Courtesy Adobe Stock/Sean Locke

Editor's Note: This is the first installment in a series stemming from the America at Home Study, which was spearheaded by marketing expert Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki of tst ink, consumer strategist Belinda Sward of Strategic Solutions Alliance, and architect Nancy Keenan, president and CEO of Dahlin Group, to shed light on Americans’ appetite for home purchases, how they feel about and live in their current homes, and what changes they’d like as a direct result of sheltering in place.

As most of the nation was under stay-at-home orders through March and April, economists, business leaders, and the media predicted the impact of the pandemic on airlines, hospitality, entertainment, restaurants, office space, retail, and small local businesses. There was not much talk, however, about what the novel coronavirus could mean for the residential housing industry, even as most of the nation was spending 24/7 living, working, and learning in their homes.

“Home” was suddenly everything, and the silence about the industry was deafening. Even as crushing levels of unemployment mounted, online searches and virtual home shopping increased. Was online home shopping a new form of entertainment in addition to Netflix binges and Zoom happy hours, or was it replacing in-person model home and community tours, and thus evidence of new consumer demand? The only way to know for sure was to go directly to consumers and ask.

The America at Home Study, conducted from April 23 to April 30, surveyed a nationally representative sample of 3,001 consumers 25 to 74 years old with household incomes of $50,000-plus; 77% are homeowners, 20% are renters, and 3% currently live with relatives or friends. When the survey was conducted, nearly half (48%) of the respondents or another household member had lost a job or income as a result of COVID-19.

Spearheaded by marketing expert Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki of tst ink, consumer strategist Belinda Sward of Strategic Solutions Alliance, and architect Nancy Keenan, president and CEO of Dahlin Group, the survey results shed light on Americans’ appetite for home purchases, how they feel about and live in their current homes, and what changes they’d like as a direct result of sheltering in place. For home building companies, the responses offer specific insights into future home and community design.

One of the key findings was that Americans had already begun to make changes to both their homes and garages in response to COVID-19. Current home design and spaces that may have worked as intended before the coronavirus no longer did. Open concept floor plans suddenly proved challenging when one room simultaneously had to function as a home office, a classroom, and, in some cases, a sleeping space. Areas in the home designed with one purpose in mind were being converted and used for combined purposes by more than one-third of all survey respondents and nearly half of all millennials. One respondent said, “I work in my wife’s car in the morning for all my morning calls so my wife and daughter can sleep. Then I work from the breakfast table for the late morning/afternoon. I get a chance to work out a lot more since I’m home and can change into my exercise gear before my last meeting. We have dinner as a family to catch up on the day’s events.”

Real Behaviors Mean More Than Predictions

Consumer research often asks survey respondents to predict their future behavior, but those predictions frequently don’t translate into actual behavior. But because stay-at-home orders had been in place for a critical amount of time before the study was conducted, the authors were given a unique opportunity to uncover actual changes consumers had already made in their homes. Key findings are as follows:

  • 92% of all respondents had made changes to their homes:

ALL RESPONDENTS

  • Disinfecting more (73%)
  • Reorganizing to create more space (44%)

MILLENNIAL RESPONDENTS

  • Using rooms for multiple combined purposes (45%)
  • Creating spaces for multiple home offices (31%)

49% of millennials had made changes to their garage, suggesting a huge opportunity to rethink this typically utilitarian space:

  • Space for a home gym or exercise area (23%)
  • Additional storage space (20%)
  • Home office space (18%)

What Does “Home” Mean Today?

Life from home during the pandemic has exposed areas of dissatisfaction, which translate into potential home design opportunities. For example, when respondents were given a list of 10 responses to choose from to answer
what “home” means to them, 91% said “a safe place.” Knowing that safety, especially during the most uncertain of times, is the most meaningful aspect of home for the vast majority of consumers provides a strong foundation for the home building industry when thinking about new-home design going forward. The challenge as we begin the recovery phase is to dig into what consumers say is missing from their current living space and what they are willing to pay for in their next home.

Desired New Home Design and Features

Most of the desired areas of change in new homes fell into the categories of hygiene, wellness, and adaptability/flexibility of space.

More than 50% said they want:

  • Germ-resistant countertops/flooring
  • Greater tech/energy efficiency
  • More storage, specifically for food and water
  • Touch-free faucets, appliances, and smart toilets
  • A better equipped kitchen for cooking

More than 30% said they want:

  • Touchless entry to home
  • Home offices for more than one person
  • Adaptability of space with flexible walls

There were no significant differences geographically except for a 20% higher preference for laundry in the garage by consumers in the Northeast versus other regions. Families with children had higher preferences than other household types for home features related to hygiene and safety, including a 35% greater preference for touch-free faucets, appliances, and smart toilets.

Desired Changes in Community Amenities

The focus on safety, health, and wellness may impact what consumers want in a new-home community as well. Trails and outdoor space are always at the top of the list in any consumer survey. That was true in this study as well, but some other usual favorites, including a clubhouse, ranked surprisingly low, and some less-common amenities landed near the top of the list.

Top community amenities ranked by respondents as “very important and would influence my decision” include:

  • A large park with open fields and green space (52%)
  • Trails (47%)
  • Controlled environment for safety, sanitization, and maintenance (45%)
  • Picnic, barbecue areas, open air pavilion (40%)
  • Health, wellness clinic (38%)

The America at Home Study provides insight into what consumers are experiencing and feeling about home and community at a critical, transformative moment in time. What remains to be seen is whether the 2020 cornoavirus pandemic will have lasting impacts on home and community design, the way past pandemics have changed the way we live, as shown in the graphic above.

There are plans to conduct a follow-up America at Home Study in the coming months; in the meantime, check out the video below in which Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki talks with Alaina Money-Garman, CEO of Garman Homes and Fresh Paint, on why the bar is so high for housing right now and how these survey findings will help shape home design going forward.