Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

How to Find a Homey Home

Call it a retreat, a haven, a safe harbor. But whatever name you give it, a private home, especially one owned by its occupants, represents the proverbial castle that offers solace. And in a turbulent world, that feeling of calm has become all the more important for homebuyers.

"We're all going back to our human roots, for shelter, comfort and escape," says Ashley Richardson, a veteran real estate agent who first began selling homes in 1993.

Elizabeth Mendenhall, a real estate broker and president-elect of the National Association of Realtors (www.realtor.org), says that the home features and finishes chosen by the current generation of homebuyers reflect their desire for an easygoing style of living.

"Fireplaces create a relaxing ambiance, as do spa-worthy features in bathrooms. These include steam showers and showers with multiple heads. People are always looking for a little bit of luxury," she says.

Moreover, the desire for calm is also reflected in preferences for paint colors.

"Buyers now like more muted paint colors, such as light blues, grays and greens. They like these better than bright colors like yellows," Mendenhall says.

Here are a few pointers for buyers seeking that special something:

-- Seek surroundings that seem calming to you.

Because there's no single answer as to the type of neighborhood most likely to put you at ease, one key is to reflect back on your past habitats and recall how you felt living in those various settings.

"Maybe you want to cocoon in a neighborly place where people get to know each other as friends. Others want ... anonymity of isolation and are most at peace in a wooded area where neighbors keep their distance," says Tom Early, a real estate broker and past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (www.naeba.org).

One thing preferred by the majority of buyers is a quiet street.

"To reduce your chances of being bombarded by noise, choose a community with very little cross-through traffic," Early says.

How can you gain assurance that the neighborhood you choose will be relatively free of traffic rumbling through?

Early recommends you visit your target community during a weekday morning or afternoon rush-hour period. Park your car and listen for the noise levels generated by the traffic.

-- Search for a home with a large kitchen.

For most people, the heart of a satisfying floor plan is the kitchen. And as busy couples and families spend more time together cooking, a cost-saving alternative to restaurant tabs, the size of the kitchen becomes more of an issue.

"Cooking together is the ultimate nesting experience. But you need sufficient space to cook side-by-side," says Mark Nash, a longtime real estate broker and author of "1001 Tips For Buying and Selling a Home."

To obtain a sizeable kitchen without blowing the family budget, you might consider trading off a formal dining room in the house you select, says Eric Tyson, co-author of "Home Buying For Dummies."

-- Choose a property suited to home entertainment.

Although many giant houses built within the last 10 years have dedicated home theaters -- complete with professional quality audio and video equipment, etc., this feature is less popular than many proponents had expected, according to Tyson.

Another home entertainment option that works poorly for many people is to place a large-screen TV in a spare bedroom.

"Most bedrooms, even master bedrooms, aren't big enough for comfortably viewing a big TV. You need more floor space than that," Tyson says.

Those intent on acquiring a place where they can enjoy home entertainment on comfortable sofas should consider a place with a large family room or a "great room," he says.

-- Consider a place with an extra bedroom for fitness.

"To save money, a lot of people are trading off their gym memberships in favor of working out at home. I'm very happy with the elliptical machine I've owned for years. Over time, you get a much bigger payback for the money you spend on exercise equipment than on gym dues," Nash says.

Although a spare bedroom usually works poorly as a home entertainment area, it can function well as an exercise room.

"You'll probably enjoy a better resale price if (your house) has an extra bedroom that the new owners could use as a hobby area or a home office," Nash says.

-- Look for exquisite interior finishes.

"For people who want a delightful retreat, think beautiful millwork. Even in a small house, it adds great warmth," Nash says.

He cites crown moldings, six-inch base moldings and raised panel doors as among the most popular elements of interior architecture. French doors also make rooms more livable.

"It's hard to overestimate the importance of visual appeal to the desirability of a home. Maybe you can't spend a fortune for a big house. But even a small place with gorgeous finishes can give you a wonderful, welcoming feel," Nash says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)