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Nothing's Set in Stone

Granite counters instead of tile? Built-ins galore? For a price, you can have it all as developers offer semi-custom designs.


Suzy Newman has lived in her Huntington Beach home 25 years upgrading here and there, but when it came time for that dreaded improvement--a new roof--her husband said he'd rather move. "So I called him on his bluff," said the 54-year-old former city planner who, in October, will move four miles into a new semi-custom home built just to her liking.

The Newmans are just one example of the hundreds of new-home buyers taking to the semi-custom trend like cement to ceramic.

The concept--a '90s response to a buyers' market--gives buyers of many new homes an unprecedented say in what features will distinguish their homes. The welcome alternative fills the niche between an off-the-rack production house in which builders offer the whopping choice of white or off-white tile, and a custom home, which few buyers can afford. And while developers don't always like the complexity such customization adds to a job, they don't mind the profits.

Regardless of a home's base price, which runs from $150,000 to $1 million, buyers are spending an average 10% more to upgrade standard features, builders estimate. To have it their way, they are springing for granite instead of tile counters, maple in place of oak cabinets, elaborate crown molding, ceiling medallions, built-in bookcases, fancy-schmancy flooring, enviable entertainment systems and oh-so custom lighting, among other decorator options.

A trend that took off two years ago in Southern California and shows no signs of slowing, semi-custom homes offer buyers the best of both worlds--value and choice--says industry analyst Pete Reeb, president of Reeb Development Consulting in San Diego.

According to Roy Moffett, vice president of sales and marketing for ColRich Communities, a San Diego builder with developments throughout Riverside County, the trend is a backlash against the late '80s. "The market was going crazy then. If someone didn't like a house the way you built it, you said, 'Fine, go to the end of the line because the next person will buy it.' " Then the tables turned. As buyers, shellshocked from the recession, started to slowly emerge onto the real estate scene, home developers dangled every carrot they could.

You want a fireplace in the doghouse? You got it.

Besides ColRich, other semi-custom players include Toll Brothers of Orange, which has homes in Laguna Niguel, San Juan Capistrano, Coto de Caza, Calabasas, Chino Hills and Yorba Linda, and Polygon Communities Inc. in Irvine, with semi-custom homes in Coto de Caza, Irvine and Huntington Beach.

Reeb, who studies options purchases, has seen a 30% to 50% increase in the amount of money new-home buyers are spending on upgrades, compared with just a few years ago. And he sees a deeper meaning in this. "The '90s buyer wants to express individualism, not for the sake of prestige and status, which is what the '80s were about, but to demonstrate who they are."

That expression can occur in several ways: by picking floor plans and lots separately (which not all semi-custom builders allow), by modifying the floor plan and by customizing finishes (which has long existed but grows ever more complex).

Before semi-customization, marrying a floor plan to a lot remained the strict domain of the developer. Toll Brothers was among the first in Southern California to change that. Toll buyers pick their lot, then choose from four or five floor plans. They then choose which architectural style they want on the exterior--provincial Mediterranean and manor are some examples. "The only thing we don't want are two houses alike next to each other," said Jim Boyd, president of Toll Brothers California.

From there, buyers can refine their vision by making structural changes. Love the floor plan, but want a four-car garage? A conservatory off the living room? A bedroom converted to a den? No problem. Today, about one-third of new homes in Southern California allow buyers to adjust floor plans, according to Reeb. Finally, and where the real outrageousness begins, buyers, for a fee, can have just about any finish on any surface.

That versatility is what sold Bob Johnson and his wife, who bought a ColRich home in Lake Elsinore. For $150,000, the Johnsons bought a 2,000-square-foot home between two lakes. They then added $17,000 in builder-provided upgrades, which included custom paint, ceiling fans, an office with built-in cabinets and a computer station, French-paned windows, custom bookshelves in the family room, Avonite kitchen counters, maple cabinets and fancier flooring.

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