YEARS AGO, BUYERS DIDN'T think twice about the lighting that came with their houses. A tasteful fixture that adorned the ceiling—and the obligatory hanging light in the dining room—were viewed as perfectly acceptable. What upgrades builders did offer weren't all that compelling, anyway. With bigger profits to be gained from structural options such as bonus rooms and high-status items such as kitchen cabinets, lighting is an area that builders haven't paid much attention to. Recently, however, lighting has come into the spotlight, so to speak. From quirky chandeliers to sleek sconces, it's one more way buyers can express their sense of style—and do it without breaking the budget. Emerging technology is changing the lighting landscape in an even bigger way. Along comes automated lighting, which has evolved into affordable, user-friendly packages that are capturing the fancy of an increasing number of home buyers.

LOW LIGHTS, HIGHLIGHTS A testament to the popularity of lighting is the fact that even first-time buyers tend to trade up. Bowen Builders Group of Buford, Ga., only recently began offering lighting upgrades in its homes, which range in price from the $140,000s to the $190,000s. The builder reports that more than 60 percent of its buyers are spending $400 to $600 for recessed lights in their kitchens and great rooms, and $50 to $150 for upgraded fixtures in their foyers, dining rooms, and baths. “We're showing a lot more of the brown cobblestone finish, but the silver finishes are still the most popular,” says Kara Grammen, selections studio manager. Customers who switch foyer fixtures are required to upgrade the lighting throughout the house. “They're spending at least $300 to $500,” Grammen says. “It doesn't sound like a lot, but they like having a choice. Alot of builders in our price range don't afford that many options.”

Buescher Homes of Frisco, Texas, also streamlines its lighting upgrades so that it can deliver more punch—and profits. The builder's move-up customers are offered an $1,800 cobblestone package that includes matching door hardware, plumbing fixtures, and a stainless-steel kitchen sink and pull-out faucet. “We just began offering it two months ago and think it will be a big seller,” says Blake Babcock, assistant purchasing manager for Buescher, whose home prices top out in the $500,000s.

With higher-end homes comes the expectation of specialty features, and the opportunity for a bit more idiosyncrasy. Urban markets in particular take a dim view of the tried-and-true. “Urban condos have gone more retro,” says Kellie Bartlett, options manager for Barratt American in Carlsbad, Calif. (Prices of its homes in Riverside and San Diego County range from the mid-$200,000s to $1.5 million.) “We offer some track lighting and pendants as standard, but a little more on the funky edge,” says Bartlett. The builder's buyers have a yen for distinctive chandeliers and signature ceiling fans, ranging from the Tommy Bahama look to Frank Lloyd Wright. “Every buyer of our high-end homes does some kind of lighting upgrade,” she says. “It's an important profit center, more so lately as the urban side of our business is taking off. People are concerned with making small spaces look brighter.”

The bath is one room where buyers want good-looking fixtures that shed just the right light on their morning routine. Robern, a Kohler company based in Bristol, Pa., aims to appeal to a broad market with its Pottery Barn aesthetic—a “casual traditional” line of fixtures that helps consumers trade up without necessarily spending top dollar. It includes everything from $75 sconces targeted toward powder rooms all the way up to the $200 “M” series: warm fluorescent tubes that cast even, natural light across the face and can be gang-installed on a wall of mirrors. “Cold blue fluorescence has been overcome,” says president Steve Bissell, adding that the company's fixtures have built-in wiring for use in damp areas.

LIGHTING AS TECHNO-DECOR As houses get more refined, so does lighting. Builders of high-end homes are introducing whole-house automated systems—and not just to the digital fast set. When it begins building million-dollar homes in 2006, Fulton Homes of Tempe, Ariz., will offer pre-programmed lighting that sets a variety of moods. A combination of low-and high-voltage components will run the gamut from tiny, museum-type halogen lights to pendants, task lights, and outdoor effects. To package the upgrades, Fulton is partnering with a local electrician who recently added automated lighting to his services. “This is not George Jetson-type technology,” says Chris Harrison, vice president and general manager of Fulton Homes. “It's very intuitive and accessible.”

But Harrison recognizes there's plenty of room for error. “This is a very high-touch and subjective area,” he adds. “So if you do it, you'd better do it well. You have the potential for customers not being satisfied.”

Roger Menard, CEO of SummerHill Homes, agrees. “It can be complicated,” he says. “We will have to find a way of demonstrating the different settings.” SummerHill is rolling out new lighting technology in 10 spec townhouses selling for $2 million in downtown Palo Alto, Calif. “We will have a demo on how they can set these different moods—usually eight on a panel, and they can have three or four panels,” Menard says. “There will be a lot of the indirect lighting buyers love. But you have to be careful about the intensity and style of lighting.” The most sophisticated packages will cost buyers roughly $50,000 and mark-ups are about 50 percent, “a significant profit center potentially,” he says.

Standardized packaging by electronics companies has brought automated lighting down-market, too. Lee Odess, national home builder account supervisor at Lutron Electronics in Coopersburg, Pa., says cost-sensitive production builders don't need to run low-voltage wires to offer automated lighting. “Now we can build a package of lights that people can turn on from their cars using the [same] remote that opens the garage door,” Odess says. “Builders can put in three outside lights as standard and let buyers upgrade from there to turn on lights inside the house. All this stuff can work off of existing high-voltage wires.” And it can be done relatively cheaply. A package of three lights on dimmers operated from a central location can be installed for 2 cents per square footage of the home. Five areas of lighting cost 25 cents a square foot.

With such accessible technology, this is a category builders can't afford to take lightly. “People are looking for more effective lighting of space,” Menard says. “Generally speaking, builders have been deficient in that area, and we need to do a better job.”