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Empty-Nesters Flock to Carriage, Patio Homes

One-story, open-space floor plans offer ease and amenities.

Jim and Sue Mellin had several choices when their two daughters left the family nest a few years back. They could pare down their possessions and downsize into a smaller house, townhouse or condo. Or they could simply stay put in their home of more than 20 years, a two-story, four-bedroom Colonial in Franklin Park, Pa.

Like many empty-nesters, the couple was looking to simplify. Avid golfer Jim was eager to trade hours working in the yard for time on the links. And Sue, in the early stages of arthritis, was tired of climbing stairs.

"I really wanted to get everything on one floor," she says, "but still feel like I was living in a single-family house."

She found that feeling at Adams Crossing, a new development of 60 carriage homes in Adams, Pa. Nestled in 15 clusters of four attached homes, these upscale "quads" feature many of the attributes of a single-family home, including a grand entry, 9-foot ceilings and about 2,550 square feet of living space. The maintenance fee is $150 a month.

The units also offer most of the amenities today's new-home buyer wants: an airy, open floor plan, gourmet kitchen with a separate breakfast bar, first-floor laundry and two-story great room with a gas fireplace and loft.

"It's what we called the 'wow' factor," says Jim, 61.

What really caught the Mellins' eye was the first-floor master-bedroom suite. Graced with a decorative tray ceiling and three windows overlooking a small private courtyard, it opens into an equally luxurious master bath with corner whirlpool tub and walk-in shower.

The couple was so thrilled by the possibility of having everything they needed on one level that they bought the model on the spot, along with everything in it.

"It was so bright and airy," says Sue, 57, who had looked for a new home for three years. "And it didn't feel like it was connected."

Single-level living is hardly a new concept. One-story ranch-style homes dominated the U.S. domestic building scene in the 1950s and '60s, and millions today live in one-floor condos and apartments. But it's tough to find a ranch-style home with modern amenities and an open floor plan. And to build one from scratch would be an extremely expensive venture, according to Jim Rumbaugh, president of The Meritage Group in Plum, Pa.

"It's always cheaper to go up two stories," he says.

Hence the popularity of carriage homes, which — depending on who's doing the marketing — are also sometimes referred to as patio homes or villas and are usually attached in groups of two or four. Townhouses, conversely, are typically two stories or more.

So who's buying? Empty-nesters, obviously, but also younger singles and couples in their 30s and 40s. Relatively few have children because of restrictive covenants that ban swing sets and basketball hoops.

"It's really a lifestyle choice," says Helen Hanna Casey, president of Howard Hanna residential, which is marketing carriage homes and paired "villas."

One attraction of carriage homes is that they are virtually maintenance-free; they're typically maintained by a homeowners association for a monthly fee. Buyers like the fact that their weekends won't be devoted to cutting grass or shoveling snow.

This model home at Wimmerton Place in Unity Township, Westmoreland County, Pa., features the convenience of no step one-story living. (SHNS photo by John Beale / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

When Wimmerton Place, a patio home development in Unity, Pa., held an open house, Pat Self of Prudential Preferred Realty was surprised by the number of younger couples looking to give up exterior maintenance. Recent buyers include a pilot in his 30s and single woman in her 40s.

"It's amazing how many people in their 30s and 40s feel they're buying their last home and are preparing to live in them forever," Self says.

The Mellins are certainly planning to stay put in Adams Crossing. Along with a paneled den with a coffered ceiling and frosted glass doors, their new home boasts a gourmet kitchen with granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances and a sun room with vaulted ceiling and radiant-heated ceramic floors.

"It feels sunny, even when it's not," says Sue.

The main architectural feature in the adjoining great room is a stone fireplace that stretches to the coffered ceiling and includes a built-in space for their television. This airy space also has built-in bookcases and a granite-topped wine bar. As for the loft, that's now a guest room for their daughters.

The carriage home may not be quite as big as their old Colonial, but thanks to all the amenities, it's far more comfortable.

"We love it," says Jim. "I have not regretted this move for a moment."

(Gretchen McKay writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

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