San Francisco--Even as we worry about today, researchers, community planners, and pollsters are probing consumer demand to predict what they will want tomorrow, and the definitive answer from those presenting their findings at PCBC 2009 is something different.

The current economic situation has triggered a sea change in people's values from an era of indulgence to one of responsibility, trend tracker J. Walker Smith of Yankelovich said Thursday morning.

That translates to the home buying consumer as a desire for homes that fit but don't exceed their space needs, are greener, and are part of a community. It doesn't mean that buyers are dour though, he said.

Actually, the opposite is true. The more anxious we get about the economy, the more we look for the bright side of things, said Smith. It's up to home builders to tap into those traits to find a market.

"They [builders] have got to be the the voice of optimism for consumers," Smith said.

Buyers are also looking for homes in a walkable environment with most of their daily needs met in a small footprint, whether it's in an urban setting or one that's "suburban-urban," a new development that may not be part of a metropolitan core but includes some of the characteristics of a city in a planned community, Christopher Leinberger, a land strategist, developer, and author of "The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream," told the group.

"We have structurally overbuilt the wrong products in the wrong locations, delivering what the market doesn't want," Leinberger said.

Leinberger said he thinks there's pent-up demand for walkable urban product, but concedes the industry hasn't cracked the difficult nut of building them. The infrastructure is costly, he said, but in the end, the product commands higher prices and is less costly per square foot.

Master-planned communities with urban touches in the form of town centers with grocery stores, restaurants, and retail stores nearby have boosted sales in Newland Communities' projects, Newland's Malee Tobias said.

"Consumers are adapting [to the new market]," Tobias said. "They are shopping even smarter than they ever did before."

She also pointed to a trend spotted in research called "hiving," sort of a spin-off from cocooning, meaning you are spending more time socializing within your community, with neighbors, entertaining at home rather than driving distances for entertainment.

"Entertaining at home is one thing they are not cutting back on," she said.