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Builders Can Make Big Look Bigger


What does 2,500 or 5,000 square feet of house look and feel like? Until you start looking at houses, these are just numbers.

If you live in a 2,500-square-foot house, you'll have a better sense of this size than other buyers. But if your house was built 15 or 20 years ago, you'll be in for some surprises when you start looking at new homes.

The first thing you'll notice when you drive into a new subdivision is the lot size: smaller and narrower. Privacy will be an issue, and sensible location of rooms within the house is essential. If your breakfast area or family room overlooks a sideyard, the neighbors may see what you're eating for dinner every night or watching on TV.

Because of the narrow lots, a well-planned house will have the secondary spaces--bathrooms, laundry room, den and secondary bedrooms--overlook side yards and the major living spaces face the front or rear. Even then, the neighbors won't be so far away, and window treatments will be a must.

For a 2,500-square-foot house, inexpensive 1-inch vinyl blinds, custom-made to fit your windows, will cost at least $1,000. If you want drapes, you will have to budget much more.

In many new subdivisions, there are no mature trees to shield the house or provide shade. You will have to plant them yourself and include the cost in your new house budget. A few strategically placed trees will provide shade in summer and significantly lower your air-conditioning bills. You might also want to set aside money for a hedge.

Although the builder will probably provide a fence, most homeowner associations limit fence height to 4 or 5 feet. A 10-to 12-foot hedge in front of a 5-foot-high fence will soften the look and add screening.

Once inside that brand-new 2,500-square-foot house, you're likely to find that it feels bigger than older homes of comparable size because home builders and their architects have become geniuses at figuring how to make any house feel bigger than it actually is. For example, a room with a 9-foot ceiling will feel bigger than the same size room with only an 8-foot ceiling, and the extra cost is relatively low.

So in most new houses today, the first floor has 9-foot ceilings. Some builders are also putting 9-foot ceilings on the second floor.

Another place that the ceiling has been raised to spacious effect is the family room. To set it off from the adjacent eat-in kitchen and make it feel bigger, some builders are putting in an 11-foot ceiling.

As a consequence, the space over the family room will be 2 feet higher than the other rooms on the second floor. But a clever designer will put the master suite here, physically and psychologically separating it from the other bedrooms. This separation will also make the house feel bigger. The master suite will have a mini-stair leading to it; if budget allows, the designer will embellish the entry with double doors.

The number and position of walls will also affect your perception of house size. Two large spaces on a first floor--a formal living-dining room and an informal eat-in kitchen--will feel a lot bigger than your 20-year-old center hall colonial of similar square footage divided into separate living room, dining room, kitchen and family room.

A house will also feel bigger when you can see through a room to another room. Individual rooms will feel bigger if you enter on the diagonal, a trick used by many tract builders.

Although open plans do provide a sense of uplifting expansiveness, they can have a downside. If you have small kids, you need a contained childproof space. Such areas are not easily found if spaces open onto each other without doors.

Large windows that flood a house with natural light will also make a house feel bigger, and every new house will have them. With all that glass, however, energy efficiency is critical; decent windows are a must, so plan on allocating some of your new house budget to window upgrades.

The local building codes will probably require windows with two panes of glass, but you should spend more to get ones with argon gas between the panes. This will help keep the heat where you want it--outside in summer and inside in winter--and reduce the flow of ultraviolet rays that fade carpets and furniture.

For energy efficiency, vinyl-and wood-framed windows are about equal, but aluminum, the cheapest window-framing material available, is not. It is an excellent conductor, and aluminum frames will channel indoor heat straight into the great outdoors in winter. They should be avoided in areas with cold winters.

In areas where cooling is the main concern, solar heat streaming in through the windows accounts for about half of the heat buildup in a house. An upgraded window to staunch this flow is available from most window manufacturers.

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