amenities will vary, depending on the price range. But look for solid surface counter-tops such as Corian, granite or marble. Also hot: professional quality appliances — side-by-side refrigerators and stoves with more than four burners or smooth surfaces with no burners at all — and cabinetry in maple, cherry and birch as builders try to tap “the wow factor,” says Conine, president of Conine Residential Group in Dallas.

But the space also has to be practical, says Lee. Buyers “are looking for the design of the kitchen to flow. It has to make sense.”

Home office space. “Media rooms and home offices are probably the two most desirable amenities right now,” says Conine. With an office, buyers are looking for “something pretty generic, so they can customize it to their own tastes.” But touches like window seats and built-in bookshelves are always appreciated.

Entertainment rooms. In the entertainment center, buyers want all the toys, says Conine. “As much as they can afford. And with the lower interest rates, they can afford a little more.”

First floor master suite. Also known as “master on the main,” this style is especially popular with baby boomers who are planning ahead. “People are 45 years old and going, ‘When I retire I don’t want to climb those steps,'” says Koestner. He sees buyers looking ahead 15 to 30 years to the time the mortgage is finally paid off with an eye toward what their needs might be then.

Ranches are hot for the same reason, says Michael V. Sajdyk, director of marketing for Davis Homes, based in Indianapolis. Buyers are saying, “Why do I need a second floor if I can do it all on one floor?”

Luxurious master bathrooms. Separate tubs and showers are a must. But for many buyers the emphasis is shifting from a jetted tub to an oversized shower with two or more heads.

No longer exclusive to high-end homes, “Now you’re seeing them in mid-range homes,” says Koestner.

Look for lots of tile, marble and multiple heads in the shower. “Showers are the big thing right now,” says Degen. “People realize, ‘I take a bath four times a year, but I take a shower every day so I might as well make it nice.'”

Still, especially in some regions, the bathroom is no longer No. 1 on the buyer’s list. “It’s still pretty glamorous,” says Conine. “But I’m sure they’ve peaked in some areas”. The trade-off: closets.

“You can never have enough storage.”

Low maintenance.
“We’re seeing empty nesters who want a more carefree lifestyle and less square footage,” says Conine. Many are looking at patio homes, town houses or houses with less total space but more goodies.

“They want the bells and whistles in the new house that they had to sacrifice for space when they were younger,” says Sajdyk, whose company builds largely in the $70,000 to $180,000 price range.

And everyone is interested in a house that they don’t have to spend time and money maintaining. Look for lots of floors made of tile, woods and even colored concrete, says Conine. Buyers are attracted to the “durability and adaptability” of these surfaces. “And you can always buy a new rug and throw it on the floor.”

On the exterior, this translates to low maintenance building products like brick and certain types of siding. And sometimes even to a smaller yard.

“That’s why so many couples today are looking at townhouses or row houses,” says Richard F. Gaylord, a Realtor with RE/MAX Real Estate Specialists in Long Beach, Calif. “They want a place to eat [outside] and let the dog out, but they don’t want a lot of work attached to it.”

Decorative lighting. Both inside and out, buyers are looking for attractive light sources in kitchens, baths and family rooms, and lots of them.

Natural products. Wood floors, granite, marble or stone countertops, solid wood doors and wider molding are all popular features, says Lee. “People are looking for higher quality natural products. These things are getting more and more important.”

So, too, are “green” building materials. “There’s a big push for green-built homes where we aren’t pillaging the environment to supply our housing needs,” says Lee.

Places to play. Buyers are willing to make do with small lots, provided there are parks or recreation facilities nearby. If not, they will want “a pool in the yard, a spa in the yard or a play area for [the] children,” says Gaylord, a regional vice president with the National Association of Realtors.

Fireplaces. “It’s pretty much expected,” says Lee. “For the most part, people want that option.” Depending on where you live and how much your home is worth, a double-sided fireplace, especially in the kitchen/great room area, is trendy.

Traditional architecture. Buyers are returning to the comfortable, familiar styles of their youth. “The post-modern styling is gone,” says Degen. In the South and Southwest, traditional might mean stucco or adobe. In the rest of the country, Colonial, Victorian, Greek Revival and Colonial Revival are big, he says.

So what is today’s version of shag carpet and avocado-green kitchen? What’s “out” varies with the climate and price range. Some trends definitely seem to be waning, including formal living rooms, whirlpool tubs, wall-to-wall carpet throughout the whole house and any garage not big enough for at least two cars. “A place for storing the toys is really important,” says Lee.

Strangely enough, even though living styles have gotten much more casual, formal dining rooms are a must for many buyers. “They still have grandma’s dining room set and they don’t want to get rid of it,” says Isgro-Grant, a regional vice president of the National Association of Realtors.

Homes have gotten bigger, says Degen. One industry survey found that from 1980 to 1999, square footage increased by about 16 percent. That means the average home went from about 2,000 square feet to a little more than 2,300 square feet.

But during that same period, the average lot size decreased by 6 percent — from about one-third of an acre down to about one-quarter of an acre, Degen says.

In northern Virginia, F. Gary Garczynski has seen lots shrink from a minimum of a quarter acre in the 1970s to “half that” currently.

“I think that’s occurring in a lot of areas where ground is at a premium, says Garczynski, a developer and the immediate past president of the National Association of Home Builders. He’s also noticed a wider interest “in environmentally sensitive green building.”

Some real estate watchers make the connection between ever larger homes and ever shrinking interest rates. “Twenty years ago, interest rates were 18 to 20 percent and smaller houses were in,” says Myra Zollinger, partner with Coldwell Banker Realty Center in Chapel Hill. Today, she says, people want a large kitchen, large bathrooms and “lots of light.”

That is probably one reason eight to 10-foot ceilings are popular. But they are also being more careful with the space they buy. In many regions, vaulted ceilings — except for the great room — are on their way out, according to real estate professionals and builders. Instead, home buyers opt for plans that take that space and give them an extra room.

Trends in new homes can vary widely, depending on the region. In New England, Yankee buyers are less impressed with elaborate bathrooms, says Phipps. Instead, they’d rather have closet space. “I think that in New England, sensibility of function [is] above all else,” he says. But, especially as outsiders move to the area, he adds, “it is changing.”

Likewise, in the northeast a wide open lot with no trees could be a tough sell, while in the Midwest, it might not be an issue.

But when buyers desire trees, they want them full-grown, says Lee. “They aren’t willing to wait any longer,” he says. “They want trees that are already 15 to 20 feet high — an instant neighborhood.”

And while detached garages are cold and unpopular in the northern climes, they are flying off the market in the West and Southwest, where buyers often turn them into studio or office space, says Degen.

And in the Midwest and Southern California, whirlpool tubs in the master bath are still popular, while the trend in the rest of the country seems to favor oversized showers.

In the South — and especially Florida — buyers are looking for self-contained communities that offer recreation, such as a golf course, pool, tennis and a clubhouse. And gated communities are big. “If they have families, they want to feel comfortable that their kids can ride their bikes,” says RE/MAX’s Boring.

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.