By Cheryl Weber. "I'm just checking the progress on this proper diva closet I'm having built," reported actress Juliette Lewis to In Style magazine in October. "In every other house I've lived in, my stuff was scattered in little closets. The new one is the size of an office, and I'm so excited about it!"

Your typical home buyers may not be on the movie-star set, but there's no doubt that ordinary people are also in love with stylish closet systems that organize their stuff. In fact, the longing for order, efficiency, and simplicity is palpable, if California Closets is any indication. With 2002 revenues of $160 million, the closet company's sales have increased nearly 100 percent over a five-year period.

Builders are taking advantage of the trend by teaming up with closet companies to offer prepackaged upgrades in everything from small condos to million-dollar homes. A designer closet takes a back seat to kitchen and flooring options, but it ranks fifth in popularity, according to a 2001 NAHB study. Builders in the study said that 56 percent of their buyers choose a closet-organizing-system upgrade.

"Closet systems are no longer a thing builders can forget about," says Kristina Ferrigan, marketing director for the National Closet Group -- a coalition of independent closet-organizing companies -- and Closet Works, both based in Chicago. "You can make customers delighted that you've anticipated their needs, or you can allow them to get frustrated and call us later."

Basics to Bells and Whistles

Over the past two decades, closets have evolved from a shelf and a pole to temples of domestic self-expression. Although the trend is function-driven, today's consumers are also conscious of aesthetics. Epoxy-coated wire shelving is entry-level for the builders that Closet Works supplies. "When they build on spec in a very competitive market, they soon start doing laminate," Ferrigan says. Luke Acumo, national sales manager for Ocala, Fla.,-based Closet Maid, which does 30 percent of its business with builders, agrees. "We've seen a big increase in our laminate business compared to wire," he says.

Photo: Courtesy Closet Maid

Closet Flair: Snazzy closets can increase a company's competitive edge. White laminate shelves are Closet Works' best seller, but wood veneers, which double the price, are gaining ground. On the high end, buyers can opt for glass-front drawers, crown molding, interior lighting, and padded benches. Options like jewelry drawers, pull-out valet rods, tie and belt racks, and hidden hampers with removable baskets help sweeten the pot. Closet Works recently has branched out stylistically, too, to meet the demand for Prairie-style closets and for a sleek look, with laminated glass doors and metal finishes. Julie LeFranco, sales manager for a California Closets franchise in Fairfield, N.J., sells two of the company's product lines through large production builders, including K. Hovnanian and Pinnacle Communities. The Function line is a basic white melamine shelving system. Custom includes a wide color range and adjustable baskets, which can later be exchanged for drawers. "The Custom Collection is what we sell most of to the builder market," LeFranco says. For each builder community, the franchise creates a CAD plan showing the options, which are displayed in the builders' design centers. A Custom storage system ranges in price from $400 to $30,000, with the average sale around $2,500, LeFranco says.

To Market

While the desire for controlling clutter may be universal, some buyers are more willing to pay the price than others. Mary Boorman, sales and marketing vice president for Pinnacle Communities, in Millburn, N.J., says closet maximizers are attractive to buyers in active adult communities who are downsizing, because they can be more efficient with the space they have. She estimates that 80 percent of Pinnacle's buyers in that market purchase a closet upgrade. "We're not afraid to show the high-end systems in the active adult community showrooms and home models," she says. "A lot of people go for all the bells and whistles."

Brian Hutt, director of design studios for Lennar Family of Builders' U.S. Home division, markets closet upgrades to active adult and affluent communities through model homes. "For the first-time home buyer, a custom closet won't be a priority," he says. The company rings up $1,500 on the average closet upgrade. And for a new Sacramento community, Hutt is installing closet systems in a design center for the first time.

"Buyers aren't asking for them in Florida," he says. "But we're trying them in Sacramento because we're selling a lot of high-end homes there, and California is more progressive."

Centex Homes' John Paul Mario, selections studios manager for the West Florida division, is trying to prove Hutt wrong. As an interior designer and a transplanted New Yorker with a closet system in his own home, Mario recently installed one in the company's Tampa and Sarasota showrooms. Packages range from white laminate shelving to cherry veneers with drawers and jewelry boxes, and are marked up about 30 percent.

Soft Sell

Because they're so practical, with the potential to double closet storage space, closet systems are fairly easy to sell. Ferrigan points out that they double the storage space in any closet. To her buyers, Boorman stresses the convenience of rolling the cost into a mortgage and having a seamless move-in, rather than waiting until later to upgrade. "We sell on the fact that California Closets is a good system, and it's a design that has been thought out for the architecture we've put together," she says.

In the right market, offering snazzy closets can increase your competitive edge, says Susan Schreiber, of DiamondSchreiber Builders, in Highland Park, Ill.: "There are a lot of builders who still do wire, and others who put n cabinets that aren't at the level of Closet Works [that we offer]. It's become a signature for us -- if it's a DiamondSchreiber home, buyers know it will have a drop-dead closet."

Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, January 2003