On the House: American dream still holds sway

Besides the short respite from winter they used to afford me, my yearly visits to Orlando or Las Vegas for the International Builders Show also offered this highlight: a panel titled "What Today's Home Buyers Want."

In a word, that was everything, and they wanted it for nothing. As it turned out when the bloom faded from the rosy housing market, many had mortgaged themselves to their chins to get that everything, and nothing was what they ended up with.

I miss the panel's two presenters - Gopal Ahluwalia, research director for the National Association of Home Builders, and Joan McCloskey, of Better Homes and Gardens, retired a few years back. They had a way of turning dry statistics into many funny moments, sometimes unintentionally, but we appreciated it. Ahluwalia's staff would ask prospective home buyers about their preferences, while McCloskey used information gleaned from the magazine's readers.

To get a sense of what would be on buyers' minds in 2012, Better Homes & Gardens' content director Jill Waage took responses from 4,000 of the magazine's subscribers who identified themselves as prospective home buyers or those planning major home improvements.

The survey found that despite continuing economic uncertainty, consumer thoughts toward home ownership remain strong, with eight in 10 saying a house is still a good investment and an important part of the "American dream."

The survey also found consumers "are more proactive in designing and curating their homes and, in fact, are spending more time planning design changes for the home" (up to 38 percent from 33 percent the previous year). I believe curating here means overseeing or directing particular remodeling projects, rather than wanting their houses to look like museums.

"Our homes are the physical expression of ourselves and lives," Waage said. "In addition to spending more time planning and hunting for the right elements for living spaces, consumers are also turning to social-media platforms like Pinterest to gather and share design inspirations, smart products, creative ideas and space-wise solutions."

Yes, another social-media platform. And you thought you'd only have to master Facebook and Twitter. Sorry.

Pinterest (http://pinterest.com) is an online bulletin board: Pin + interest, subtracting the second "in."

"Organize and share the things you love," it says. Perfect for those into curating, I suppose.

So far, Waage said, her magazine's images have been re-pinned more than 27,000 times by followers.

"If you want to see what a 'dream home' means to consumers, simply look online where consumers are taking command of their design dreams, one pin and share at a time. The future is full of design dreaming and planning."

Living space and how it is used remains important to consumers. They reduced the median square footage they wish for to 1,791 in 2011 from 1,846 in 2010.

"There's more attention given toward the aesthetic and function of a space, rather than the amount of space," Waage said. "They're not as willing to invest in the bigger, but instead investing in what's better." Affordability and efficiency rank highest.

One survey finding indicates Americans may have turned the corner in their thinking, but it has taken six years of economic devastation to get them there. Consumers said that it was more important than ever to get the most value out of every dollar, and that they will spend more time looking for bargains and deals to do so.

They are more willing to get rid of excess "stuff," and unwilling to mortgage for more storage space.

There may be hope for us.

On the House:

Inquirer real estate writer Alan J. Heavens' home improvement column appears Fridays in Home & Design. See instructional videos at Al's Place. Go to philly.com/yourplace

Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com, or @alheavens at Twitter.