The American consumer is starting to think that bigger is not always better, at least where houses are concerned, according to experts presenting at the International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas on Wednesday.

“Either by necessity or choice, they are ready to take a step back from the McMansions or trophy homes,” said Gayle Butler, editor-in-chief of Better Homes & Gardens magazine, who was joined by Gopal Ahluwalia, staff vice president of research for the NAHB in their annual session on consumer home-buying preferences.

Consumers in 2009 want to live in a home that is cozier, more organized, and more economical in terms of operating costs than perhaps they would have wanted in the past, according to Butler. That includes “Wii-sized” and media-centric family gathering rooms with enough floor space for playing the popular and physically interactive Nintendo video games. Consumers also want more storage to keep clutter under control in these supposedly smaller homes, which could include anything from built-in shelving to a pantry that allows families to save money on groceries by stocking up on food staples.

Concerned about unpredictable and often-rising energy costs, today’s buyers also want homes that are more economical to operate. Ninety-one percent of respondents to a Better Homes & Gardens online survey of readers anticipating a move to a new home said they wanted an energy-efficient heating and air-conditioning system in their next home. An NAHB survey received similar results, with 91 percent of respondents preferring an energy-efficient home with lower utility bills versus a cheaper home (with a sales price 2% to 3% lower) without energy-efficient features.

Even more significant, Americans are starting to actually be willing to spend money to live in a greener home. According to Ahluwalia’s research, home buyers said they would pay an average of $6,000 more for their new home to save $1,000 annually on energy costs. “More and more consumer realize it’s in their long-term interests” to invest in energy-efficiency features, explained Butler, who also thinks that federal tax incentives for homeowners who upgrade their homes to be more energy-efficient are having an impact.

Other things are also growing in importance to today’s home buyers, according to both the NAHB’s and Better Homes & Gardens’ research. “There is tremendous interest in outdoor features,” Ahluwalia said, who found that 65% of buyers said they wanted a front porch. A home office proved to be another top priority, with 71 percent of all buyers saying a home office was “desirable” or “essential,” in the NAHB’s survey. That trend emerged as well in the shelter magazine’s data, with three-fifths of its reader-respondents saying they wanted a home office in their next home. Within that group, two-thirds wanted a dedicated home office, which Butler said reflects the increasingly common scenario of women, often with children, choosing to work at home. 

Such information could become critically important to builders as the housing market eventually begins to recover. “Every time we come through a cycle, the consumer is looking for something different,” building consultant Chuck Shinn told attendees during the session. “This time, it’s going to be a double whammy” because of this housing recession’s length and the demographic power shift from the baby boomers to Generation Y. “That means that there probably will be fairly substantial chance in what builders will need to do to satisfy customers’ needs.”

Alison Rice is senior editor, online, at BUILDER magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Las Vegas, NV.