Few of a home's physical attributes are as important to buyers as the impression it makes from across the street. The popularity of bravura gestures such as two-story entryways, large windows, and fancy front doors is continuing evidence that consumers see their home as their castle -- in some cases more literally than others. Suffice it to say that since the 1960s, people have been seeking out houses, however humble, whose spirit and details transcend their function. And with today's low interest rates, buyers can afford to pay more for exteriors that make a distinctive statement.

The consumer quest for self-expression isn't the only force motivating builders to come up with richer-looking elevations. Because of the good run in housing, municipalities, too, are becoming more demanding about design. "We're having to design a larger variety of elevations to get projects approved," says John Rymer, vice president of sales and marketing at Morrison Homes, in Atlanta. "Even though they like the old elevations that occurred across town, they want us to do completely new sets so that each community has its own signature."

Within communities, repetitive clauses are becoming more stringent, too. But while it's a challenge to continually find ways to re-elevate floor plans that are selling well, Rymer says that elevations are more economical to vary than floor plans are. "When you're changing the elevation, you're typically only changing plans for two trades," he points out. "When you're changing floor plans, you're changing specs for 10 or 20 trades."

Perceived Value

Buyers from across the economic spectrum are choosing elevations with as much architectural detail and definition as they can afford. At The Drees Co., based in Fort Mitchell, Ky., 95 percent of buyers purchase additional gables, even in the entry-level market, says architect Scott Sinfrock, design manager. First-time buyers are offered a simple saltbox-type house, like a child's drawing, with a brick front and vinyl siding. "We try to do one elevation in each community without gables, but they don't sell," Sinfrock says. The builder's best-selling elevations in that market feature covered entries, either recessed or a small porch.

Reconciling cost-effectiveness with curb appeal on starter homes often comes down to creating subtle details. In Texas, where homes are required to be clad in 75 percent masonry, Dallas-based Mercedes Homes accentuates its elevations with brick banding, typically projected at a half inch, and brick detailing around windows and gables. "Those slight projections really help with shadow lines," says Kevin Procaccino, vice president of product development.

At Morrison Homes, porches are a popular upgrade for first-time buyers, even if they're too small to set a chair on. "In that particular market, people are interested in low-maintenance products that create the perception of value," Rymer says. The builder offers a 3-foot-deep porch -- a $500 to $1,000 upgrade -- and a functional front porch as a second-tier upgrade, which adds another $500 to $1,000.

As interest rates began to fall last year, the use of stone increased. In 2002, Morrison Homes sold more cultured stone as an upgrade on entry products than it ever has -- typically for use as a band below a window or on a corner. Procaccino has observed the same trend in the move-up market: 45 percent of people who purchase Mercedes' mid-range homes, which top out at $250,000, upgrade to stacked stone or river rock, usually around entryways. "We're seeing stone as the predominant accent people are spending money on," he says. To dress up a two-story entryway, for example, buyers pay anywhere from $1,000 to $6,000.

In solidly mainstream products, the elevation choices multiply. Drees offers up to 10 different elevations per floor plan in some communities, but it limits the options within each elevation. That strategy creates predictable profits, Sinfrock says, while allowing for a diverse streetscape. Standard packages on the homes, which range in price from $220,000 to $300,000, include such features as prominent, glassy entryways; heavier trim packages (the builder uses a proprietary foam molding that it says looks historically authentic); stone accents; and brick on all four walls.

Familiar Surroundings

When it comes to architectural styles, most buyers are looking for something new, yet familiar. While that's true of consumers at every price level, it's particularly so in high-end markets. In Florida, for example, Mercedes has created a new line of high-end homes based loosely on French country, Mediterranean, and Craftsman themes, and is now introducing those styles in Texas. Drees' Sinfrock says that in Dallas, its newest upper-end homes -- $500,000 and up -- have French Provincial-style elevations. "People love that look of heavy stone trim and iron balconies," he says. Popular upgrades range from $1,000 door and sidelight systems and nickel hardware to turrets, leaded glass windows, full stone, and dimensional shingles.

"Buyers of houses over $300,000 will always upgrade to the shingles and front door systems," says Carol Quill, director of Drees' design center in Blue Ash, Ohio. "Customers in that market are given more choices because we can do larger price increments."

Mercedes winnows its choice of high-end elevations to two or three, while granting plenty of leeway with custom options. "It's not rare to see an 'a' choice," Procaccino says. At the upper end, when "a," "b," and "c" elevation choices are given, buyers will just as often choose the least expensive, because they're all fairly equal. "There's less difference in elevation upgrades because each elevation is fairly sophisticated." In every budget range, it's that combination of functionality and progressive good looks that builders are scrambling to provide.

Rising Elevations
Morrison Homes simplifies its elevation offers for its Bella Vista Legacy series by creating three basic choices:

A. A stucco-clad, 2,604-square-foot house in one of its Phoenix communities. The base elevation, priced at $202,990, includes stucco band below the windows and gable roofs.

B. The second elevation upgrade, which costs buyers an additional $3,500, includes hip roofs and two-toned stucco with more banding. "Buyers like hip roofs and they add to the ambience of the neighborhood," says John Rymer, vice president of sales and marketing for Morrison Homes.

C. The third and most expensive elevation adds yet another $3,500 and incorporates stacked stone on the 12-foot entry columns and along the foundation.