The simple bare amenities -- from fireplaces and fountains to hot tubs and heaters

What ``amenities'' carry the most weight when people are shopping for new houses? Fireplaces and air conditioning rank at the top of the list, according to the National Association of Home Builders. The promise of lower maintenance costs is also considered a prime amenity. According to recent builder polls, 66 percent of all first-time buyers and 47 percent of ``empty-nester'' older couples cite lower maintenance costs as a key factor in their decision to buy.

The polls indicate that people are concerned with keeping maintenance problems, as well as maintenance costs, at a minimum. Two-thirds of all consumers buying smaller homes said they would spend an additional $1,500 for low-maintenance materials that would save them $200 annually in maintenance costs.

Favored amenities can also change from year to year. Sunken bathtubs, for instance, have lost some ground. Water amenities such as lakes, ponds, and fountains are important because they provide something nice to look at, and swimming pools, hot tubs, and Jacuzzis contribute to leisure-time comfort.

As discussed at the recent National Association of Home Builders show in Houston, other currently popular amenities for which about half the people polled would be willing to pay extra include carpeting, special patio doors and windows, storm doors and windows, insulated windows, and energy-saving hot-water heaters.

People would also spend more for paved driveways, self-cleaning ovens, tub-shower enclosures, extra built-in cabinets, and garage doors which open automatically.

A light and airy greenhouse or solar sunspace, offered as an extra sitting room or eating area is a highly desirable amenity in certain price brackets. A media room, extra-security system, an east-facing breakfast room, and a separate mother-in-law guest house are all amenities that attract more affluent buyers.

As for the small amenities that make a difference, the National Kitchen and Bath Association recently pointed out two new and innovative kitchen features. One is a stepladder made by Millbrook Kitchens Inc. that slides beneath a cabinet. The slide-out-of-sight ladder, which can be used anywhere around the house, is a European innovation which has made an immediate good impression on American women.

The other feature, also by Millbrook and shown in the Whirlpool/1001 Home Ideas laundry room in Houston, is an ironing board that slides out of the cabinetry in place of a drawer. The slide-out ironing board has been installed by the company in bedrooms and kitchens as well as laundry rooms, and women approve its easy-use concept. The many inquiries it evoked indicate that women would rather fold an ironing board out of a drawer than haul one out the closet and set it up.

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