Cheswick Place, Lake in the Hills

Sydney Fogel, 6, has her own room since her Lake in the Hills family moved from a smaller home in May. Kim, her mother, says the family bought no more space than it needed. Read more (Keri Wiginton, Chicago Tribune / December 30, 2011)

Practical spaces

Not all buyer segments prefer less square footage, however. Hyfte said PulteGroup's internal research shows move-up buyers are drifting away from formal areas like dining and living rooms, "but they don't necessarily want a smaller home. They want more usable, practical spaces."

"Trade-offs are necessary when the overall footprint decreases, and many young families prefer that a portion of the former living room area be pushed into the great room," said Stephen Melman, director of economic services for the National Association of Home Builders.

For many years Orren Pickell, founder and CEO of Lake Bluff-based Orren Pickell Designers & Builders, was known for his larger-than-life estates that boasted more than enough space for work and play.

"For a while, clients felt the bigger the better," said Pickell. "What we're seeing now is a shift toward smaller spaces without compromising the 'wow' factor."

The trend is also dictated by the way families live.

"Less than 10 years ago, it would've been unheard of to build a custom home without a formal dining area," said Pickell. "Yet, today many families gravitate toward more casual spaces with an open floor plan rather than extra rooms with designated purposes."

Indeed, special function rooms have seen substantial declines in interest since 2010, including media rooms/home theaters, pet rooms, exercise rooms, kids or guest wings and interior greenhouses, according to a recent home-design trends survey by the American Institute of Architects. However, demand remains strong for home offices, outdoor living spaces and mudrooms.

Open layouts

The AIA further reports that today's home layouts have been simpler and floor plans are more flexible, with open layouts growing in popularity and informal living space remaining in demand.

In addition to saying goodbye to formal dining and living areas, homebuyers are saying hello to a variety of spaces that are expected to be standard inclusions, said Hyfte. Among these are flex spaces on the main level that can be used for activities like exercise or gaming; planning centers off the great room used to pay bills and do homework; larger, informal kitchens that can accommodate up to a 10-person table; oversize kitchen pantries and storage areas; and expanded laundry rooms and mudrooms.

At several Orleans Homes Chicago-area communities, amenities that maximize space and cater to the preferences of contemporary buyers have been introduced. These include pocket offices, bonus rooms built over the garage, and flex rooms that can be used for virtually anything.

"Breakfast rooms off the kitchen and sitting rooms in the master bedroom used to be really big, but now the majority of our buyers won't opt for those living spaces," said Liz Kruse, director of sales and marketing for the Chicago division of Orleans Homes, which offers single-family home plans ranging from 2,487 to 3,960 square feet, down from about 3,000 to 4,400 square feet five years ago. "Also, secondary bedrooms today are a little smaller on average, often without walk-in closets."

When determining how much living space is required, Hyfte said, new-home shoppers should ask themselves several important questions, including: How many bedrooms do I really need? Can my children share a room? Will I entertain a lot and need a formal dining room or would a large kitchen with an oversize dining area suffice? Do I need an office or can I carve out space in the basement for one?