Customize Your Next Home in the 'Burbs

If Chicagoland suburbs are beckoning and you've got a design idea (or two), here's a builder targeting home owners that know what they want and are ready to get it done.

Photo by: Meritus Homes Model of the Dunberry Modern Family Room. Existing floor plans are often used to jump start a collaboration, says Meritus' Brian Brunhofer. “What we try to do is provide people with a starting point. I would say the vast majority of buyers don’t want to start with a blank sheet of paper. They start with either a floor plan they’ve seen somewhere else or they like one of our floor plans.”

Who hasn't seen or stepped into a promising home concept, found it functionally adequate, but still ... something was missing. Perhaps it felt a shade too tract home cookie-cutter-ish because, from the five models previewed, three are variations on white, wheat or rye. 

Suppose you want a bathroom with a walk-in vanity or a lounge area?  If you call hitting “start” to microwave popcorn “cooking,” you might believe that kitchen tricked out for Chef Gordon Ramsey is wasting valuable pool table space. What’s absent in these designs?  How you live. 

“What we really see today are people who know what they want, and they’ve been waiting for the right time to go off and execute it,” says Brian Brunhofer of Deerfield, Ill.-based Meritus Homes, a builder and home development business with deep stakes in the Chicago suburbs. Through its “Made For You” program, Brunhofer is targeting this post-recession crop of buyers that want something between the extremes of a toney-priced rehab or a build from scratch.

Since 2010, with wife and partner Karen Brunhofer, the duo has launched several semi-custom communities: Creekside in Inverness RidgeReserve of St. Charles and Tamarack South in Naperville. Not cheap (prices fall within the $500,000 to $900,000 range), but they're near quality schools, have big floor plans (3,000 square feet and over), commutable to the city, and offer price-equivalent luxury fixings, i.e. stainless steel, granite tops, 3-car garages

According to Brunhofer, the typical semi-customization client fits the “move up” or “downsizer” profile: they have few financing obstacles and a lot of equity. They’re also information rich. “Because of things like Pinterest and Houzz, they come in and say: 'Here’s a picture of the mud room I want to execute.'” In other words, buyers are curating the look they want. 

Some elements, say, double-thick granite in the kitchen as opposed to a standard thickness, are the easy shots. 

But what if you're one of those buyers, the type with the kind of ambitious ideas that alter the structure? For instance, expanding the footprint or ditching walls. Typically, when Meritus gets into that level of tailoring, the buyer, with architect and design team, have the Big Sit Down to discuss and sketch it out. 

"Once that’s done, we engage the architect to do a full set of architectural drawings that takes into account structure so that we know it’s a sound home, a quality home that can be built," says Brunhofer. 

Meritus has a key partnership with real estate entrepreneur Gary Janko, founder of Janko Group, which manages a $250 million+ portfolio. When the Brunhofers were introduced to Jankco, the market was already in a nose dive. “There weren't many people buying land in Chicago,” Brunhofer remembers. "He is able to find and finance deals at the right prices," he said of Janko’s forte of strategically acquiring distressed properties during downturns.

Is semi-customization an option for re-entry into the real estate market? It’s not practical for flippers or speculators, but if the next house is where you want to actually live, ask yourself: what are the five features I really want? And when you meet with the builder, bring pictures.



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