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Tapping into luxury: Aging boomers sinking money into extravagant bathrooms
By: EMILY FREDRIX - Associated Press
One day soon, Leslie Blakey will relax. She'll soak in her new master bath, fully stretched out in a deep tub with a breeze floating in from the French doors leading to her balcony.
"At the end of a really long week, you just really want to have that place you can go and it's your special nest and you can burrow in it," said Blakey, a public affairs consultant.
But not quite yet.
Blakey, 53, and her husband have been living in and renovating a former halfway house in Washington, D.C., for four years and they're just now planning their master bath. They've picked out marble tile and granite countertops and are looking at fixtures for their walk-in shower, where they hope to have three sprays.
They're part of a growing number of people who want to bring luxury into their baths, manufacturers and analysts say. Companies such as Kohler Co. and American Standard Cos. are responding with products such as tubs with therapeutic lighting, shower heads disguised in bath tiles and an electronically controlled shower system that remembers settings for temperature, water pressure and number of sprays.
With the housing market cooling, homeowners are looking to renovations to boost resale value and distinguish their homes from others on the market, said Michael Wandschneider, Kohler's senior product manager for performance showering products. For many of them, renovations start in the bathroom.
"It's something the homeowner immediately recognizes as a value to them as they are shopping from a variety of similarly priced homes," he said.
The amount of money Americans have spent on high-end luxury bath remodeling ---- jobs worth $8,000 or more ---- has nearly tripled since 2003 while the amount of jobs almost doubled, according to the annual market forecast by the trade publication Kitchen and Bath Business Magazine. This year, Americans are expected to do more than 920,000 luxury remodels and spend more than $21.7 billion, up 18.5 percent from last year, according to this year's forecast.
The trend isn't limited to higher-end homes either, said Wandschneider, based in Kohler, Wis. American homeowners at all levels want luxury ---- even the smallest bit ---- and they're willing to pay for it, he said.
Baby boomers, who are now more apt to stay in their homes during retirement, are helping drive this movement, said Mark Delaney, director of home improvement for The NPD Group Inc., a market research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y. Boomers recognize the value that renovating their homes adds, both to their lifestyle and when they decide to sell.
"We're actually seeing them hold on to those homes and start to pour money into them, at a large increasing rate," he said.
Sales of home improvement products as tracked by NPD rose 15 percent from 2004 to last year. Typically, sales grow only 2 percent or 3 percent a year, Delaney said.
People in their late 20s to early 40s show similar patterns of home improvement, possibly adding luxury because they are accustomed to it from a younger age, he said. Sales of home improvement products for people in Generation X jumped 10.8 percent from 2004 to last year, with the largest growth coming from people between the ages of 25 and 34, Delaney said.
Kohler is going after the boomer market, designing products that can help them as they age, said Cindy Howley, manager of the Kohler Design Center. One designer suite at the center shows grab bars that blend into bathrooms and countertops that can be raised or lowered. Cabinets on wheels can be moved throughout the tiled room, and the bathtub has an extended entry at wheelchair height, for people with limited mobility.
At the center, dozens of designers have installed their own visions of relaxation in the bathroom. A series of suites ranges from tranquil, bamboo-infused rooms with clean lines and simple flowers to brightly colored ones with large bathtubs separate from showers. If visitors get the urge to sample, they can go to the company's spa next door.
Overflow bathtubs with recirculating water are gaining in popularity, Howley said. And bathtubs are getting deeper, often plunging to 2 feet deep, well past the standard 14-inch-deep tub. But many homeowners are looking exclusively at their showers, enlarging them and adding products like a recirculating, vertical whirlpool for $3,600 or placing tilelike showerheads at a cost of $120 each, she said.
"The consumer is recognizing, 'I want this. This is quality of life. It's graciousness,' " she said.
The company recently introduced a digital device that can be programmed to remember shower settings such as temperature, water pressure and direction from up to eight sprays. Basic components for the product, a digital thermostatic valve known as DTV, retail for about $2,000.
To help simplify the design and ordering process, Kohler created luxury shower packages, including valves, plumbing and fixtures. The company recently set up a hot line staffed by technicians to help contractors install these new parts.
People are being more discriminating when it comes to spending on luxury items in the home, opting to put money into one room but not all, said Lenora Campos, spokeswoman for luxury bath products maker Toto USA Inc., based in Morrow, Ga.
"They're trading up for products in which they find value, in which they want to invest," Campos said. "For other products, they're choosing to go to commodities stores."
She said sales have been strong of a toilet introduced in 2003 that automatically opens the lid when users approach, and closes and flushes when they leave. That retails for up to $5,800, she said.
People are upgrading their bathrooms in the hopes of improving their lives, said Tim Maicher, director of luxury brands for American Standard, based in Piscataway, N.J. The company has lines of tubs, drains and sinks that allow for easy installation and care.
"I really believe that the new cachet of luxury is wellness," he said. "Luxury is no longer about how much I have but how healthy I live."
Blakey, the D.C. homeowner, said luxury to her means being surrounded by comforts that help her start her day without feeling stressed. In her case, that means a vanity with good lighting.
"Trying to get up and get out in the morning and have a certain sense that you're starting your day organized, to some extent, luxury means that," she said. "It's a range of things that for some may feel like a luxury but for others a necessity."
I know that I fall into this group, as a child I was blessed to have some of the finer things in life and one of them was a huge ceramic tile shower, with two shower heads. I am getting ready to buy my first house and so far haven't found a bathroom that suites me. I think I will wind up finding a house with a large bathroom that way when I renovate it I will have the flexibility to create a bathroom that I am accustom too.