By Cheryl Weber. In the new Nautilus community at Crystal Cove, a coastal enclave between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, Calif., the Luxury Group of John Laing Homes is offering its first high-power laundry room. Home buyers will have the option of borrowing 300 square feet from the garage and installing 40 linear feet of counter space including a large island, plus a room full of cabinetry and the Kohler Harborview, an oversized utility sink for washing dogs or small children. Price tag: $34,000.

In high-end homes like these, which start at $1.5 million, luxury has found its way to the laundry room. But the desire for order and perfection in a room once associated with drudgery is filtering down to middle-class buyers, too. Unlike a great many gourmet kitchens that are purchased for show rather than serious cooking, laundry rooms get rigorous use. Americans collectively do 35 billion loads of dirty laundry a year, according to Procter amp; Gamble, and families spend seven to nine hours each week cleaning their clothes.

Living Larger

Appliance manufacturers from Miele to Sears have made laundry chores a little more pleasant with the introduction of sleek, industrial-style washers and dryers that operate quietly and efficiently. Sales of front-loading machines such as Maytag's Neptune washer and Whirlpool's Duet washer and dryer have nearly doubled in the U.S., from 6 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2002, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.

And just as the big-screen TV made media rooms larger, the new front-loading washers and dryers are expanding the laundry room's horizons. Michael Villane, vice president of marketing and sales for Hovnanian Enterprises' northeast region, says the builder is moving away from the formula of a laundry room behind a set of doors to allow space for ironing boards and the top-loading machines, which it began offering eight months ago. Although he hasn't tracked sales, Villane says front-loading washers are popular with buyers. "People are getting over how much more the washers cost because they are more efficient with water, hold more clothes, and are easier to load in and out," he says. "We're also seeing customers buying the upgraded upper and lower cabinetry for storage."

Photo: Courtesy Whirlpool Corp.

Must haves: Buyers are responding as laundry rooms morph into stylish, state-of-the-art spaces with high-tech gadgets.

At $1,300, Whirlpool's Duet washer is nearly quadruple the price of its lowest-priced top-loader. The units can be raised on pedestals so people don't have to bend, but workspace on top -- traditionally used for folding and sorting clothes -- is lost, creating the need for additional countertops and the option for a storage drawer beneath the washer and dryer. "If we make the laundry room large enough to capture these new washers and dryers that are in the mainstream now, we can add to our profits," says John Laing's Marianne Browne, vice president of sales and marketing for the south coast division. Multi-Tasking

By offering slightly larger laundry rooms, builders are also poised to capture profits from add-on amenities that let buyers consolidate activities previously scattered throughout the house. "We've been asking people, 'What do you do with your laundry area?' " Browne says. "They do more than laundry there if they can. We try to give them ancillary space off the laundry room for spreading out clothes, wrapping gifts, and doing crafts."

Some buyers are more lavish with their laundry than others. In Colorado, higher-end buyers are upgrading to whatever is available -- typically laundry tubs, fold-down tabletops, and storage solutions, says Brian Hutt, director of design studios for the Lennar Family of Builders. And active adult buyers in Tucson have opted for desks. But middle-income buyers tend to upgrade after closing. "We offer built-in ironing boards, but the price is too high," Hutt says. "They buy their own at Wal-Mart." In a New Jersey community, the builder will soon begin creating laundries in mud rooms with varying amounts of square footage. "We're seeing a couple of communities going to front-load washers, but they're not as hot as stainless-steel appliances," Hutt says.

The story is much the same in Toll Brothers' Florida market. "Laundry-room amenities aren't a viable option that we track. Not yet," says Jeff Backman, architect for Toll's Florida division. "We're working within the confines of a 7-by-12-foot room." On the other hand, he says, home buyers in the $400,000-and-up price range are asking for bigger laundries they can use for other purposes. One buyer, for example, recently incorporated a sewing center, and Backman anticipates that the multi-tasking trend will trickle down as appliance manufacturers continue to invent features that transform laundry rooms into stylish, state-of-the-art spaces. "People are starting to think of that room as more than a utility function," Backman says. "We're locating laundries in places where they can grow, like next to the garage."

Blending In

Photo: Courtesy Whirlpool Corp.

More room please: Laundry rooms are no longer damp, dark places. Builders are cashing in on making the space stylish and multi-functional -- offering separate work areas and surfaces.

Whirlpool has already refined the process of cleaning clothes. Recently, it unveiled the Family Studio, a line of fancy accessories including a jetted sink that simulates hand-washing for delicates; a drying cabinet that circulates warm air; a misting appliance that removes odors and wrinkles; and an ergonomic ironing station that accepts a custom panel or can be installed in a closet. Mara Villanueva, Whirlpool's brand manager for new business, says people like the idea of appliances that are built-in or hidden behind panels, as they are in kitchens, and they want to use the laundry as a place to tidy up their lives. "We kept hearing, 'I'm so unhappy with my laundry space; it's an afterthought and too small and unorganized,'" Villanueva says. "Having a room where everything blends helps them create a flexible room for crafts or whatever. They love the idea of an island where they can do scrapbooking while they're waiting for stuff to dry, rather than cluttering up their beautiful kitchen."

She adds: "We don't believe people want to spend more time doing laundry; they just want to make their time more productive."