Living in Luxury
Demand for High-end, Custom Homes Grows as Economy ImprovesThink about a beautiful marble or tiled shower with multiple showerheads that pulse and even give off steam in a state-of-the-art bathroom that glows with warmth from a gas-burning fireplace.
Imagine a pool cabana that resembles a small but stately home and is fronted by fluted columns and floor-to-ceiling windows with a kitchen and bar inside. Or a four-season room with glass walls that open onto a gorgeous patio that extends the home’s living space into the outdoors.
These areas exist locally in luxury homes where every feature is designed to please the most discriminating buyer. The demand for them is growing, and local builders who specialize in this niche market report that they have a substantial number of projects underway or planned for the near future.
“The market is doing well, and the luxury-building market is in full recovery mode,” said Richard McCullough, president of Richard A. McCullough Inc. in Longmeadow, who finished his term as president of the Homebuilders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Mass. “It took a while for things to improve after the recession, but it’s a different feeling today when I pick up the phone; it’s no longer surprising when someone says they have a lot and want to build a luxury home on it.”
Laplante Construction Inc. in East Longmeadow, which is known for custom-designed homes, has been busy for the past four or five years. It diversified into the remodeling industry long before the economy went into a downward spiral and has steadily built that business, said Raymond Laplante, who founded the company and does most of the design work. “We’ve been doing whole-house teardowns and rebuilds, and are putting up large contract homes today.”
But styles, as well as the size of custom-built homes, have changed dramatically in recent years, and today’s wish lists reflect a desire to save energy and utilize every square foot of space.
“Luxury doesn’t mean large,” said Kent Pecoy, president and founder of Pecoy Signature Homes and the Pecoy Companies in West Springfield. “In the past, luxury homes were usually about 7,000 square feet. Today, they are much smaller — 4,000 to 5,000 square feet — but still have the same appointments: beautiful kitchens, spacious family rooms, built-ins, custom finishes, and swimming pools.
“We’re putting a lot of emphasis on outdoor living, with covered porches, outdoor kitchens, built-in grills, and fireplaces, and are making much better use of basements,” he went on. “Some even have kitchenettes that lead outside to the pool.”
McCullough agrees. “In the ’80s, luxury homes were all about size. Bigger was better, and it was taken to the extreme. Most homes had massive, two-story foyers,” he told BusinessWest.
But that hearkens to a bygone era. Formal living rooms have become passé, and formal dining rooms are not important to most buyers.
“Space that would have been used for a living room in the past is being turned into studies or casual conversation areas,” Pecoy said. “People tell us they want space they can use every day or for more than one purpose, such as a sunroom that doubles as an eating area. As a result, what we’re building is very different than what we built five years ago, and completely different than 10 years ago.”
Lots are also much smaller and closer to workplaces. “In the past, people wanted a lot of land, but now they are happy with an acre or even a half-acre,” Pecoy said. “They don’t want to be way out in the country, so the lots they choose are closer to the center of town. They want convenient commutes; they want to be able to enjoy area restaurants and shopping without having to drive long distances to get there.”
Entertaining has become an important part of many peoples’ lifestyles, and to accommodate that, luxury homes typically have open-concept floor plans that contain a spacious, state-of-the-art kitchen, adjoining family room, and an area that opens into the backyard.
“People don’t want to waste space, so layouts are efficient,” Laplante said, adding that outdoor living plays a key role in design, and his company is building a large number of spacious cabanas, outdoor fireplaces, and kitchens.
Return to Health
The size of luxury homes has gone up and down as quickly as the economy over the past decade or two, and Pecoy said the upward spiral began after 9/11.
“People didn’t want to travel, and since they decided not to buy vacation homes and were going to stay home, they wanted bigger houses. We had built good-sized homes prior to that event, but not nearly as large as the ones that were built for a few years after.”The belief that bigger was better continued until the economy tanked and homebuilding almost came to a halt. Some builders, including Pecoy, had branched out years before, so they still had plenty of work, but although that wasn’t true for everyone, McCullough said, companies with long histories didn’t despair. “Everyone in the industry who has been through this once or twice had a measured amount of optimism,” he explained. “And things are good right now, although that could change because we don’t know what could occur in this geopolitical environment.”
Still, local luxury homebuilders are busy again. McCullough is about to start his fourth home in a development he created in Somers, Conn. called Bridal Path Ridge, and is working on a large addition to a custom-built home there.
“The owners are putting on a new wing with a second family room, office, screened-in porch, pool, hot tub, and outside kitchen area,” he said, noting that he believes many people who could afford to remodel held back while the economy was in a state of flux. “A lot of money sat on the sidelines, but now it is being reintroduced into the market. The fear has faded, and builders are benefiting.”
Jason Pecoy said the demand for screened-in porches, four-season rooms, and covered patios is on the rise. “We just put a roof over a patio in Longmeadow with stone seating walls around it,” said the vice president of the Pecoy Companies and son of Kent.
Efficient use of space even extends into the bathroom, and whirlpool tubs that were rarely used have lost their appeal, while free-standing and claw-footed tubs have made a comeback. In addition, demand for oversized tile or marble showers has heated up.
McCullough said most of the luxury homes he builds today are under 4,000 square feet, and the majority of the space, or about 2,800 square feet, is on the first floor, especially if the home is being built for professionals approaching retirement age who want their master bedroom downstairs, but need bedrooms for visiting children and grandchildren upstairs.
In addition, a growing number of older adults are adding luxurious in-law apartments to their homes, then selling the homes to their children. “There is a big push for these apartments. But people want all the amenities available, and that includes an open floor plan,” Laplante said, adding that he has built in-law apartments that range in size from 1,200 to 1,600 square feet.
The second-home market is also beginning to gain strength.
“We just acquired four acre-plus lots in West Dennis across from the beach and are about to start building a 4,200-square-foot spec home there,” said Suzanne Clarke, director of sales and marketing for the Pecoy Companies. “And we just finished a 3,000-square-foot luxury home in West Dennis that has a beachy feel, with beautiful trimwork, built-in bunk beds for the children with carved seahorses, coffered ceilings, a gorgeous outdoor screened-in porch with a fireplace and TV, and a large patio.”
Attention to Detail
Although today’s luxury homes are smaller, interest in interior detail has grown.
“There is a focus on unique finishes,” McCullough said, citing a custom casing over a doorway with a crown and cap as an example, and adding that, during the course of many remodeling jobs, owners of luxury homes make the decision to change all of the trim on the first floor.
He builds many homes for professionals approaching retirement age, while Laplante has many clients with young children, who prefer a young, transitional style, which translates to elegant, custom-built moldings with simple lines, quartz countertops, and porcelain plank floors in the kitchen that look like hardwood. “They want a clean, modern look, and many choose character wood for the floors, which shows the knots and irregular grain,” he explained.
Keeping rooms off the kitchen have also become popular. “They usually have a fireplace, a small desk, and some seating. They’re small but comfortable nooks that give kids a place to study,” Laplante went on.
Richard Gale, project manager for Laplante Construction, said these rooms allow parents to converse with their children while they cook. “Sometimes we build a center island in them with desks around the perimeter. The room can be used as a place to eat or do homework.”Advances in technology are also making their way into design, and Laplante said mudrooms often contain charging stations where children and adults can plug in all of their devices, and these areas typically have benches that double as storage areas with cubicles and shelves above them to hold books and outdoor clothing.
The playroom is another area where space is maximized. “Parents want things organized, so the rooms may have open shelves or cabinets with pullout drawers,” Gale noted.
The desire to utilize space to the fullest has even washed up in the laundry room, he added. “They’ve become a lot more complicated; they’re bigger and have more cabinetry and space to store things.”
Basements are another area used as part of the living space, and they are becoming recreation centers in new, luxury homes. Some buyers still request formal movie theaters, although builders say that trend is giving way to informal areas that contain a fireplace with a big-screen TV stationed over it.
“Game rooms are popular, and some people want spas, steam rooms, saunas, or lap pools in their basement,” Laplante told BusinessWest.
Incorporating ‘green’ building measures — particularly energy-efficient touches — is also an item on wish lists. “But for many people, it’s more about saving money than about saving the environment,” McCullough noted.
Laplante agrees, but says many of his clients want to make a contribution to the environment, and their desire is boosted by government subsidies that provide cash rebates and incentives for energy-efficient construction.
Pecoy says operating costs have become part of the conversation when people discuss the design of a luxury home.
“In 2004, even if I brought it up, no one wanted to talk about it,” he said. “But today, we’re setting up homes for solar and making sure the main body of the roof faces as much toward the south as we can.”
Foam insulation is slowly replacing fiberglass, and geothermal heating and cooling systems have become popular. “The heating systems cost two to three times more than a traditional system, but pay for themselves over a period of six to eight years,” Laplante said.
Pecoy added that people are also concerned about sustainability and where their building materials come from.
“We used to use a lot of exotic woods, such as ribbon stripe mahogany that came from rainforests,” he said. “But today, people prefer local hardwoods such as oak, ash, and maple.”
Fireplaces are still hot, but the demand for wood-burning models has gone up in smoke, being replaced with gas units that are easy to operate and don’t waste heat. “Saving energy has become ingrained in people’s minds, because no one knows where energy prices will go a year from now,” McCullough said.
Still, the warmth of a fireplace remains attractive, and Laplante’s clients are putting them in bathrooms and bedrooms and using zero-clearance models in hallways that allow them to be mounted on walls.
“They’re not all at ground level, and many look like artwork,” Gale said.
And because entertaining friends and family at home has become so popular, many luxury homes are designed with a guest bedroom and adjoining bathroom large enough to almost be called a second master suite.
Although designs have changed in recent years, McCullough said, the biggest difference in the market today is people’s willingness to spend money.
“My view is that we’re on a precipitous rise. This year is much better than last,” he told BusinessWest, adding that it means work for builders, subcontractors, suppliers, and companies that make products for construction.
Laplante is building in East Longmeadow, Hatfield, South Hadley, and Southampton, as well as Connecticut. “Some of the homes are on individual lots, while others are in subdivisions. We’re also doing a lot of major renovations,” he noted. “For us, business is great.”
Pecoy said the majority of his firm’s business used to come from building luxury homes. “It has slowly picked up, and right now, it is about 40%,” he noted, adding that many existing luxury homeowners are remodeling and expanding their outdoor space.
Indeed, the list of projects his company is doing is staggering. “We have expanded our footprint, playing in a much bigger sandbox and traveling farther than we used to,” he said.
But for Pecoy and other custom homebuilders, it’s a joyous ride in a season that holds great promise.