The XX Factor: Builder's Focus on Women Homebuyers
On the top floor of the new Virginia Homes model in Dublin sits an isolated room, about a half-dozen steps up from the master bedroom. The room is large -- 20 by 11 feet -- and sparsely furnished with a small sofa, two chairs, a burbling fountain and a pedestal holding Asian art.
Muted earth tones grace the floor and furniture and the walls feature Chinese characters representing love, luck, happiness and peace.
The room is dim and smells faintly of cinnamon.
The space is not a bedroom or a study. According to the home's floor plan, it is an "inspiration room" meant as a retreat for the woman of the house.
It is also the latest and most explicit effort to bypass the Y chromosome altogether when luring buyers to homes.
Virginia Homes advertises the house as the first "women-centric" design in central Ohio. Other builders, without using the phrase, have arrived at similar results based on the premise that women typically hold the keys to new homes.
"The fact is, women run most households," said Theresa Collins, president of M/I Homes' central Ohio division and one of the few female senior homebuilding executives in the Columbus area. "They are the CFO, the CEO and the COO of the home."
Homebuilders often assert that 90 percent or 91 percent of homebuying decisions are made by women, but the source of the number is murky. (It is variously attributed to the National Association of Home Builders, Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies, and the marketing firms Yankelovich and Smith-Dahmer, all of which disclaim it.)
A more reliable figure, from a 2008 Pew Research Center survey, is that 46 percent of decisions on major purchases are made jointly by couples, 30 percent by the woman and 19 percent by the man.
Women's influence, however, seems to be expanding, with single females now buying one out of every five homes -- twice as many as single men.
"Whatever the exact figure, it seems like it's in the 90 percent range," said Jack Mautino, the Columbus division president of Westport Homes. "We've found that women typically start the process and then will bring the husband or significant other out only after they've narrowed the search considerably."
Builders have responded in ways small (scented rooms) and large (rearranging floor plans).
Virtually all major initiatives in home design the past decade or two have been in areas thought to be female-centered: huge open kitchens and pantries; a mudroom or drop-off center in the back of the house; a master suite with a luxurious bath; a second-floor laundry; even the big open great room.
"There's no question in my mind that when you sell the woman on the home, you sell the home," said Marti Barletta, the chief executive officer of TrendSight, a Chicago-area firm that specializes in marketing to women.
"I don't think women are taking over; I just think they care more," added Barletta, who literally wrote the book -- Marketing to Women -- on selling to females. "Despite the changes over the last few decades, there are some things women still do more of: the majority of child care, cooking, cleaning and shopping. They care a great deal more about those features of a home than men do."
Among fashionable home trends, only a media room or lower-level bar/entertainment area might be considered "male" spaces, and they are low on the list of home priorities for most buyers.
Design Basics, an Omaha, Neb., company that produces floor plans for builders nationwide, has made a science of women homebuyers.
"It became clear around 2003 that our audience is really women," said Paul Foresman, the firm's business development director.
"We started by interviewing couples, but we just weren't able to get a lot of information from the guys," Foresman said. "But the women would tell us in detail about what they wanted and didn't want."
The firm's research, which included studying women in their homes, led to the conclusion that women largely evaluate houses by how well they meet four needs:
• Entertaining: The home, especially the kitchen, must be open and accommodating to guests.
• De-stressing: The home must provide spaces, such as a luxurious bathroom or comfortable great room, that encourage relaxation.
• Storing: The home must have enough space, and the right space, for accommodating clutter.
• Flexibility: The home must be able to evolve with the family's needs.
Seeing homes through these four functions led Design Basics to add several features to its homes, such as a rear-entry foyer between the garage and the rest of the house, where coats, boots, laptops and backpacks can be dropped; a "flex" room that might serve as a dining room, a music room or an office; a craft room for unwinding with a hobby; and walk-in pantries off kitchens.
Design Basics packages its marketing material and designs into a program called Women-Centric, which two central Ohio homebuilders -- Virginia Homes in Columbus and Fairfield Builders in Lancaster -- have purchased.
As part of the program, Design Basics revamped Virginia Homes' Windsor model. The new plan includes a "work-in pantry" with a sink and dishwasher that can be closed off from the kitchen; a rear foyer that doesn't include laundry facilities; more window space in the kitchen; and a larger garage.
"The 19-by-20-foot garage is gone," said Virginia Homes President Charles Ruma. "Women want room to get in and out of their cars with a bunch of stuff."
Ruma knows that men enjoy many of the same features, such as open kitchens, that women do. It's just that focusing on women allows builders to concentrate on the harder sale; the men will come along.
Foresman puts it this way: "When we design a home with her in mind, we've usually exceeded his wish list."
M/I Homes reached similar conclusions when it designed its eco series of new homes more than a year ago. The company's focus groups were with women, and the design changes were aimed at females.
One such change, the "e-zone" counter and storage area off the garage that can serve as a catchall for the day, was designed specifically with women in mind.
"A woman walks into the home with a purse on one hand, carrying a cell phone and a laptop and a baby -- you've got to have a place to dump stuff," said Collins, with M/I. "Trust me, I've been there."
Likewise, M/I's Home store at Easton Town Center was aimed at women. Instead of construction photos or displays, visitors find kitchen layouts and furnishings, and samples of flooring, hardware and colors.
"This was designed with women in mind, to make them comfortable," Collins said. "Not a bunch of hammers and nails, but a softer presentation."
Collins estimates that 90 percent of the store's visitors are women.
Collins and Mautino note that women are more likely to sacrifice square footage for homes that are laid out efficiently and contain well-organized storage. In fact, Collins said, women tend to see larger homes as simply more space to clean.
Homebuilders say buyers should expect to see more female-driven changes in the next few years. Flexible spaces, such as bedrooms that can serve another purpose when a child leaves, will become paramount, for example, Mautino said.
"You may see partition doors that allow for certain parts of the homes to be closed or changed based on what's happening with the family at that point," he said. "It might be a bedroom that will easily become an activity room for her, or an office, but more than just an old bedroom with a desk in it."
Among the women-friendly improvements Barletta would like to see are keyless entries and heated walkways.
Foresman said his firm wants to add other changes to home designs, including pet centers that would provide a designated space for pet grooming, sleeping and eating -- again, with the idea of keeping the home organized and clutter-free.
Foresman rejects the idea that designing a home around women is sexist.
"It's not sexism; it's capitalism," Foresman said. "It's simply knowing your customer."