THEY AREN'T CALLED MAJOR appliances for nothing. Unlike carpet or fixtures, machines such as washers, dryers, and dishwashers represent more than just a tasteful backdrop to domestic life: They're part of a household's hum. Like a car, they offer possibilities for both high performance and stylish good looks. Perhaps that's why most home buyers upgrade from the standard-issue fare and why 75 percent of the builders in a recent survey said they concentrate on offering just the right major-appliance packages.

Major appliances have a selling advantage over many other design-center products, too. Unlike with a carpet sample, customers see them in real size and observe them in action. It's hard to resist the smell of cookies baking in the convection oven, the murmur of a whisper-quiet dishwasher, or the gleam of a stainless steel refrigerator. On the other hand, because popular appliances are ubiquitous at retail centers, they're among the most price-sensitive products builders offer. Brown Family Communities, Tempe, Ariz., turns that constraint into an opportunity to create a positive buying experience for customers. “We could take advantage by being able to roll the appliance upgrades into the buyers' mortgage and save them delivery fees, but that isn't our goal,” says Bruce Berg, design center director. “In most cases, we want to be priced lower than the big boxes. We want them to feel good about builders and the design center experience.”

FULL LINE: KitchenAid's Architect Series includes everything from refrigerators to warming drawers. Time And Energy Efficiency Energy efficiency, aesthetics, and advanced technology are all high on home buyers' lists at Brown Family Communities, which concentrates on the move-up market. Best sellers include KitchenAid's self-cleaning ranges, some of which come with fifth burners and warming elements, and super-quiet Energy Star dishwashers with delayed-wash cycles and built-in disposals, says Keith Murphy, options coordinator. Roughly 75 percent of buyers upgrade their dishwasher, and 35 percent purchase an extra-large-capacity washer or the Whirlpool Duet water-saving washer and dryer.

Crosswinds Communities, in Novi, Mich., is seeing an uptick in home buyer concern about energy issues. “In this past year, we've been hearing more from buyers about energy-efficient appliances,” says Colette Scholten, vice president of sales and marketing. “We just built an energy-efficient model home to emphasize that quality, and it makes people more conscious of that in selecting their appliances.” That's not surprising, given the rising costs of utilities and the growing awareness of green building practices. Mike Jones, general manager of contract sales at General Electric, Fairfield, Conn., says energy efficiency is becoming non-negotiable. “Consumers are sensitive to it, and it's the right thing to do,” he says. “We have a comprehensive Energy Star offering across all of our product lines, and the volume of GE products being launched with Energy Star is growing.” Jones says the company's high-speed cooking products are also selling well, such as its Ultimate Advantium oven, a larger version of the Advantium 120, and its Profile and Monogram trivection ovens, which combine convection, thermal, and microwave energy to speed up cooking time.

Bells And Whistles At Crosswinds Communities, which offers GE appliances, buyers in the middle of the economic spectrum regularly spend $300 to $500 more for side-by-side refrigerators with water filtration systems, touch temperature controls, and special shelving. They're also shelling out $1,000 to $2,000 to upgrade to stainless steel kitchen appliances, with black a close second in popularity.

With stainless steel still going strong, GE added two lookalike finishes to its entry-level line of appliances last year. CleanSteel, a metallic laminate applied to metal, hides fingerprints and holds magnets. “Right now, CleanSteel is just available on refrigeration, but additional products are coming soon and will be comparable to colors in price,” Jones says. The company's Hotpoint line also includes Silver Metallic appliances, featuring a paint finish with a silver sheen.

Meanwhile, well-heeled buyers still gravitate toward high-powered appliances with all the bells and whistles, and they insist on having plenty of choices. Albuquerque, N.M.-based Artistic Homes will supply buyers of its luxury custom home series with any brand of appliances they desire, although the builder showcases Whirlpool and KitchenAid in its design center. Roughly 99 percent of buyers in the middle to upper-end markets (homes priced from $300,000 to $500,000) opt up, spending about $10,000 on appliances. “Most people don't know what they're looking for when they come in,” says Renee Griffith, manager of the customer care center. “We pull the information out of them by asking how they like to cook and entertain. When there's a brand name that's out there, people trust it. But education is a big part of selling appliance upgrades.”

WELL-EQUIPPED: Viking, above, and GE, left, list plenty of options on their appliance menus. Whirlpool Corp., Benton Harbor, Mich., works with builders to offer upgrade packages that range from $1,000 to $15,000. Dale Garwood, director of national accounts, says the company's Architect series is seeing strong sales, particularly among buyers who love to entertain. And he attributes the Duet's continuing success to its styling, of the well-appointed laundry room. “People are talking about their laundry room when they have guests over,” Garwood says. “Consumers want innovation and differentiation.”

Bob Woods, vice president of sales at Viking Corp., Greenwood Miss., agrees. Two years ago, the company started working with production builders on homes starting at around $750,000, offering Viking starter packages for $6,000 on up to $20,000 for lavish options such as dual-fuel ranges, warming drawers, wine coolers, and trash compactors.

“At this end of the market, homeowners want to have a lot of choices to customize their homes,” Woods says. Because the appliance cut-outs are uniform across Viking's product lines, homeowners can pick and choose between the Designer Series and the Professional Series without setting off change-order headaches. All appliances come with panel choices of wood, stainless steel, and 13 colors, including burgundy, greens, and blues. “Our mainline colors are black, white, stone gray, and a darker graphite gray,” Woods says. “The graphite gray is a nice monotone color with a matte finish, and fingerprints don't show up as much as on stainless steel.” Beauty, energy efficiency, performance, and practicality—today's appliances must possess all those qualities to catch the eye of home buyers.