By Alison Rice. At Murphy Farms, a master planned community in the Dallas suburbs, the upstairs master bedroom has become a thing of the past. Nine of the development's 12 two-story and one-and-a-half-story floor plans feature a master down — a first-floor master bedroom.

In active adult communities, where builders have been offering master downs for years, that's old news. But Murphy Farms isn't an active adult development or even age-targeted. Built by D.R. Horton, Murphy Farms, whose 201 homes start in the $220s, attracts buyers of all ages, from young families to move-down boomers. And, as Horton learned, these aging boomers want first-floor masters not just in active adult developments, but wherever they're buying. "We found we needed it," says Felicia Flippin, division sales manager for the Arlington, Texas, builder's metro Dallas division.

Many builders are discovering the same thing as boomers explore housing options outside the traditional retirement community. "[These buyers] don't necessarily want to be segmented or categorized in how they live," says Jeff Kingsbury, vice president of sales and marketing at McStain Neighborhoods, a move-up builder based in Boulder, Colo. McStain recently upped its offerings of main-floor masters and one-story plans to 41 percent of its detached mix, based on increased demand and a faster sales pace.

A Floor Apart

For most aging boomers, the appeal of a master down stems from what it doesn't require: climbing the stairs, as active adult builders well know.

"What we typically get are people who are very young in their retirement, who are active and in good health, but who have hit the stage where they're thinking about the long-term use of their home," says Eric Snider, vice president of sales and marketing for Shea Homes for Active Adults in Scottsdale, Ariz., which offers exclusively master-down plans (and almost entirely one-story homes). "They say, 'It's not an issue for me today, but 10 to 15 years from now, I may have trouble getting up and down the stairs.'"

Other motivations for buying a master-down plan may come not from boomer buyers' health concerns, but from the shape of their families. They may not have trouble with stairs, but perhaps they're caring for an elderly parent in their home who does. Or maybe their children have reached the teenage years, with all the stereo-cranking that implies. "It's not the young families who want this," says Horton's Flippin. "It's the second-time buyer with teenagers or grandma living with them. It gives more privacy for everyone in the home."

And in some markets, it's practically a regional requirement. When Toll Brothers began building in the Nashville, Tenn., area in June 1997, the Pennsylvania-based builder quickly learned that the traditional second-floor master bedroom plan wasn't what local buyers wanted. Now, 90 percent of Toll's plans there include a master down. "What this market seems to demand is a first-floor master bedroom," says Burt Carrick, Toll's regional manager for Tennessee. "I came from New Jersey, where you couldn't give them away."

Paula Cirulli, an agent with Realty Executives Fine Homes in Brentwood, Tenn., suggests that might be because Nashville boomer buyers can't find the one-story homes they might otherwise purchase. "They'd like one-story homes," she says, "but the lot sizes do not allow for that."

Mastering the Master Down

Building master-down plans is often more difficult than selling them, especially if they're placed — as they often are — in a story-and-a-half home.

"It's always a struggle in a story-and-a-half [home] to build," says Larry Moore, an architect with Bloodgood Sharp Buster (BSB), an architectural and land planning firm based in West Des Moines, Iowa. "You don't get the economies [that you do in other plans]. Everything is maximized in a ranch, and those boxy two-stories are very efficient to build."

But ranches, which also require the most land, can be expensive to construct, and full two-story master-down plans have their own challenges. While two-story homes are the least costly to build, the larger first-floor footprint of a master-down plan makes for a host of second-story rooms. That's fine for a family buyer, but the true empty-nester buyer may not want or need all that upper-story space.

Moore says he's found the most master-down efficiency in a modified New England saltbox style. "Stack as much as you can and let the rest of the house be a sloping structure," he says. "That's as much economy as you can get."

Some builders also offer first-floor master suites in townhouses. McStain, for example, incorporates them into the slightly wider (22 feet) footprint of a 1,729-square-foot end unit that starts in the $200s.

Builders who want to offer a master-down option must remember the smaller touches involved in what is essentially main-floor living. For instance, laundry rooms need to go on the first floor, and a first-floor flex space provides a home office for boomers working into retirement.

Finally, the entrance to the first-floor master bedroom must be treated appropriately. "You don't want the entrance right on the living space" or the room's privacy, one of the main attractions for the master-down buyer, will quickly evaporate, says Toll Brothers' Carrick. But neither does the room's doorway need to be in a "remote location," says BSB's Moore. He often places the entrance within a small rotunda or vestibule. This provides an important element of the first-floor sleeping areas: gentle separation from the rest of the home's gathering places.

Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, November 2002