FOR ALL THE MARKET RESEARCH THAT BUILDERS COMMISSION, few reports give a better gauge to what buyers really want in their new homes than the internal rankings of best-selling models. This season, production builders report that their hottest models are those that devote particular attention to what's outside: courtyards, porches, and elevations that respect traditional if not historic design. Once inside, buyers are responding most to homes offering flexible layouts and increasingly self-contained suites. While regional preferences still dictate demand, builders are seeing a distinct pattern in what's moving in their newest communities.

CHRISTOPHER HOMES' DAVINCI model is strikingly different, yet fits right into its Las Vegas desert setting. Its differentiating points start with a Mediterranean-style exterior, move on to an interior courtyard, and then to an in-laws suite located in a separate structure that defines an edge of the courtyard. But what really sets the DaVinci apart is its popularity.

BEST BET: The DaVinci in Las Vegas, built by Newport Beach, Calif.-based Christopher Homes, combines much of what's selling best for builders: courtyards, historic styling, and self-contained suites. “More than 30 percent of the 90 homes we have sold at the Southern Highlands Golf Club have been the DaVinci. The percentage would have been higher, but we have restrictions on the proximity of similar home styles,” says Erica Gieser, vice president of marketing for Christopher Homes, which sells more than 100 homes annually in the Las Vegas market for an average price of $950,000.

No matter how much design attention goes into offering a slate of comparable floor plans and facade options, some plans will always stand out as the hottest model of a community, a region, or the nation. The DaVinci model's success represents much of what's driving best-selling models—and sales—for big builders across the country.

From the west coast to the east, from the north to the south, models offering courtyards and exterior spaces—whether they are up front, in back, or centered within the house—are turning into best sellers for the nation's builders. Attractive interpretations of historic styles are providing additional curb as well as sales appeal.

Self-contained suites are also proving irresistible whether for in-laws, nannies, or as a bed-and-breakfast-style suite for guests. Big builders are also responding to the needs of urban dwellers by incorporating front porches and other home features that contribute to a traditional city streetscape.

While builders stress that there are hundreds of details and sometimes a little luck that turn a model into a best seller, these are the features that appear to be driving this year's roster of hottest models.

Courting Favor EXTENDED LIVING SPACE AND CLOSER connection to the outdoors are the main attributes making courtyard models hot. In addition to Christopher Homes, Shea Homes, Toll Brothers, and K. Hovnanian are among the nation's big builders experiencing high turnover rates for models featuring courtyards.

GREAT OUTDOORS: Rick Andreen, president of Shea Trilogy Communities, sees exterior details making the Serenitas model one of Shea's most popular. Shea Trilogy Communities, which focuses on the active-adult market, first introduced courtyards in its Southern California homes and began testing whether their popularity would work elsewhere. It now has seven communities outside Southern California, including the Pacific Northwest, that are expanding to include courtyards, according to Rick Andreen, president of Shea Trilogy Communities.

Of the more than 400 homes Shea has sold at Redmond Ridge in eastern King County, Wash., 30 percent are courtyard homes, despite the fact that only 20 percent of the models offer courtyards, says Andreen.

Trilogy at Vistancia in Peoria, Ariz., also reflects the popularity of courtyard models. Of 14 models offered, six have courtyards. In the initial 75 days, 160 of the first 210 units sold were courtyard models.

Andreen says the Civitas, with an entry courtyard accessible from multiple rooms, is the most popular of the models. The Serenitas, which has an entry courtyard and a courtyard off the master bedroom and great room, is also a favorite, he says.

“I believe that for a more sophisticated customer it is the hot item, but courtyard models are not for some buyers,” says Andreen, who notes that some people will always feel more comfortable with traditional home styles. “For a person who wants a different, relaxed, and casual home environment, the series of events you get entering through a courtyard are surprising and refreshing.”

“In the higher-priced line, courtyards have become almost indispensable,” says Howard Englander, Shea Homes' architectural consultant. Englander says the courtyards not only provide the benefit of protected exterior space but also create a lighting source for rooms that have historically been dim. “We are reading courtyards like they are another room,” says Englander, who adds that a covered section allows the outdoor spaces to be used year round in the hot climate of the southwest.

Englander says Shea Homes is exploring a model with a great room that has a wet bar, which also opens through service windows to the courtyard.

The courtyard models also help Trilogy take advantage of difficult lots. “In communities where we are forced to go with a narrower lot, we are still able to create a light and airy plan that allows windows in rooms where there is typically not as much natural light,” Andreen says. Englander says he agrees that the quality of light is improved in courtyard homes.

Linda Hanford, Southwest region marketing manager for Toll Brothers, sees a similar sales picture. “Our best-selling feature in the three main markets of young family, empty nester, and active adult is an entry courtyard. It becomes part of the living area where our customers tend to put in custom fireplaces and furniture to make it part of the great room, living room, and family room areas to allow traffic flow indoors and out.”

For Toll Brothers' Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Palms Springs markets, its San Mateo courtyard model is the hottest, according to Hanford. “We offer hundreds of floor plan models, and of the 267 houses we sold in the Phoenix area in 2003, 12 percent were the San Mateo,” she says. In Phoenix, the 3,400-square-foot San Mateo starts at prices ranging from $333,000 to $466,000.

The San Mateo includes multiple rooms that face a courtyard leading to the front entry. A dining room, bonus room, and study directly connect to the courtyard.

The inclusion of a courtyard is also gaining popularity in the Northeast, where outdoor time is limited, according to Michael Vallane, vice president of Northeast region marketing and sales for K. Hovnanian. Vallane says exterior courtyards are common on the company's popular Providence and Frankford estate models. “Our high-end customers are looking for a larger home that remains inside an established foot print,” he says.

To accommodate this desire, K. Hovnanian is finding that customers choose the 6,000-square-foot Providence and Frankford models because they accommodate the addition of a full, walk-out basement that accesses a luxury courtyard, which serves as exterior living space. “The courts have brick paving, refrigerator, stove, sink, stereo, and fire place extending the living space to the outdoors,” Vallane says. Nice features that court favor with home buyers.

EXTERIOR MOTIVE: Toll Brothers' San Mateo model is among the builder's most popular in the southwest with its design centered around a courtyard. Size Matters AS WITH MANYTRENDS, HOT MODELS are typically first ignited at the high end of the market, and for those customers that usually means larger homes. More square footage allows for more options in room use, lifestyle variation over the course of homeownership, and the luxury of privacy in an individual home.

Brian Hutt, Lennar's director of design, says “The reason why many models are hot is because of the dollar-per-square-foot cost.” The more space buyers get for their money, the more usage options they have.

In northern California, Meritage Corp. is finding that customers are buying homes as big as lots will allow, whether there is a courtyard or not. Robert McLaughlin, California regional president of Meritage Homes, says that from Sacramento through the Bay Area to the Central Valley, home buyers are looking for single-floor homes with many bedrooms.

“Wherever we are able to build a large, single-story home with four or five bedrooms, they are very popular and are among the first to sell,” says McLaughlin, who oversees more than 15 communities. He says each community has its own variation on a four-or five-bedroom model with a side-by-side family room and kitchen. The large homes are popular because they offer a variety of room usage, according to McLaughlin, who adds that a lot with 6,500 to 7,500 square feet is needed for the large foot prints. The lot not only has to be big, it has to be wide. “Sixty feet wide by 100 feet deep doesn't do,” he says. However, Meritage does have a model with a back-to-front family room and kitchen for some of the narrower lots.

The real appeal of the large model is the flexibility of room layout, according to McLaughlin. “Families with small children are taking one of the bedrooms and closing it off to create a ‘retreat room' accessible only from the master bedroom,” he says. “It is a room just for the husband and wife and typically will include a fireplace and a media center and will create a place of privacy away from the children.”

Dennis Webb, vice president of marketing for Tempe, Ariz.-based Fulton Homes, notes that two of the company's 127 floor plans—the Sienna and the Tiffany—are standouts because of their size and value. Fulton sold approximately 1,400 homes in 2003 and is on track to sell 1,600 in 2004.

The 2,125-square-foot Sienna features four bedrooms, two baths, and a three-car garage, which allows for a bonus room if desired. Starting at $189,000, the Sienna's flexibility and affordability make it the most popular model in its price and size category, according to Webb.

But it is Fulton's Tiffany model, which includes the possibility of adding a basement, that demonstrates the popularity of larger models. The 2,905-square-foot base model, which starts at $270,000, includes five bedrooms, two and a half baths, a great room, a formal living room and dining room, a covered porch, and a covered rear patio. When a basement is included, the Tiffany offers 4,019 square feet starting at $373,000. With these size and price options, Webb says, the Tiffany sells twice as much as any model in its price and size category, showing that size does matter to today's home buyers.

FLEX PLAN: Meritage's Merlot model is selling briskly in northern California with its flexible room options. Separate Suites CHANGING FAMILY LIFESTYLES HAVE GIVEN RISE TO the renewed popularity of a separate suite with its own bath. Michael Vallane, vice president of Northeast region marketing and sales for K. Hovnanian, says there is increased interest in the company's models with separate suites at City Place Community in New Jersey. “The model accommodates guests, in-laws, nannies, or children coming back home from college who want to maintain a level of privacy,” says Vallane.

Frequently called “casitas” in the southwest, the separate suites are popular among a range of buyers.

Steve Sarriano, vice president of marketing for Robson Communities, which is based in Sun Lakes, Ariz., says that in 2003 the company added the option of a separate casita to both its Sienna and Palmera models. Robson, which focuses on the active-adult market, sells 350 to 400 homes a year in its five communities.

Sarriano says that in addition to creating extra private square footage for each home, the casitas are placed on the site plan to create a courtyard leading into the main unit. “The casitas are used for guests or can be used as a home office that is private and removed from the main living area,” Sarriano says.

The 5,000-square-foot DaVinci from Christopher Homes is not only popular because of its interior court. The model's detached, 16-foot-by-16-foot guest suite can also support a second-story study for the master bedroom, which can be accessed across a covered deck. Christopher Homes also provides the option of adding a wine cellar below the separate suite.

Historic Facade Style HISTORIC LOOKING HOMES ARE LEADING a trend. History can add cache to new homes and cash to home builders—if the details are right.

SEPARATE QUARTERS: Robson Communities finds high buyer interest in its Palmera model, which offers a separate guest suite. Linda Hanford, southwest region marketing manager for Toll Brothers, says the Las Vegas market is moving toward Mediterranean architectural styles, which is confirmed by its San Mateo model and Christopher Homes' DaVinci model.

The Mediterranean trend is moving toward Denver, according to David Steinke, general manager of Infinity Home Collection, which annually builds more than 100 production homes at a level that competes with custom home builders in the Denver area. According to Steinke, Infinity's hottest current model is the Monticello, a 4,000-square-foot home with an Italianate exterior available at the Daniels Gate development near Denver.

“There are 45 lots at Daniels Gate, and of 15 lots sold with the average home price of $1.3 million, 50 percent are the Monticello,” Steinke says. In addition to the distinct facade, the home features a motor court entry, a floor level change at every bedroom, and a detached third car garage that can be converted into a separate suite or home office.

Steinke is committed to including design features that are a few years ahead of the Denver market. “We look at a lot of model homes and go to the west coast frequently,” Steinke says. “In Denver, you can be a couple years ahead by just looking at the west coast.”

Looking east, Beazer Homes is achieving success with its Craftsman-styled Brookefield model that is hot in the Altanta market, according to Lou Steffans, regional vice president. “They have a variety of traditional elevations with columns on the ‘paper' porch with a peaked roof where we offer a variety of roof detail options. People can easily envision themselves spending time on the porch,” Steffans says.

The Craftsman theme continues inside the model. “We have many interior trim details, wainscoting in the dining room and foyer, and decorative spindle railings on exposed stairways,” Steffans says.

TRADITION BOUND: Classic Craftsman design is helping drive sales for Beazer Homes' Brookefield model in Atlanta. Just as the historic Craftsman style is helping move models in communities with room for freestanding single-family homes, Beazer has enjoyed tremendous success with its Hawthorne townhome model at the much heralded Atlantic Station in midtown Atlanta. Built on 138 acres of the former Atlantic Steel Hoop company, Atlantic Station will eventually include approximately 10,000 residents in a variety of single-family homes, townhomes, attached single-family homes, apartment buildings, and lofts.

Beazer's first offering—56 Hartsfield townhomes featuring ground-level porches and second-level balconies arranged to present a historic streetscape—sold at an average rate of eight per month for a starting price of about $300,000, according to Steffans.

Because the townhomes have the garage in the rear, Beazer was able to present a street front without the interruption of garage doors, which contributed to the traditional streetscape appearance. The 1,490-square-foot units offer two bedrooms and three levels. The second level provides a continuous living room, kitchen, and dining area that allows contemporary living in the historic-styled townhomes, according to Steffans.

The success of the first phase of town-homes has prompted Beazer to exercise its option for another 100 townhome units. But more importantly, it has encouraged the company to find other urban environments where the traditional Hartsfield townhomes can be built, says Steffans.

Which is exactly the course of action you would expect a hot model to produce.