FOR A LONG TIME, A HOUSE'S front door was pretty straightforward. It let in family and friends and kept out the elements. But to satisfy increasingly savvy consumers, manufacturers are raising the bar on entryways in both materials and design—and builders are keeping pace. The front door is standing taller—wider, too. Sales of 8-foot-tall doors are increasing every year, says David Wehr, national builder market manager for Therma-Tru of Maumee, Ohio. The 8-foot-tall door makes a grand statement about a home, he says, and is a fitting portal to the soaring foyers that are so popular these days. Although only 12 percent of new single-family homes have double-door front entries, according to a study by the NAHB, design options have multiplied across the board. Production home buyers can now spend up to $20,000 on decorative sidelights and fancy transoms, if they choose.

“As you drive down through some of our communities, especially the higher-end ones, you see that buyers do like the prestige of a customized front door,” says Jean Neumann, chief marketing officer for Neumann Homes of Warrenville, Ill., whose homes target entry-level to second-time move-up buyers and range in price from $155,000 to $400,000. The builder gives its customers a wide range of front-door options—54, to be exact—priced from $50 to $2,800. Upgrades range from steel to fiberglass, and from variously configured door lights and side windows to different hues and patterns of glass. Twenty-two percent of its buyers trade up, says Neumann, spending $600 on average. And as often as not, the entryways are sold by the builder's sales reps, though they're also displayed in the design center. “Our sales reps should be demonstrating them in the models,” Neumann says. “A lot of times customers do ask about them as they're walking in.”

DOUBLE IMPACT: Twelve percent of new single-family homes have double-door entries, such as Jeld-Wen's IWP Custom Wood product. A well-executed entryway may indeed help lure people out of their cars and into model homes. An independent study Therma-Tru commissioned in 2002 showed that snazzy front doors raised the perceived value of a home up to 6 percent. “Front door systems offer builders the opportunity to get potential home buyers inside their models,” Wehr says. “People pull up and either they like what they see or they don't. If they like what they see, you've taken a major step toward selling that potential home buyer by getting them inside the house.”

Design And Durability Door manufacturers are creating that “wow” appeal all along the price spectrum. For the middle market, Jeld-Wen of Klamath Falls, Ore., offers steel doors that builders, eager to ring quick changes on elevations, can customize with glass through their local lumberyard. In pricier enclaves, there's a demand for the old-as-new look befitting Mediterranean, Tuscan, and Craftsman-style homes. “We do a lot of distressing on wood doors,” says Shane Meisel, a product marketing manager for Jeld-Wen. “We'll add faux wormholes or stress marks and dark antique staining, so the door looks like it's been there 40 years.” Buyers at the Crystal Ranch community by Discovery Builders are paying $2,500 to $6,000 for stained-glass and leaded-glass inserts in the standard fiberglass door systems. “They can also upgrade to wood with glass to fit the European-style homes,” says Gina Chipley, design center consultant for Concord, Calif.-based Discovery, where homes start at $1 million.

Some builders are spending more on standard front doors, not only to appeal to a buyer's aesthetic eye, but also to reduce costly callbacks. At the lower end of the register, Holiday Builders in Melbourne, Fla., switched from steel entry doors to Therma-Tru's Smooth Star fiberglass door on its homes, which sell for $90,000 to $200,000. “It's ding-proof and rust-proof,” says corporate purchaser Scott Clark, “and is an upgrade from what our competitors are using. It costs roughly $60 more but is well worth the value.”

“Even though steel doors are the lowest up-front purchase point, they're not always the least costly to use overall,” says Therma-Tru's Wehr. “Builders tell us that steel doors get damaged in construction and have to be repaired, and even some very cost-conscious entry-level builders won't use it.” Although steel represents the majority of market share, it's losing ground to fiberglass. “Seven or eight years ago, fiberglass doors had a 4 percent market share; now it's 14 percent, and we anticipate that by 2007, fiberglass doors will have 30 percent market share,” Wehr says. “Wood doors are 15 [percent] to 20 percent of the market, but the number is declining as we introduce more grain fiberglass, which has five times the R value of a solid wood door.”

NATURAL APPEAL: Builders are capitalizing on the popular door market. And manufacturers are responding. Wood-and-glass doors such as these Therma-Tru Classic Craft Mahogany offerings remain attractive options to home buyers. Not only must front doors survive the construction site, but they also must bear the brunt of bad weather. Todd Friedman, Pella Corp.'s director of marketing for entry systems, cites a University of Minnesota study showing that the No. 2 reason for builder callbacks, after drywall pops, is leaking front doors. Typically that's because the jamb sits on a wood sill, which wicks up moisture over time. To avoid that problem, Pella factory-builds its entry doors with an aluminum sill, left natural or finished in bronze, nickel, or brass. The company, which began making entry doors five years ago, offers two fiberglass products in addition to steel—a paint-grade smooth-grain door and a wood-grain door that can be stained.

Seeing Is Believing—And Buying With so many front-door permutations, the challenge for builders is how to present the options without pulling out a 50-page catalog. To streamline the process, last year Pella began putting together customized sales sheets for builders showing selected upgrades and their prices. “We'll work with builders to pick out something that's right for a series of homes in a subdivision,” Friedman says. “The builder can say, ‘I have a six-panel steel door, so let's put together four options. I want 30 points on the first option, 50 points on the second,' and so on. They don't have to take the home buyer into another layer of complexity.”

Therma-Tru is part of Envision, a virtual design center being assembled by New Home Technologies, a consortium of large production builders and manufacturers. Scheduled for rollout early in 2005, the password-protected site will allow buyers to choose pre-approved upgrades from their home computer, while gathering information about the products. “It will create a more positive experience because buyers can see, read about, and understand everything offered,” says Wehr. The site will be available to all builders for a fee.