IN ITS NEWEST HOUSE PLANS, John Laing Homes of Newport Beach, Calif., is designing multi-purpose rooms that range in use from the magical to the mundane. Some model homes showcase an inviting, book-lined library on the private second story. In other homes, a reading nook nestles into the side of a stair landing. And next to the kitchen, the builder is including a craft—a.k.a. junk—room, a collection point for household flotsam that can be shut off from view. It's designed with built-in drawers, shoe racks, and a place to hang the keys.

In a move that makes home offices seem positively passé, major builders are merchandizing bonus rooms and flex spaces in increasingly imaginative ways. Whether it's a conservatory or a computer alcove, a teen room or a place for toddlers and their toys, homes with specialty rooms have become a magnet for a diverse group of buyers.

It's happening to various degrees in products from townhomes to million-dollar mansions. In Toll Brothers' attached homes, a loft may be outfitted as a game or meditation room, with bean bag chairs and big floor pillows. Among well-heeled single-family home buyers, one of the builder's most popular options is a conservatory, which comes with a choice of high ceilings or extra space on the second story. Buyers turn them into music rooms, libraries, offices, or entertainment spaces complete with a wet bar. Even basements are a potential retreat. Toll builds them with full-height ceilings so buyers can finish them out with a wine cellar, a surround-sound media center, or a gym. “Having these spaces available allows buyers to design the home of their dreams, which is a big draw,” says Kira McCarron, Toll's vice president of marketing.

The ability to add ancillary spaces that make life more enjoyable is also seen as a key selling point at K. Hovnanian. “In all of our communities, a lot of what we do is driven by giving people choices,” says Doug Fenichel, director of public relations. Those choices include sunrooms, morning rooms, finished basements, and home theaters, which Hovnanian recently began offering with an outside vendor. Fenichel says that 75 percent of buyers in one high-end community are ponying up $15,000 to $25,000 to add rooms that make their homes feel semi-custom.

Room For Imagination The appeal of personalized niche rooms is driven by the changing and often unpredictable dynamics of today's buyers. “Seniors are moving into cul-de-sacs where there are young families,” says Marianne Browne, John Laing's vice president of sales and marketing. “Empty-nesters may not necessarily want a smaller home. There are also singles mixed in with families. Our communities are a blend of different consumer segments.”

NO GAMBLE: Big builders are getting creative in merchandising bonus rooms and flex spaces. For that reason, labels for specialty rooms rarely show up on the floor plan. Rather, they're furnished just-so in model homes to suggest a use that attracts the target market. John Laing might outfit an area off the kitchen as a playroom with a mini refrigerator for juice and snacks; a sewing room with custom closet organizers; or a craft room with special cabinetry, electrical wiring, and lighting that casts art materials in their true colors. “Buyers could spend $10,000 easily,” Browne says. A second-story teen room might be decked out with two computer stations, a small refrigerator, surround sound, a high-definition TV, and extra soundproofing. In Laing's market, teen rooms that are built out and not used in place of, say, a bedroom, start to show up in homes priced $800,000 or more.

The point is to merchandize such spaces in a memorable way that ultimately helps sell the house. The idea of a certain type of room captures buyers' imaginations, even if they can't afford to outfit it when they sign the contract. “People enjoy seeing our ideas,” Browne says. “If there's a popular option that they can't furnish right away, they can see how it's done and take a shot at it later themselves.”

Working Hard, Playing Hard That's fine with Pulte, too. The builder certainly views specialty rooms and their accoutrements as a profit center, but fundamentally it's an indirect relationship. “The reason we're offering them is to appeal to customers we might not otherwise have gotten,” says Sean Degen, vice president of architectural services for Pulte. “The idea is to expand our ability to service our customer without it becoming overly complicated, and as a byproduct, we'll make more profit.”

SPECIAL SALE: Builders hope to make buyers' lives more enjoyable through the addition of ancillary spaces such as libraries. Above all, people long for homes that help them coordinate the chaos of daily life, says Degen. “In general, everybody works hard and plays hard. Most of what we do is geared toward one or the other,” he says. A second office borrowed from a spare bedroom or tucked by the back door represents that sense of order. Both spouses in today's households have a full-time job, says Degen, “whether it's managing a Fortune 500 company or timelines for the family of four.”

Room options are put to different uses depending on the region of the country. In Pulte's slab markets in Texas and Florida, for example, second-story bonus rooms with closet organizers are snapped up for storage. And in northern climates, conservatories get top billing. Some are as big as 14 feet by 25 feet and include a fireplace. “It's a way to add a four-season space inexpensively as it relates to the rest of the house,” Degen says, “but it provides a major sunny environment.” To avoid confusing buyers, the rooms are offered just one way—with wall-to-wall windows, according to the wishes of 90 percent of the people who participated in Pulte's focus groups.

Families who are chronically pressed for time can chill out at home in high style thanks to technology such as surround sound and plasma TV. “Media rooms have been a huge craze in the past three years,” says Natalie Harris, vice president of marketing for Houston-based David Weekley Homes, which also partners with a home theater company. Fifty percent of the builder's customers who purchase homes for $275,000 and up add a media/game room in the attic. “It's in high demand because it's a huge space that's of great value to the buyer,” says Harris.

Such amenities don't come cheap to buyers: The average bare-bones bonus room from David Weekley costs $19,000. But when it's done well, a specialty room, whether it's a place to do Pilates or paperwork, is hard to pass up.

Down Time Upstairs With media rooms becoming the latest must-have amenity, David Weekley Homes recently began offering a 600- to 800-square-foot, two-level bonus space in the attic that's merchandized as a media room and game room. Deep-pocketed buyers can spend almost $50,000 to relax in luxury with the following items:

  • Cabinets to house the wet bar or entertainment center: $1,200 to $12,000
  • Granite countertops: $700 to $1,500
  • Stainless-steel undermount bar sink: $111 to $970
  • Bar faucet: $117 to $484
  • Bar refrigerator: $245 to $875
  • Beverage center/wine cooler: $991 to $2,792
  • Ice maker: $1,289
  • Microwave: $157 to $1,500
  • Wall sconces (four to six): $79 to $250 each
  • Upgraded paint (darker color for media room): $500
  • Upgraded carpet (patterned or textured): $1,300 to $4,700
  • Home theater audio/video systems: $499 (pre-wire) to $18,887 (complete)