As buyers cozy up to chore-free homes, builders shift their product mix.

By Jay Holtzman

Manufacturers of products from window glass to kitchen and bath fixtures call consumer demand the driving force behind their torrent of low-maintenance products over the past decade. Karie Johnson, senior product development manager of bath products for Delta Faucet Co. in Indianapolis, says, "One of the top take-aways from our consumer research is that consumers want products that are easy to clean and low-maintenance."

Likewise, recent market research by DuPont found 97 of 100 participants (all female heads of household), if upgrading, would choose to upgrade from tile to one of DuPont's Wall Surfaces products. All are "smooth, flat surface products with no grout lines," notes Tim Wilson, new-construction marketing manager for DuPont Surfaces, in Newark, Del.

Why that overwhelming choice? "The main reasons were 'no grout lines' and 'easy to care for' – those are the participants' words, not ours," says Wilson. "These are man-made materials, non-porous, and low-maintenance," he explains. "That's the trend we have been riding for quite some time, and it really rings true with consumers."

Unleashed by a variety of forces – societal, economic, political, technological – many have found their way into residential construction, some in dramatic numbers. But determining whether to specify a low-maintenance product in a new home is complex and subtle. Several factors muddy the water, including consumer expectation about product performance and ignorance of direct costs versus long-term gains, market preferences, and builders' need to create a competitive advantage.

The middle ground

Builders agree that though consumer preference is strong, it's not the only consideration. The average home buyer's knowledge only goes so far, they say. "The consumer is expecting low-maintenance products to be in the home. But in many cases, they don't have a clue what's behind the walls," explains Roger Crabb, vice president of marketing for Jim Walter Homes, in Tampa, Fla.

On the other hand, Kelly Pollard, construction support for Choice Homes in Arlington, Texas, finds that, "Consumers are asking for low-maintenance products, but in general we are leading [consumers in this trend], probably 60 percent of the time," he says.

Consumer interest varies with demographics and price points. Shea Homes' empty-nest buyers clearly want to put maintenance behind them. "We design our products around low or no maintenance," says Luis Gonzales, director of purchasing for Shea's active adult division. That includes wrapping wood fascia in a stucco material and using fiberglass doors rather than wood or steel garage doors.

Meritage Corp., in Plano, Texas, markets to a broad segment of consumers, from first-time buyers to buyers of semi-custom luxury production homes averaging $650,000. At the company's high-end Arizona communities, buyers aren't looking for low maintenance, "they are looking for fancy," says Jane Hayes, vice president, corporate communications.

But in Texas communities where the company targets first-time buyers, she sees a strong movement to tile "in the shower, on the floor and countertops," even though it requires more maintenance than laminates. Likewise, in two Northern California communities where sale prices average $384,000 – a moderate price in that area – Hayes says, "buyers have high sensitivity to maintenance, but it seems to be focused on the exterior, not the interior."

This points out a crucial marketing distinction. "It seems like the pecking order inside the home is the 'look' first and the maintenance issue second," adds Hayes. "Women really drive the decision on home interiors. They are concerned with how the nest will be when it is all finished. Most husbands are concerned with the outside of the house because they are the ones who deal with it."

That's probably one among many reasons why low-maintenance products have their greatest success on home exteriors. Americans have less free time now and don't want to spend it on home maintenance. Man-made, low-maintenance materials are more readily available today, and their cost is roughly comparable to traditional materials. Builders reap at least as many advantages as do home buyers.

As a result, there have been some dramatic shifts in the market. A decade ago, more wooden windows were being sold than low-maintenance types, says Alan Campbell, president of the Window and Door Manufacturers Association, in Des Plaines, Ill. Today, low-maintenance windows (wood clad in vinyl or aluminum) are, "probably 95 percent of the market," he says.

Likewise, in the late '80s, wood siding was larger than low-maintenance cladding products in new construction, notes Steve Booz, director of marketing for fiber cement products at CertainTeed Corp. But, "the curves switched during the '90s." Today vinyl siding has the largest market share with 45 percent to 50 percent, he says. Fiber cement siding accounts for some 10 percent. And product growth rates will accelerate the trend. Booze expects the market share of fiber cement cladding to double in five years, with vinyl having modest growth.

Buying materials

Manufacturers may promote low-maintenance products, and consumers demand them, but production builders "have to hit the price point." It's always a question of cost versus return. "Choice caters to first-time buyers," explains Pollard. "We are always trying to find the balance between affordability and availability. If we aren't looking at a large cost increase, then the ideal is to use as many low-maintenance products as possible."

Steve Nordstrom, vice president of construction for Jim Walter Homes, calls his firm, "very cost conscious in making materials decisions. There are a lot of builders littering the roadside that started out thinking they were an affordable builder who, for whatever reason, specified themselves out of the market."

But cost decisions aren't always simple because low-maintenance products have long-term impact, too. Nordstrom says originally the move to more low-maintenance products was, "to a certain extent self serving." There were higher costs, but, "the big advantage on the cost and warranty service end is reduced callbacks. That slightly higher cost pays huge dividends down the road. I think a lot of builders don't realize that equation. It sounds overly simplistic, but we have found it is absolutely true," he adds, noting that the company uses a range of products including vinyl siding and railings, vinyl and aluminum windows, brick veneer, manufactured trim material, and fiber cement siding.

Other builders also underline the positive impact on warranty costs. "Depending on the number of units we are closing or have in warranty, low maintenance can become a driving factor," Pollard explains.

Touting ease of use

Less tangible perhaps, but just as important, is the impact of low-maintenance products on a builder's market positioning and the overall home buying experience delivered to the customer. As Pollard points out, "We benefit from the standpoint of warranty expense, but if customers also have a good buying experience, they are more likely to purchase their second home from us."

Hayes relates how Meritage's early adoption of fiber cement siding gave the company a competitive advantage, at least temporarily. "At the production level, you want something that will set you apart, but still let you hit that price point. In the beginning, fiber cement siding added to the cost of the house, but the competition wasn't using it so we had an advantage," she explains.

Long term, these products also can bolster the sales message. "We want our houses to look good 10 years down the road, because they are our greatest sales vehicle," Crabb says. "We want happy customers, because among other things, they give you referrals for future business. Low-maintenance products in our homes help keep buyers happy throughout the life cycle of the home," he adds. It's a factor that will have more weight as builders pay more attention to building a brand and keeping their names associated with their products.

For some product types, charging a premium for ease of use is problematic because of consumer expectations. Johnson says Delta's marketing focuses on style and warranty issues because consumers now take low maintenance for granted.

Similarly, style is still primary for David Cassady, manager for Nafco's luxury vinyl flooring, produced by Domco, a Canadian-based company. "What really vibes the consumer first is color and design. It always has been and probably always will be."

And, all low-maintenance products aren't necessarily developed or marketed as such. One case in point is a high-tech wear layer developed to make Nafco luxury vinyl flooring more resistance to scuffs, scratches, and the like, says Cassady. Performance, not maintenance, was the primary issue when the company looked at competitive products to establish a benchmark, and performance is the thrust of the marketing.

Tracking trends

The flow of new low-maintenance products isn't likely to slow any time soon. Consumers probably won't acquire a yearning for maintenance. Rarified technology seems to find its way into commonplace products faster and faster. For instance, Nafco's new flooring wear layer uses the same ceramic material that protects NASA's space shuttle during re-entry. Delta creates its new coatings using a patented "physical vapor disposition" process, in which charged atoms bombard faucet parts in a vacuum, bonding layers of metal to them.

And new composite materials for decks and exterior trim are "changing the value proposition of cost, maintenance, and workability," according to John Pruett, market manager for CertainTeed's Boardwalk composite lumber. With the EPA now requiring CCA pressure-treated wood to be phased out for residential use by 2004, Pruett explains, "Composites are here to stay. They've reached the mainstream."

The biggest reason builders will use more low-maintenance products is that their business will continue to benefit. "Given that CCA is going to be out in a couple of years ... the pressure-treated wood of the past will be very expensive," Nordstrom says. "That's going to drive us to alternatives," which makes composite materials, "the last big frontier for porches, decks, and railings, etc."

But, Nordstrom points out, it is environmental and political pressures having to do with issues like toxic materials and deforestation, not market pressures that are paving the way. "If CCA was going to be available, everybody would probably stick with it. It just so happens that these composites are more durable products."

Whatever the driving forces are, it also happens to be that the bottom line is positive. "The builder and consumer are both gaining," Nordstrom adds.

Jay Holtzman is based in Jamestown, R.I.

Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, June 2002