Panelists at the “Design Made Simple” session at the International Builders’ Show Thursday morning emphasized that new-home builders must differentiate from their largest competitor: themselves. Homes that builders put up five to seven years ago are hitting the markets again, often making a company’s old product its newest nemesis. In order to compete with the lower price tag resales offer, says Barbara Moore of Lennar Homes, “many of us have designed out the reason to buy new.”

Overwhelmingly, the consensus on the best way to beat out resales was to incorporate features that accommodate the way consumers live—and that they can’t find in an older home. Architect Daniel Swift, senior partner with Chicago-based BSB Design, turned to research conducted by the NAHB and BSB that found 90% to 98% of builders say the most critical space in the home is the family room. Speaking of the family room, kitchen, and breakfast nook areas, Swift says, “It’s gotta’ wow. And if it doesn’t, they're going to keep walking.”

Kitchens overall remain a powerful force in the home buying decision. As homes overall are shrinking, kitchen sizes are growing. And some of what customers are looking for may surprise you. According to the NAHB’s 2010 “Plan Trends” survey, 76% of consumers say the No. 1 thing they look for in the kitchen is counter space. Close behind is cabinet space, a double sink, eating space in place of formal dining areas, floor area, and bigger islands.

Islands, the perennial darling of kitchen plans, hold even more potential in new-home plans updated for modern living. Marc Thee, co-CEO and co-founder of Marc-Michaels Interior Design in Winter Park, Fla., suggested eliminating the breakfast nook to make room for a larger island, which can be useful both for casual family dining and for giving guests something to gather around. Thee encourages, “Give them something people can hang on to—something to get the party started.”

And in every area of the home, Swift says, “storage is king.” He reports that lack of storage is the No. 1 complaint from buyers in every focus group he attends. And it’s something that resale homes rarely offer enough of. Storage is particularly critical near the owner’s entry, a space brought up by each panelist as one they give a lot of attention to these days. Moore insists that in her homes, buyers never walk through the laundry room on their way in from the garage. Swift also argues for better owners’ entrances, pointing out that builders focus too much on formal entryways, spending a disproportionate amount of funding on a space that is rarely used. And don't forget proper shelving and storage near the owner’s entrance, Thee advises, to stave off the otherwise inevitable instant clutter that arrives along with kids coming home from school, music lessons, and soccer practice.

Overall, the message was a simple one: Value-engineer, and then reinvest the money you saved into features and spaces that buyers won’t find at any resales—even your own.

Claire Easley is senior edit editor, online, for Builder.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Orlando, FL, Greenville, SC.