When Kaplan Cos. built its first house in 1952, it was at a time when veterans could put down $239 for their own slice of the American Dream.
Across New Jersey, my grandfather began building simple Cape Cods and ranches for customers who wanted a basic house with a tidy backyard where their kids could safely play.
It is amazing how far the tastes of home buyers have evolved. Our earliest product lacked most every modern convenience. The homes came strictly with white shingles and black roofs. Options at the time included such amenities as air conditioning, carports, dishwashers, and, in many cases, closet space.
People were able to buy these homes for just a few thousands dollars, and, with the deed in hand, felt they had secured the ideal place to raise a family and grow old.
Over the years, as the style of new housing graduated to split-levels, then bi-levels, then modern-day colonials, we have seen a growing demand in New Jersey for more living space. At the same time, customers are asking for homes that fit very specific lifestyles, featuring libraries, great rooms and the latest wiring for high-tech gadgetry.
As we continue to adjust to the changing tastes of our customers, we’ve noticed that people want houses that are bigger and bigger, even if their yards get smaller and smaller.
True, the limited amount of developable land in New Jersey has prompted residential builders to curtail the amount of yard space. But as the demand for multifamily housing, such as condominiums and townhouses, continues to grow, it is clear that today’s buyer is more interested in climate-controlled space than the 50-by-100 backyard of yesteryear.
With every modern convenience now available in new homes, it is of no surprise that people are opting for the comfort of indoors, where there is adequate space for children to play and parents to have individualized areas in which to pursue their own hobbies and interests.
When my family entered the construction business five decades ago, we were serving a much different customer base. People at the time were looking for homes where they could raise four or five children with, maybe, two or three bedrooms. In most families, the father was the sole breadwinner and giving each a child his or her own bedroom seemed like an unnecessary expense.
Instead, most families spent their free time outdoors, hosting neighbors and friends in their backyards or tending to chores.
But as we moved through the 1960s and 1970s, we found an increasing number of families had two incomes and wanted a bit more house. We began building homes with two-car garages, additional bedrooms, walk-in closets, central air conditioning, double sinks and other features that today may be considered pedestrian.
And then came the craze of condominium and townhouse living. People realized they could live in new construction with modern amenities for less cost than buying a single-family home. They happily gave up the notion of their own backyard, in exchange for paying maintenance fees to handle all the heavy lifting of home ownership, from shoveling snow to mowing grass.
A half century ago people regarded homes simply as shelter; today it is all about lifestyle. People are looking for homes with two-story entrance foyers, 14-foot-high ceilings, whirlpool tubs, the latest in kitchen appliances, and, where feasible, even three-car garages.
Ironically, U.S. Census figures show that people today are having fewer children. Yet the demand for more bedrooms is on the rise, as people want this space for conservatories, home offices, guest rooms and other extras that were virtually unheard of 50 years ago.
Gone are the days of the 12-by-12 master bedroom, evident in the fact that people who live in older communities in New Jersey are now converting their homes to better fit with today’s great expectations. Backyards all over are getting smaller, as construction crews pour foundations for expansive additions.
It is a continual challenge for residential builders to provide home buyers with a level of product that exceeds their expectations. This demand is indicative of how New Jersey has changed from accommodating the working-class communities of the post-war boom to today’s litany of professionals, whose incomes allow for something special. It’s daunting to even imagine where their desires will take us over the next 50 years.
Jason Kaplan is vice president of Kaplan Cos. The company has built more than 20,000 homes across New Jersey over the past 50 years and has been involved in projects in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Florida and Texas.