As communities pass various “smart growth” ordinances, which may limit or increase lot size, new homes in Connecticut and throughout the country are starting to shrink. Today, homebuilders are putting an increased focus on luxury amenities vs. extravagant size.

Based on interviews with builders and architects, the National Association of Home Builders is projecting a number of design trends in new homes over the coming year. The average size of newly built homes has stabilized at 2,320 square feet over the last three years and is expected to remain in that range for some time.

More than half of all newly built homes have 9-foot-high or higher ceilings, which are increasingly becoming a standard feature in the average home.

“The market ranges through the whole spectrum,” said Bill Ethier, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Connecticut. “There are still people who think bigger is better, and still others who want smaller lots. We have empty nesters that want upscale single-family homes with the latest features but with smaller lots.”

Ethier explained that there has been a significant push on age-restricted housing in Connecticut. Such developments are typically easier to get approved and the market for them is strong. Often they are categorized by smaller lot sizes with luxury features.

“These aren’t necessarily less expensive,” he said. “The houses are very feature-rich for that level of buyer.”

Ethier’s group has been tracking a “disturbing trend” in Connecticut – some communities are imposing larger lot sizes, which is contrary to the HBAC’s policies pertaining to smart growth.

“The belief is that housing doesn’t pay its own way, but we feel that by increasing lot size you’re using more utilities with fewer people paying for them,” he said. “If more towns would adopt smaller lots and open-space subdivisions, you’d have the same or greater number of houses with much less burden on the property tax. We’re finding that homes do pay their own way.”

The HBAC has gone so far as to hire an economist to track specific housing data from each community in an effort to “dispel the myths” surrounding the fiscal burden of housing to a town.

“When developers go before planning and zoning boards they often hear that a town can’t afford to have more housing and can’t afford more children. Really the issues are loss of open space and loss of scenic vistas. So we want to remove the financial issue altogether so we can deal with the real issue, which is the fact that people don’t want a house put up next to theirs,” said Ethier.

As home prices continue to increase, home sizes are actually on the decline, according to Joanne Carroll, owner of JMC Resources in Madison, a homebuilder consulting firm.

“We’re seeing million-dollar homes that used to range 10,000 to 8,000 square feet now being built at 5,000 to 4,000 square feet,” she said. Lot sizes are shrinking in some areas as well, she added, particularly in Fairfield County where land is practically nonexistent.

“People are not looking for large pieces of land today, and soon it’s not even going to be possible because we’re running out of land. Smart growth is taking hold and there are different ways of looking at that. Smart growth in the building industry is really the most efficient use of land, and cluster housing is becoming very popular, both with homebuyers and also with towns,” said Carroll.

Stamford and Norwalk led the charge toward cluster housing several years ago by adopting regulations and encouraging the saving of land. In a cluster development, a portion of the acreage is set aside as open space while houses are situated closer together.

Lot sizes have dwindled “exponentially,” according to Carroll, who said that lots of one-third to one-quarter of an acre are not uncommon.

It is expected that the median lot size will continue to decline as growth controls cause inventories of buildable land to shrink and land costs to rise. On the flip side of the coin, large-lot/slow-growth zoning ordinances in certain jurisdictions continue to mandate one-or-more-acre lots for some homes.

‘A Cottage Look’

As far as what goes into those houses, Carroll said people are looking for lower maintenance. That can mean anything from vinyl siding to new materials such as Hardy Plank, a concrete-based siding that offers the look of cedar with a 50-year warranty.

“Very traditional architecture is still the way to go in Connecticut, exterior-wise – it’s a cottage look that’s in. People don’t necessarily want their house to look massive, instead they want it to blend in,” said Carroll.

Inside the houses, she pointed to the turn of the last century for design inspirations, citing an increased trend of moldings, bead boards and hardwood floors. There is also a heightened emphasis on special features such as high-end appliances, low-maintenance finishes and above-grade materials.

“This holds true for less expensive homes as well. People want hardwood floors,” she said. On average, homebuyers are spending roughly 7 to 15 percent of the home cost on extra amenities. That is mostly due to low interest rates allowing owners to tack on a few extras and remain in their price range.

As always, bathrooms and kitchens are increasing in size and amenities. Soaking tubs have increased in popularity over the last year, as have walk-in showers with multiple showerheads.

“The living room has all but disappeared, and instead what’s popular is the combination family room/kitchen. The kitchen opens up to the family room with a fireplace,” said Carroll. More than one-third of homes built last year did not have a living room, she added, and that trend is expected to continue.

Inside the kitchen, new owners are usually looking for granite countertops, two ovens and often even two dishwashers. In more expensive homes, catering kitchens are included as well. Center islands that have the look of finished furniture also have increased in popularity.

Buyers of new homes are demanding large kitchens that are adjacent to family rooms, with the two rooms being visually open or divided by a half-wall. Bathrooms are also getting larger and are increasingly being built with upgraded fixtures and lighting, plus linen closets, double vanities and separate toilet compartments.

Three-car garages have become as common as two-cars used to be, and garages are being used for more than just car storage. They are often heated and finished with a concrete that can be stained and scored. Laundry rooms are also seeing increased activity, as most are larger and some even come with craft or play areas to keep children occupied while parents wash clothes.

“In many cases, the main thing driving home costs is land. Land has become so incredibly expensive that prices have risen 12 to 20 percent over the last year. As a result, builders have to maximize every inch of that house, and basements and attics are being finished as extra living spaces,” said Carroll.

What was once traditionally used as storage space has now become extra bedrooms, living rooms or “gathering rooms,” where families can lounge. Attics are being turned into offices and exercise rooms, and hallways are becoming play areas, she said.

Basements are often turned into wine cellars with wine bars, or home theaters with plasma screen televisions.

“Plasma TVs are huge right now,” she said. “We’re seeing them in libraries or home offices, and a lot of times a plasma screen is built in over the fireplace in a master bedroom, with another TV in the family room and home theater room.”

A final amenity is an extra area used as an au pair suite or space for in-laws that may move in later in life. That area will have at least a bedroom and bathroom, and sometimes have a third room for living space.

“These are also used for college students returning home,” said Carroll.

The NAHB expects to see more ceiling fans in newly built homes. Close to 80 percent of respondents in a recent NAHB survey of consumer preferences cited ceiling fans as desirable or essential features in a new home, indicating a significantly greater interest in them than in the past.

Homes with structured wiring systems that allow for faster data transfer rates continue to gain in popularity. Three-quarters of homebuilders offered structured wiring in their homes last year, and more than 40 percent of homes built in 2002 had that feature.

High-technology features, including monitored security, distributed audio and home theater systems – and, to a lesser extent, automated lighting and energy-management systems – are now very much available in the upscale marketplace. Looking forward, Carroll said those can be expected to gradually percolate down to the general market, just as other features such as fireplaces, 9-foot-high ceilings and three-car garages have done over the years.

Additionally, more communities in the coming year will be built with recreational facilities, including walking/jogging trails for adults, play areas for children and/or a fitness center.