More And More, Home Is Where The Office Is Many People Carve Out Space From Elsewhere In The House, But For Most, The Area Is Too Small And Ill-equipped. Builders Are Responding.

Posted: June 28, 1998

For most Americans, the home office has become a necessity.

However, many apparently can't afford the kinds of work space they want or need.

``Cost does seem to be an overwhelming issue,'' said Charles Ansert, vice president of Spector Development Co. in Swedesboro, ``especially when you consider that many people are working at home just to pay the mortgage.''

According to a 1997 study by Emerging Technologies Research Group in Washington, 52 million Americans work at home in some capacity, and more than 11 million telecommute from a home office at least one day per month. Compare that with 1990 figures compiled by the U.S. Labor Department, when just 27 million people worked at home.

The reason for the phenomenal increase is telecommuting.

A recent survey by RKS Research & Consulting, a national polling organization in North Salem, N.Y., showed that ``the information superhighway has entered the home with a major impact on lifestyles,'' said RKS president David J. Reichman.

``The personal computer is the base for many changes we have tracked, and, with the growth of online services and new forms of information and entertainment, we see a bright future for suppliers serving this market,'' Reichman said.

According to William Dunkelberg, professor of economics at Temple University, 30 percent of all U.S. homes have at least one personal computer. ``A lot of people who work at home are people with a side business who earn extra money to make ends meet,'' He estimated that at least 17 million people operate sideline businesses from their homes, based on federal income tax return data, and 12 million people derive their major income from home-based businesses.

In a survey of major builders in 1994, the National Association of Home Builders found that home offices were becoming more integrated into daily family life.

Most were on a top floor or maybe just a corner of the bedroom, but in a growing number of upscale houses, offices are being built off the first-floor hall, midway between the front door and the kitchen-dining room-family room area, according to the survey.

Spector is planning to introduce a model with a home-office option at Heritage Walk, one of the five single-family-home communities the company is building in Gloucester County.

To help with the design, Spector assembled a group of several recent buyers of its houses in a May 20 focus group at a Gibbstown restaurant.

Since buying their houses, the group members had carved home offices out of the space available to them. The majority of these houses had 1,900 square feet of living space - below the national norm of 2,100 square feet - with the result that most offices were sparse and a tight squeeze, often doubling as a guest bedroom, with little storage available.

The exception was the office that Fred Leonardi added to his 2,400-square-foot house. Leonardi, a general contractor, works out of his home and takes the home-office federal tax deduction permitted under Schedule C.

His problem was location.

``The office is on the first floor at the garage end of the house and the kitchen is on the second floor at the other,'' he said. ``I had to install a wireless communication system so I could hear my wife when she called me for dinner.''

Because he has the expertise, Leonardi was able to build a home office to suit him.

``I bought the model - a split-level - and converted the bonus bedroom into the office, rearranging it to suit my needs,'' Leonardi said. ``The phone and the fax are on separate lines. I installed hardwood floors because they are easier to clean. I installed a closet right inside the door to the garage where I can store my work clothes and my papers.''

Rudy Gold, a LotusNotes developer for CoreStates, and his wife decided that the formal living room, which is 10-by-12, ``wasn't big enough for formal entertaining.

``So we decided to use it for the home office,'' he said. ``The downside is that it is right by the front doors and opens into the hallway. With the mechanicals in it, it doesn't look very attractive, so we'd like to do something to close it off, like put in French doors.''

Martina Paul, who works at DuPont Co. in Wilmington, has the same model as Gold and wants to convert the living room to an office. Right now, the computer is in the bedroom ``where we have just one phone line and not enough work surfaces.''

``Until we finish off the basement, the kids' playroom is the living room and dining room,'' Paul said. ``We have no spare rooms. There's a sofa bed in the family room for guests.''

In Paul's previous house, the office shared basement space with the playroom.

``Although there was a door separating the two, the kids made so much noise that I could never get any work done,'' she said.

The story was pretty much the same for the rest of the focus group. Cay Ambrose, a registered nurse who develops programs for her hospital after work, converted one of the bedrooms, but strings the wire from her bedroom phone to the spare room when she needs to use the computer modem. The office has a futon for guests to sleep on.

The difference between what each of these homeowners has and what he or she would like to have in a home office is vast. Although surveys have shown that in this area, the formal living room remains part of new houses, all the focus group members but Leonardi were willing to sacrifice the living room for a home office - because he didn't need to.

``Which is funny,'' said Charles Ansert, the Spector vice president, ``because none of our buyers ever say that they don't want a living room.''

As Leonardi said, ``money seems to be the major stumbling block'' to the lower- or middle-range buyer getting the right kind of home office.

For example, adding a 100-square-foot room to one of Spector's houses would cost $8,000 at $80 a square foot - the going rate in Gloucester County, Ansert said. And that doesn't include work such as extending the basement and the roof.

Even factory-built, add-on home offices can be more costly than the average homeowner can afford. BradyRooms, a Worcester, Mass., company, is marketing a fully assembled alcove that can be attached to your house in a matter of hours.

The 10-by-10 alcove is ergonomically designed, with plenty of glass, light, work surfaces and storage spaces. The price: $11,500.

Still, Spector will pursue a home office option for one of its models at the Heritage Walk community in Swedesboro, to be designed by architect Richard Luce.

Many corporations are encouraging their employees to work at home, so the trend is not bound to recede soon.

According Alvin Rosenbaum, a planner and consultant in Chevy Chase, Md., the increase in home-office workers is the result of corporate downsizing, the high cost of real estate, the decentralization of work, re-emphasis on the family in American culture, and environmentalism.

Yet, Rosenbaum maintains, the home-office trend is not new.

``Spawned in part by technology, much of American society has been moving away from its urban office moorings for more than four decades,'' Rosenbaum said. ``The 30-minute journey from home to office by a single commuter in his or her fossil-fueled vehicle may become more of a rarity as the Clean Air Act begins to mandate mass transit and carpooling, as roads continue to become even more clogged, and as the rate of construction of new office space in major center cities continues to decline.''

Granor Price Homes of Horsham has been offering the home-office option for several years, and recently included one in part of a finished basement at one of its communities in Collegeville.

``We recognized a long time ago that we were selling houses to young single professionals who tend to bring their work home,'' said Marshal Granor, a principal in the company. ``A lot of them are using their houses as UPS drop-off sites and have been buying two-bedroom houses with the intention of turning one of those rooms into a home office.''

In the luxury end, some upscale buyers are demanding two home offices. The New American Home that was built for the 1998 International Homebuilders Show in Dallas featured two rather extravagant home offices for him and her.

According to Kira McCarron, vice president of marketing for Toll Bros., the luxury-home builder, ``Two people can't be on the same computer at the same time, as I find out every night at my own house,'' she said.

``So they ask for two separate study areas,'' she said. ``It's not that we have a lot of people who operate businesses from their homes. But a lot of us have jobs . . . that require us to take home work that we can't do in normal office hours.''

Most of the members of the Spector focus group have the same requirements as higher-end buyers:

``No matter where it is and no matter how expensive it is or how big it is, the ideal home office should truly be like it is part of your home,'' said Rudy Gold.

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