ORLANDO—People have been talking about "greening" their homes for years. Now, it seems, they're getting closer to putting their money where their mouths are.
That's according to two new studies released at the International Builders Show, where eco-friendliness was touted in everything from shower heads to roofing shingles.
The data in both surveys, however, suggest mainstream home buyers aren't zealots on the subject: They're not necessarily insisting on, say, recycled building products or on knowing how much energy was consumed in the manufacture of their homes' features -- though that's on the upswing, say the pollsters.
But green leanings are manifest in the interest they're showing in their utility bills, they say. For the first time in years of inquiry by the builders' group, consumers say they would shell out bucks -- surprisingly big bucks -- for energy efficiency in their homes.
"We asked them how much they were willing to pay upfront to save $1,000 a year on utility costs," said Gopal Ahluwalia, a researcher for the National Association of Home Builders. "And though 32 percent said they'd pay less than $5,000, we found that 51 percent would spend $5,000 to $11,000.
"Previously, less than one-fourth said they'd be willing to pay that," Ahluwalia said.
The average amount that 2,318 households around the country said they'd be willing to spend to reduce utility bills was $8,964, he said. The NAHB queried owners who had bought homes in the last three years and owners and renters who plan to purchase in the next three.
"It is going mainstream," agreed Gayle Butler, editor of Better Homes & Gardens magazine, which offered the findings of its consumer-preferences study at a presentation with the NAHB at the trade show in mid-February. "The consumer is very energy-conscious."
The shelter magazine surveyed 2,000 "home enthusiasts" in January, seeking to find what the "passionate" consumer wants.
The BHG study of consumer desires drew its strongest response in the predictable areas of killer kitchens and ample storage areas, though a majority said they want to hear about green building and remodeling options.
"This number jumps to two out of three in the 'millennial' age group" -- the estimated 75 million people born between 1977 and 1998, Butler said. "They're coming into it in terms of cost-savings, indoor air quality, toxins and cleaning products."
Ahluwalia said, significantly, three-quarters of homeowners in his NAHB survey said energy-efficient features would be the factor that would most influence their decision to purchase a home.
But, Ahluwalia said, some habits die hard.
"There is some contradiction," he said. "They say they want an energy-efficient home, but they still want high ceilings and are willing to commute long distances."
That's because 63 percent of prospective buyers said they want to live in outlying suburbs or rural areas, which is likely to translate into more time in the car. Gasoline prices, he said, aren't denting that attitude.
"If gas keeps going up, to $4 or $4.50 a gallon, will they be willing to drive 25 miles to work?" he asked. "So far, there hasn't been that much effect on the consumer."
But one possible energy-use harbinger is that new-home size appears to have reached a plateau, he said.
"They want a larger house, but not larger than what is being built now," he said, an average of 2,350 square feet, up from 1,650 square feet three decades ago.
They'd like to cram a lot into that house, said Ahluwalia and Butler: Both surveys show consumers want to create their own mini "environments" with things that haven't budged much from their wish-lists in years: top-notch kitchens, lots of storage and sweet master suites.
"It's the kitchen, in a landslide," said Butler. "Nothing else comes close. They see the kitchen not just as a workroom -- it's about the 'experience,'" she said.
"They want a coffee-shop feel, with banquette or bench seating," she said. "They need an organizing center, a message board, a computer center out in the open."
But, perhaps in a departure from the recent past, they want more separation between the kitchen and family room, which in recent years have tended to be designed as continuous spaces, Butler said.
"People are trying to get a balance between family and privacy," Butler said.
That family room also needs some kind of accord with the increasingly larger television screens now in vogue, the respondents told BHG. They'd like to nestle the big screens into built-in cabinets so they don't duel with the fireplace for attention. Or they want to banish the TV -- to a finished basement.
Butler said accommodating the stuff that fills children's lives -- sports equipment, toys, art supplies, games -- is high on wish lists. Consumers want kid-storage everywhere, she said.
"They want little bases for kids in every room of the house," not just in the family room or playroom, she said. The most obvious manifestation of that is in laundry rooms, for which manufacturers are racing to develop storage just the size for little ones.
And the back yard is gaining in importance, both surveys said.
"They mean a yard that's roomy, safe to play in and space for gardening," Butler said. Forty percent of respondents said their outdoor living areas are almost as important as those inside, she said.
That's because grilling is a big part of the even more major outdoor entertaining, Butler said.
So: Patios are edging out decks in desirability, Ahluwalia said.
Three-quarters of the respondents in the builders' survey said they wanted a fenced yard, and a large majority wanted a screened rear porch, fireplace or fire pit and built-in lawn sprinklers.
"And everyone, at every price point, wants seamless access to the outdoors," Butler said. They want great views and the ability to carry party accouterments onto the patio or deck without a lot of effort.
Thus, "outdoor kitchens" -- even in colder climates -- are becoming the rage.
Above all, consumers are keenly interested in personalizing their spaces, Butler said.
"They said, no cookie-cutter homes and no cookie-cutter neighborhoods," Butler said. "We even see people writing mission statements about the look and the design."