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Issue Date: April 2, 2006

In this article:
THE kitchen
Party yard
Over-the-top bathroom
HouseSmart Great improvements under $1,500
Also see:
Home & Garden 2005: Experts on renovations
Home & Garden 2004: Family home

The new American dream home

Meet the lucky families whose home theaters, kitchens, bathrooms and backyards are the extreme in home customizations.

By Melanie D.G. Kaplan

When Angela Burns hosts an afternoon at the movies for her girlfriends, it isn't exactly like going to the multiplex. It's better.

Cover: Spring makeovers
According to a national "House & Garden" real estate survey published this year, more than 38% of respondents said they want a media room or a home theater; 17% a home spa; 10% a wine cellar; and 9% a dressing room of their own.


The $200K Entertainment Center
-- Keith and Angela Burns
Theater with working marquee, ticket booth and snack bar
Two rows of black velvet movie theater chairs (with cup holders and concession trays)
Film and video game library, pinball machines and poker pit
Lounge area that seats 30

The first Wednesday of every month, Angela, 50, shows a movie on the Starship level of her home in Chester, N.J. She and husband Keith, 52, dropped $200,000 to convert their basement into a sci-fi-themed home entertainment center that puts most local theaters to shame.

On movie day, the women sit in a room with 17 authentic theater seats on two tiers, facing a perforated Da-Lite Cinema Contour screen. Sound comes from three speakers located directly behind the picture and from fabric panels on the walls. A custom remote controls the equipment as well as the lighting. (When the movie starts, the lights automatically dim, and if you pause for intermission, the house lights come up.) Outside the theater is a fully stocked candy counter, popcorn popper and hot dog griller, and near the entrance is a touch-pad computer that gives visitors faux security clearance when they press their thumb against it.

"It's been a lot of fun," says Angela, a graphic designer. "We entertain like crazy." Angela insists that she and her husband, an attorney, are not hard-core Trekkies. But she fell in love with the theme and went all out to make it fun because, well, she could.

Like the Burns, many families are upgrading their American Dream. Not only do people today aspire to own a home, they want to outfit that address with some rather untraditional options, from a designer garage to a massage and manicure suite. The goal is every comfort and convenience money can buy, right at their fingertips. And it's not just people with money, either. Average homeowners are considering some incredibly self-indulgent improvements. According to a national "House & Garden" real estate survey published this year, more than 38% of respondents said they want a media room or a home theater; 17% a home spa; 10% a wine cellar; and 9% a dressing room of their own. Blame it on "Cribs."

In the last few years, Joe Homeowner has started to restructure his living space to fit his way of life. This customization doesn't necessarily mean spending a lot of money, says Dominique Browning, editor in chief of "House & Garden." Often, the most personal, useful changes are inexpensive -- like a passionate gardener converting a laundry room into a potting room. But for today's affluent homeowners, those who love to entertain and spend as much on renovations as some spend on a new home, customizing means more than keeping up with the Joneses. It means putting together the coolest, most lavish fantasy home you can imagine.

"This is what you do when you don't have children," says Angela, laughing. She says she thoroughly enjoyed creating her "starship" -- from the design phase to shopping online for props and furniture. The 2,000-square-foot space now includes a wet bar and black-lit arcade. The walls along the basement stairs (the "jetway," as Angela calls it) are aluminum, and the main lounge has a 68-inch TV.

"Because it's always set up, we can do parties last-minute," Angela says. The couple hosted 33 for the Super Bowl, Keith hosts a monthly poker game, and they have about four other big parties a year.

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The $400K Kitchen
-- Richard DeVita
Two sound-absorbing Viking dishwashers
Walk-in cooler
Breakfast nook with plasma TV
Three heating drawers for dishes
Gas fireplace

Although the Burns spent a small fortune on a space built exclusively for fun and games, it's just as common for renovators to splurge on purely practical rooms. Richard DeVita says his initial thought about renovating his Venice, Fla., kitchen was, "Let's not spend a lot." Nearly half a million dollars later, he laughs that his spending plan "absolutely did not work." His wife, Jackie, who designed the space using ideas from magazines, decided that one Sub-Zero refrigerator wasn't enough. Nor were one Viking dishwasher, oven and warming drawer. In the 2,000-square-foot kitchen they gutted, the DeVitas chose two of every major appliance and placed most around a massive island in the center of the kitchen.

"For the holidays, when the family's all here, one just wouldn't work," says Jackie, who has three children and an extended family of 18. "It's great for when we entertain. And if there's a housekeeper, she can have one side, and we take the other." Jackie, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor last summer, spends a lot of time in the kitchen, watching cooking shows and hanging out with her family.

"If there's nobody in the kitchen, no one is home," says Richard, 50, an endodontist. "This is the heart of the home." When they bought a vacant house on a 100-acre former thoroughbred ranch, the DeVitas decided to forgo a formal dining room and create one giant cooking, dining and chilling area. There's a breakfast nook, where the kids can eat and watch morning shows on the plasma TV. And the walk-in cooler comes in handy when the family hosts groups after field trips. "The kids come to the house, and we have it catered," says Jackie, 42, "and the big trays never fit into the fridge."

In an era when you can order your $4,500 electric range in colors like Lemonade and Mint Julep, the kitchen may seem like the easiest spot to charge six figures. But doing so is just as easy in an area that, for some homeowners, invites the least attention: the backyard.

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The $750K Backyard -- Woody Stuart and Barbara Moore

Smooth cement bar and a table that's fit for a party of eight
Fire pit, gas grilland pizza oven
45-foot-long pool with jacuzzi and waterfall
Fountains and more palm trees than Rodeo Drive

In Palm Desert, Calif., Barbara Moore and Woody Stuart just finished renovating their yard at Bighorn Golf Club for about $750,000. To celebrate its completion, they planned a 50th birthday party for Moore with 120 friends. Guests could lounge around the fire pit on four concrete, Flintstone-esque couches, admire the fountains and stand under the palm trees: There are 36.

"We have friends stay with us all the time because [the desert] is such a fabulous place to visit," says Moore, who is a real estate developer. "And we like to entertain." Moore and Stuart, 58, both play golf, so the house's location on the 12th hole also is perfect.

The renovation included building a 45-foot-long infinity pool with a jacuzzi that sits above and creates a waterfall. A palapa (a thatched structure) and three canvas umbrellas provide some shade.

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While Moore and Stuart entertain for big groups in their paradise out back, developer Norman Radow puts the finishing touches on a much smaller space, where he also hopes to impress visitors. Recently divorced, with grown children, Radow bought an imposing 4,300-square-foot villa in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood. But when it came to the bachelor pad's master bath (previously decorated in pink cultured marble), Radow, 48, had one thing in mind: "I wanted something hot and sexy, so I pulled out all the stops."

Knowing how women covet luxurious bathrooms, Radow decided his would be the most impressive of them all. Inside the bath area, he built a "wet room" that has a shower with 10 Dornbracht shower heads -- some adjustable, some hand-held -- which, if used simultaneously, dispense 25 gallons of water per minute. (The contractor classified it as a water feature because of the water volume.) The walls are covered with cool blue glass subway tile, and the space has an LCD TV and a heated bench and floors.

There is a 6-foot square tub with a picture window on one side and a "fire on ice" fireplace -- a gas fire that creates flames over pieces of glass -- on the ledge. Radow says he spent less than $50,000 on materials alone for his tricked-out bathroom, and it was well worth the cost. Thinking about the shower, he says, is an incentive to get home quickly from his jog around the neighborhood. "And with 25 gallons of water," he says, "I assure you, I'll be clean."

Cover photograph by Dana Hoff for USA WEEKEND


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