When it comes to customizing their homes, Americans are great ones for choosing paint colors, floor coverings, and the latest appliances.
Where homeowners often fall short, in the estimation of one consultant, is in thinking through some of the lifestyle and efficiency improvements that can be built in when building or remodeling.
"People think about things they need to buy, that they can go to a store and see," says Carol Abrahamson, an adviser to homeowners, architects, builders, and designers.
But when it comes to greater livability, she's convinced that many of the best improvements are not about buying expensive products and high-tech gadgetry from specialized vendors or suppliers.
"It's about vision and information," says Ms. Abrahamson, who specializes in identifying "affordable built-in convenience features for every home."
These run the gamut: everything from floor-level kitchen drawers for storing platters and shallow pans to a three-way mirror in the master bedroom closet to battery-charging stations for small appliances and tools in various utility areas.
During the past four years, she's gatheredmore than 1,000 ideas for built-in projects.
"Most of these ideas don't involve a lot of specialized equipment or installation technique, so they kind of slip through the cracks," she says.
Because the master bath is where many people begin and end their days, Abrahamson says the room definitely deserves careful attention during building or remodeling.
So what would she do to enhance the master bath? Here is a smorgasbord of her recommendations:
• Choosing kitchen cabinets instead of bathroom cabinets accomplishes two things: It provides more choices for cabinet styles and configurations, and it saves money - sometimes as much as half. Why? Because kitchen cabinet manufacturers sell a lot more cabinets, so their costs are less and prices better.
• Extra sound insulation in walls between bedrooms and bathrooms to muffle flushing toilets and running water.
• Low-voltage lighting, such as that used in airplane aisles, between bedrooms and bath. Connecting these lights to a motion sensor can illuminate the way in the dark. Sensors, however, are not a good choice for people with cats or dogs.
• Extra heating vents so the room is always toasty during the winter months.
• A set of water controls outside the shower. The extra controls would help bathers achieve a reasonably comfortable water temperature before getting in - a plus with today's large walk-in showers.
• An electrical outlet inside a drawer so small personal appliances such as shavers, toothbrushes, and hair dryers can be plugged into a power strip and be ready to use, without their cords being in the way.
• A liquid soap dispenser built into the countertop, so it takes up less room and won't get knocked over.
• A ventilation fan that has some sort of an automatic shutoff. Now, people walk away and forget to turn off the fan, causing premature burnout.
• A hidden laundry hamper, placed inside a cabinet. Possibly a rollaway of some kind, or a frame for mounting a cloth bag.
• A deep medicine cabinet that contains a lazy susan and possibly has an electrical outlet in the back.
• A bathtub faucet on a hose, similar to the portable shower heads many bathrooms now have.
• An intercom connecting the bathroom to the front door and other areas of the house.
• A towel-warming device. Options might include a bolt-to-the-wall rack with its own on-off switch or ceiling heat lamps angled to strike hanging towels.
• Luxury touches for the bathroom, such as a breakfast bar, with microwave oven, coffee pot, and small refrigerator, or a mirror with a built-in TV screen, for watching or listening to the news in the morning while getting dressed.
Built-in conveniences are certainly nothing new. Thomas Jefferson had a dumbwaiter in Monticello more than 200 years ago. In more recent times, laundry chutes were incorporated into many homes.
Such features, however, largely disappeared from the average home after World War II, when production building replaced more customized construction.
However, when homeowners are presented with options that really enhance their lives, they get excited, Abrahamson says.
"The uniqueness of any given convenience built-in is definitely in the eyes of the beholder," she adds. "Very little is new to everyone, except, of course, brand-new technological innovations. What one person has seen in numerous houses is often a brand new 'gee-whiz' idea to another person."
One simple idea that appeals to Abrahamson is a curbside drop-off/pickup box, mounted above or below a mailbox, to hold packages.
"This is particularly useful if you have a dog that 'announces' visitors, a difficult-to-navigate driveway, or if you prefer to minimize doorbell interruptions," she explains.
By installing a weight sensor in the box that turns on a light in the house, occupants are alerted to the presence of packages.
She's also partial to drawers with nylon-mesh bottom in laundry room s, so knit clothes can dry flat, and a walk-in ironing closet with a board always ready for pressing clothes.
With people spending more time at home, Abrahamson expects a variety of built-in conveniences to grow in popularity. They can add resale value and livability, she notes, regardless of a home's price, size, decor, or style.