Mario Wagner

Creating products that delight, that people didn’t even know existed much less knew they wanted, made Apple a success, and it can help home builders sell houses, too. The hard part is figuring out what buyers don’t know they want.

Builder asked a number of successful home builders, designers, and architects what they are designing, building, and installing in homes that are making home shoppers want a house so much that they can overcome their fears of job loss and falling home values.

Their answers include ideas that are as creative as new contemporary design and as simple as a place near the door to keep the family’s shoes corralled. They are as soul pleasing as natural light and as body pampering as warm bathroom floors.

They can be eye candy or practical, offering comfort and coziness or time- or money-saving. But mostly, they are things that make home shoppers say “wow” and inspire a vision of a better life in a new house.

1 View From the Street

Nobody wants to pull into somebody else’s driveway by mistake. Post-recession buyers are unwilling to settle for the same uninspired house designs they have been looking at for years, houses they bought during the boom years because there wasn’t anything else to choose from.

Successful builders are selling houses that are fresh looking. In some cases, that means neo-traditional styles. Increasingly, though, contemporary-styled home sales are taking off, and not just in California. In Salt Lake City, Garbett Homes can’t build its line of modern homes, designed by KTGY Group, fast enough to keep up with sales.

2 Elemental Desires

Human beings are drawn to fire, water, light, and views. And so it follows that builders that create spaces that bring in natural light, offer green-space views, and add eye-catching fire and water features are selling more homes.

Fire features available today go beyond the traditional wood-burning fireplace. There are alcohol-burning fire elements that can go anywhere inside a home, and gas units that don’t require chimneys. Outdoor fire pits that shoppers can envision themselves gathering around outdoors are buyer attractors, as well.

Water features have moved beyond swimming pools. Fountains or falls that splash or flow in silken sheets can be teamed with static swimming pools or tied into fire elements for a double-whammy impact.

Homes that arethoughtfully sited to take advantage of views and designed with enough windows to bring in ample amounts of natural light make buyers feel good and help them imagine a better life in the home.

“You want a home that can make you happy,” says Robert Bowman, president of Charter Homes and Neighborhoods, a Pennsylvania builder that recently sold 30 homes in 30 days. “The best way to do that is to provide tons of natural light.”

3 Comfortably Communing With Nature

Even in northern climes, buyers are taking the plunge with houses that have outdoor spaces that seamlessly connect with the indoors.

Developer/builder Irvine Co. commissioned home designs a couple of years ago that added a space called a California Room, essentially a three-sided screened porch that connects to the home through large glass slide-away doors. The plans have been a big success.

Architects are cleverly using the walls of buildings turned in a puzzle-like fashion to create outdoor spaces even on tight lots where homes are attached. “These are cool courtyards that are a fun place to stay and hang out,” says Manny Gonzalez, a KTGY principal.

Orlando, Fla., architect Phil Kean of Phil Kean Designs has found a way to make such spaces even more practical in Florida where, unlike California, bugs can make a porch or other indoor-outdoor space unusable. He employs Phantom Screens, which can be lowered by electric motors on buggy days or raised into a hidden compartment when the mosquitoes aren’t out to allow a seamless view from house, across the veranda, out to the pool and beyond.

4 Visions of Leisure

Sean Ruppert, principal of OPaL LLC, a Lanham, Md.–based home builder, calls them memory points—special places designed into homes that prompt potential buyers to start imagining living happily in the homes. Sometimes it’s a cozy place to have coffee in front of a window in the morning. Often it’s a kitchen integrated into a great room that sparks thoughts of companionable family times. OPaL has a trademark memory point—window seats.

“We always do a window seat, whether it’s at the end of a site line or on a stair [landing] by a window,” says Ruppert. “It doesn’t cost a lot of money. It’s wood and trim. I think it helps sort of capture a moment in time” that sticks in a buyer’s memory as pleasant, says Ruppert. “I really think that our homes have a lot of such moments in them.”

5 Formerly Formal

At a time when people are responding to surveys that they plan to spend more time with friends and family, it appears that most of them aren’t envisioning that happening in a formal dining room. Rather, great rooms, where buyers can picture themselves cooking, eating, socializing with friends, and watching television together in one big space, is the favored venue for families of all sizes and types.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Orlando, FL, Los Angeles, CA, Salt Lake City, UT.