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Photos: Nick Higgins

Meet the buyers of bargain big-box houses. Last year, Bryan and Carla Alford went from being occasional foster parents to adoptive parents of seven within a few weeks.

“We were packed like sardines” in a 2,200-square-foot Orlando, Fla., home, says Bryan, but the couple found an answer to their overcrowding problem. They bought a 5,107-square-foot Del Rio model home from Meritage Homes. The house is so large, with so many bedrooms, that the whole family can sleep upstairs comfortably leaving two bedrooms, including a master suite, unused downstairs.

“It was a godsend that these guys were building these [large]-sized homes, and so close to where we work,” says Bryan, a logistics manager.

On the other hand, Mary and Tony Wilson, with just two small children and occasional guests from their native New Jersey, say they have no real need for the seven bedrooms in the 4,700-square-foot home that Meritage Homes built for them in Orlando’s suburbs. But when they saw the builder’s model home they were bowled over by its looks and value.

“We looked at this big, ridiculously beautiful house, and we wondered, ‘What is the catch? Why is this house so cheap?’ But there was no catch,” Mary recalls. The house starts at $265,990 in the Lake Todd Estates neighborhood.

“The seven bedrooms are awesome,” enthuses Mary. “We are not on top of each other. There is plenty of room for the kids.” And the home’s souped-up, energy-efficient features make the family’s power bill roughly the same as the 1,400-square-foot house they left in New Jersey.

Even as average new-home sizes have fallen slightly across the country, builders in some markets are finding a profitable and underserved niche of buyers who need or want a house as big as a mansion with the price tag of a cottage. While some buyers are in true need of the space, others, awed by the per-square-foot value of so much elbow room that cheap land and efficient box-like floor plans make possible, can’t resist the buy.

Meritage’s Orlando operation has had huge success with its huge houses. The 4,000-plus-square-foot floor plans accounted for more than half the company’s Orlando sales shortly after the company imported the model from its Texas divisions about two years ago, says Fred Vandercook, Orlando division president. Since then, it has shrunk to somewhere close to 30 percent of the division’s business, varying by community.

But, says Vandercook, “Ask our peers. They will say we are the big-box builder.”

Sincerest Form of Flattery

Crowd Control The Del Rio has space for up to eight bedrooms.

Photos: Courtesy Meritage Homes

Crowd Control The Del Rio has space for up to eight bedrooms.

But Meritage isn’t the only big-box builder now. The company’s success with super-sized homes has not escaped other home builders’ notice, particularly in Florida and Texas where inexpensive land prices have helped make the profitability equation of building big square houses for cheap prices work.

Lennar, for example, recently rolled out its 4,054-square-foot Himalayan model in the Tampa, Fla., market for $270,990. D.R. Horton has The Surrey, a 4,600-square-foot home in Lakeland, Fla., starting at $223,990. M/I Homes is selling the 5,249-square-foot Gran Vista in Orlando starting at $336,460. And KB Home has a 5,211-square-foot model it is selling in Austin, Texas, for $422,950.

“We are seeing the trend [toward bigger homes] in several submarkets,” says Cara Kane, a KB spokesperson. Those markets include locations in Florida, Texas, and California. “Some of the bigger houses have a tremendous value per square foot,” notes Kane. “We are seeing multigenerational families in California.”

Vandercook isn’t worried about competition from other builders’ mega-house products. “Our competition, honestly, is not other builders, it’s resale,” he says.

Another housing executive says the big-box home trend was born as a way to compete with resales because it is rare to find large homes among resales and foreclosures, making their plus-size a product differentiator. Also, the larger homes can often pass muster with appraisers more easily, because the bigger the house, the smaller the square-foot price, and the higher-priced portions of the home, kitchens and bathrooms, are amortized over a larger number of square feet. The lower price per square foot helps the homes compete with the lower per-square-foot cost of distressed home sales.

Still, the formula of building such homes at a profit is tricky. It requires that land in the right neighborhoods be bought at fire-sale prices and that the home itself be value-engineered for cost efficiencies as well. The box on top of a box model is a less expensive way to build than a single-level house or one with more complicated shapes and roof pitches.

“Bottom line, [building a box on a box house] is a value way of building homes,” says Orlando-based architect Ed Binkley. “It does, absolutely, give you the most square footage for the dollar.”

Still, the margins can be thin, says Vandercook. “Nobody is getting rich in today’s market,” he adds. However, even at low margins, the big houses are helping create sales volume.

“It’s a value proposition” for buyers, says Vandercook. “We are offering them more, they are paying less, and it’s for a good product in a good location.”

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Learn more about markets featured in this article: Orlando, FL, San Antonio, TX.